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WUNC Youth Reporting Institute

Amplify Black Voices Festival: A Theatrical Recap of Greensboro’s History

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Jaisha Smalls
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Opening night of the play "Periphery" at High Point University.

The Greensboro Four occupy a prominent place in the history of Greensboro. David Richmond, Joe McNeil, Franklin McCain, and Jabril Khazan, left a lasting impact on the city. The story continues to be told across generations and recently, it made its way to the stage.

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Jaisha Smalls
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Billboard advertisement for Periphery performance

This spring, the Amplify Black Voices Theater festival hosted the first performance at High Point University, where they showcased a play called Periphery written by Ed Simpson. I talked to Simpson during the opening night of the festival. He explained his passion and purpose behind writing this version of the story.

“I thought about the Greensboro Four. I remember it. I was 10 years old when it happened. It really stood out in my mind. I've thought about how remarkable it was these four, they were college freshmen,” Simpson said. “They weren't doing it for a class project they weren't doing it for extracurricular, they did it because it had to be done. And they started a movement that was very important to our country.”

Instead of focusing on the Four, Simpson decided to explore that day at Woolworths from a different angle. Hence the title, “Periphery”.

“I became interested not just on the four young men themselves, but the people on the outside of the event, on the periphery of the photographs,” Simpson explained. “What did they think? They had to make a choice— ‘either I'm for them or I’m against them, how do I feel about it?’ So that gave me a window in or a concept of how to write the play and it sort of went on from there.”

Simpson saw a larger story in those photographs. A story that didn’t stop at Woolworths, but extended to East Greensboro, just across the train tracks, at Bennett College. High point student Jade Alexandria-Young played the character Deirdre—a Bennett Belle in Periphery.

“It was nice doing the historical research and learning how the Bennett belles are kind of a catalyst for the citizen along with the Aggies and they kind of collaborated on what was going to happen,” Alexandria-Young explained. “We did a lot of other historical research on how the Bennett belles even as far as the 1930s were fighting for rights and equality. A lot of research went into it and it helped a lot with informing my character.”

During the winter of 1959, Bennett and A&T students met on the campus of Bennett College to plan and organize the sit-in protest. In the days after February 1, students from both institutions took shifts to occupy the lunch counter and even stood outside to picket throughout the sit-in movement. Alexandria-Young took a moment to reflect on the writing and appreciated how these historical elements were integrated into the play.

“There's a line in the play that talks about Dr. player who was a real professor back in the day. She says that the purpose of Bennett is to carry out the tenants of a liberal arts education, and when I heard that, I was like, ‘Wow, like that should be the purpose of all these schools,’” Alexandria-Young said.

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Jaisha Smalls
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"We Are All Equal," promotional poster for the Periphery performance

Four days after the students first sat at the lunch counter, the number of protestors had grown from four to 300. By day five, their demonstration had caught the nation's attention. Greensboro resident Sarah Akiwumi still carries the power of the protest with her today.

“I'm not originally from Greensboro. My family's actually from Ghana, and I was born in England,” Akiwumi said. “So getting to learn more about African American History and just seeing how strong the community has been. Just Black people being able to fight oppression and still continue to grow strong was amazing to see.”

Akiwumi’s reaction is exactly what the curators intended, to educate people about the Greensboro Four and connect their story to the present. Periphery was the first of four shows within the Amplify Black Voices Theater Festival. They wrapped up the celebration at the start of May with a performance of Ma Raineys Black Bottom at North Carolina A&T.

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