Rosa Parks by Bonnie Greer

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Rosa Parks by Bonnie Greer.  Dir. Claire Grove.  Perf. Alibe Parsons, Clarke Peters, Ray Shell.  BBC Radio 4, 1997.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 3 Jan. 2015.

BBCiPlayer to 2 Feb. 2015


Directed by the much-missed Claire Grove, Rosa Parks told the story of a defining moment in African American history when the eponymous heroine (Alibe Parsons) refused to give up her seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was taken to court, but after a lengthy legal process the case was thrown out.  Parks’s stand helped to intensify the cause of the Civil Rights movement, led by Martin Luther King (Ray Shell).


In this production Rosa came across as an ordinary person, with a secure job in a department store, who for the most part was willing to accept segregation as a way of life.  Although the law allowed for equality between the races, in mid-Fifties Alabama it was seldom enforced: the Governor George Wallace was an ardent segregationist, while white supremacy was maintained through the clandestine activities of the Klu Klux Klan.  In this production Grove used an original recording of Wallace’s speech, while the Klan’s influence was suggested by means of a note sent to the Parks family house, warning of dire consequences should the family choose to pursue their case.


The main reason why Parks made her stand was frustration; after years of discrimination, she could not take any more.  The act of refusing to give up her seat was in itself insignificant, but the consequences were immense.  This was chiefly due to the sense of community existing among Montgomery’s African American community: Parks never felt isolated, but could count on the support not only of her family, spearheaded by her mother (Mona Hammond), but her close friends as well.  Martin Luther King’s speeches were seized upon by the media as expressions of the African American point of view; but Greer’s play suggested that King’s role was that of a mediator – to communicate the African American point of view to the white-dominated media.  E. D. Nixon (Clarke Peters), the former president of the Alabama NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), proved a similar tower of strength, as he stood side to side with Rosa during her legal ordeal.


The play ended with the speeches of two children (Matthew Givens, Christina Chew), who had spent most of the previous action listening to Rosa’s story, as she recounted it for their benefit.  Once they had heard it, they spoke direct to listeners, giving them some of idea of why her stand in 1955 proved so significant.  It was not just that she refused to accept white diktats, but she also emphasized the need for everyone, regardless of colour, to be treated with similar respect.  The incident might have happened six decades ago, but Rosa remains immortal – a living symbol of the importance of standing up for oneself, even if it means resisting the so-called ‘official’ forces of government and believing in the truth of one’s cause.


What made Rosa Parks so memorable was its refusal to lionize the central character; she remained an ordinary wife and mother committed to an extraordinary cause.  Definitely a memorable listen.