BROCKPORT, N.Y. (WROC) — It all started for Frank Kuhn, theater professor at SUNY Brockport and the director of “Voices of Freedom Summer,” when he was teaching in Hattisburg, Mississippi, two decades years ago.
“I wanted to do this play when I saw a collection of photos by Herbert Randall,” he said. “These photos were from the Freedom Summer, 1964.”
Kuhn describes the Freedom of Summer in his director’s notes for the play:
Anticipating the fall 1964 presidential election, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, invited students from around the country, to participate in an effort to get Black citizens registered to vote. Called “the Mississippi Project” in its planning stages, the goals of Freedom Summer expanded to include the establishment of community centers and “freedom schools” in Black communities that were severely underserved by the state and local governments. More than 700 mostly white volunteers, in their late teens and early 20s, travelled to Mississippi to help with these efforts.”
For Kuhn, inspiration became reality when he realized the wealth of resources at his disposal.
He began crafting this play, which is mostly a series of dramatic readings (along with some music and singing), in chronological, using everything from microfilm, SNCC meeting minutes, and newspaper clips from Mississippi papers.
With a fresh perspective of an outsider, he set to capture these events in this format, with seven actors and a guitarist. He’s put on this play numerous times, but never under the umbrella of a pandemic.
He was supposed to do a mystery comedy, but he decided that due to performing and rehearsal regulations — along with “renewed awareness for racial issues in this country, and the election — this was the perfect time to bring this play back.
And for the students, they couldn’t agree more.
“This one is close to my heart because of the climate that we’re in right now,” said Adeola Akinyemi, a senior at Brockport, who portrays “Black Woman 1.” “There always a need to always vote, and be that voice for my generation, because we have the right to vote.”
Akinyemi says that one of the characters she portrays, Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist and founder of the SNCC (and coiner of the phrase “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired”), speaks to her.
“I resonate with her because she used her voice and her passion to speak for her people,” she said. “It was an honor to understand her story. It was beautiful to do so.”
Of course, restrictions due to COVID-19 concerns make a play next to impossible, unless it’s pre-recorded, and then streamed later. To make this happen, it required a little technical wizardry.
Each performer was placed in a separate room and a separate microphone, and they only way they could hear each other was through a pair of headphones. There were no visual cues.
Akinyemi says that not having that kind of feedback makes timing and emotional cues difficult to portray. She says that Kuhn was there to offer that kind of feedback.
“They were up to the challenge,” Kuhn said.
But even as they tried to keep it as “live to tape” as possible, there was a monumental task of editing it. That’s where they have their “secret weapon.”
“He is it, he is it, he’s the reason,” Kuhn said of Isaac DeLeon, the project’s videographer and editor, who couldn’t join in on the Zoom interview. “He’s the fuel, he’s the one who makes it what it is… He’s totally amazing, dedicated, and with such great instinct and skills.”
There’s a saying in media that “the medium is the message,” but this time, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Whether this would be in person or online, Akinyemi says the message of this play is loud and clear.
“Some people think that their vote doesn’t matter, and they don’t think that their voice matters, so I wanted to be the person who tells them, ‘no, it does matter,'” she said. “We need to exercise our right to vote, because not even that many years ago, people like me couldn’t vote. So to have the opportunity, I need to speak up for my people.”