by Loren Noveck · October 5, 2014
On March 25, 1965, in the immediate aftermath of the final Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights in Alabama, a white woman named Viola Liuzzo, who’d come from Detroit to attend the march, was driving fellow marchers and volunteers back and forth between the end of the march, the airport, and their homes. A young African-American man, Leroy Morton, was in the car with her. On a backroad en route to Selma, Liuzzo was first pursued, then shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan (Morton survived). One of the men in that car, Gary Rowe, was in fact an FBI informant, who later entered Witness Protection (and took on the name by which he’s known in the play, Tommy) after testifying at Liuzzo’s murder trial.
Those are the facts, as the FBI records of the case have it, that serve as the springboard for Catherine Filloux’s Selma ‘65, a play that juxtaposes Viola’s story with Tommy’s in an investigation of what might really have happened on that dark road on that dark night, from the perspectives of two of the players (played by the same actress, Marietta Hedges). Leroy Morton, and a number of other characters from both Viola’s life and Tommy’s, are addressed in conversation but do not appear in the play.
Filloux has set herself a challenge on several levels--not least telling a story from the Selma marches that centers on two white people, one a casual racist (Tommy may not support the methods of the Klan, but his attitudes don’t seem all that different) and the other passionate about the cause but often a little condescending toward actual black people, at least insofar as we see in the play. But another, equally broad challenge is trying to build a play around two characters who may have been philosophical enemies and whose lives impacted each other, but never in fact met. Each stood for something the other opposed (or, in Tommy’s case, was acting as if he stood for that thing even if his real position was a little more complex) but in an abstract way. During the piece itself, they proceed in parallel, with Viola’s story mostly about her family, and Tommy’s about his relationship with the FBI--which are both less interesting than the mystery at the heart of the piece.
Viola and Tommy have had certain surface similarities in their lives--each married three times, neither finished high school, both born in the South--and Filloux and director Eleanor Holdridge use these touchpoints to good effect when shifting back and forth between stories. Yet, in finding that commonality between them, the ways to intertwine and ironically reflect on the ways their similar journeys led to such different outcomes, Filloux--perhaps inevitably--ends up focusing on mundane details of their lives in a way that sometimes obscures the larger social struggle that the piece is, I think, meant to illuminate.
Viola, daughter of a coal miner, has wound up in Detroit, mother to five children (and four more who did not survive), wife of a Teamster, and passionate about social change--possibly obsessively so; she’s had some mental health issues in the fairly recent past. She once pulled her kids out of school for months to protest a state law, and she’s long been active in the civil rights struggle of African-Americans. Still, her commitment hasn’t quite made her comfortable with individual, specific black people, it seems. Despite the fact that she refers to her African-American housekeeper, Sarah, as her “best friend,” it still feels like her reliance on Sarah as an employee is a great part of that relationship. Large sections of the play are structured as her dialogue with the unseen Leroy, and her tone with him, too, is awkward.
We know less about Tommy’s life before his present circumstances; he seems a bit estranged from his children, and we know he works at a dairy, but most of the relationships we see in his life are with his FBI handlers. He sees himself as a vigilant anti-Communist, and the civil rights activists, especially Martin Luther King, fall into that category. Yet while he’s baffled by some of the specific activities he sees at Klan meetings, he also takes part in them, his real attitudes forever obscured by his behavior.
Structurally, the play is handicapped by Filloux’s reluctance to let her characters simply speak in monologue. Though each does speak directly to the audience when reflecting upon past events (Tommy in giving testimony before Congressional hearings; we don’t know Viola’s circumstances till the end), the 1965 versions of both characters are constructed out of one side of conversations in awkward and narratively inelegant ways. In the car, Viola talks to Leroy in the car; in other scenes, she’s on the phone with Sarah or her husband, or narrating something she sees on TV to one of her children, or arguing with her daughter. For Tommy, the invisible conversationalist is usually one or more of his FBI handlers (he has a series of these, and they take up way too much time in the play); sometimes his Klan compatriots. Marietta Hedges, playing both roles, has a strongly developed physicality for each character, but sometimes seems to get bogged down in the half-conversations as well.
So while the premise, and the underlying true-life mystery at the heart of the play, have potential, the piece does get bogged down in its limitations. I felt like it was trapped between being a character study of these two people and a piece of social criticism about the circumstances in which they find themselves, without satisfying on either level. Too, in focusing so tightly on only Viola and Tommy, Filloux pares away some of the layers of context and perspective that might help us locate these characters in those circumstances.