It isn’t often a figure from African America history is still around once his or her accomplishments finally are celebrated. A spectacular exception, of course, is President Barack Obama. Not nearly as famous but nonetheless a hallmark is the triumph in 1960 of little six-year-old Ruby Bridges, documented as the first child of color to set foot in a segregated elementary school.
She attended William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans and, in those days, it wasn’t a simple matter of being enrolled and showing up for the first day of class in a pretty dress with your pencils all nicely sharpened as you get ready to learn your reading, writing and arithmetic. White hatred of Black people was even worse than it is today and savagely overt in the South, such that this innocent’s mom and dad, Lucille and Abon Bridges were, by request of the NAACP, taking her life in their hands.
Ruby Bridges, her moment in time beautifully commemorated by Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Problem We All Live With,” prevailed. As she described it to Charlayne Hunter-Gault, “Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.”
Former United States Deputy Marshal Charles Burks later stated, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very proud of her.”
Young Ruby’s stepping into history has, it goes without saying, pointed and significance in the Twin Cities, where Black children don’t need marshals to get them in the door at school, but obstacles stand more formidably than someone physically blocking the way. The disparity in education is so entrenched that few activists any longer beat what’s become a dead horse.
One does well to appreciate that SteppingStone Theatre of St. Paul determinedly sees to it social issues are germane to its fare for young theater-goers and such grown-ups who care to come along for a performance. Running Feb. 1-24, Christina Ham’s Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges with music by Gary Rue is this season’s Black History Month offering at the venerated venue.
Considering a politically correct day, age and climate in which, for 28 days, it behooves White-run institutions, organizations and companies to suddenly develop cultural competence, SteppingStone’s social and artistic integrity have proven, season after season, to be year ’round. At the helm is artistic director Richard Hitchler, who brought the late Deborah Torraine’s original script in. The play was first produced in 2000, but this time around SteppingStone decided it was time for a re-vamp.
Hitchler explains why: “As the old adage says ‘Plays aren’t written, they’re re-written.’ Every writer strives to better their work. Just like every director or actor wishes he or she had done more. [The] same is true with Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges. Perfecting the play is the thing. Unfortunately, Deborah Torraine, the original playwright, had passed away.
“But luckily for us, we had met Christina Ham, whose success with Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 and Henry’s Freedom Box lead me to contact her immediately upon the decision to rewrite the play. Christina’s writing style, her ability to speak from a child’s perspective without talking down to children, along with her great sense of character development and storytelling ability made her the logical choice for this project.”
Christina Ham notes, “I started at the beginning, and from there I began to craft a story about a courageous little girl. I had never seen Ms. Torraine’s play nor did I want to read her script.” Ham goes on to say that, in developing her own take on the tale, she was impressed by the interaction between Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry, the teacher who stepped in when William Frantz Elementary School staff and administration refused to comply with the law and educate the child.
“[They] were forced to hold class for an entire school year by themselves because the White parents decided to pull their children out of the school rather than have them in the same building as [an] African American girl. I am reminded by what Ms. Bridges says, ‘Young children never know about racism at the start. It’s adults who teach it.’”
Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges will be at SteppingStone Theatre, 55 Victoria St. N. in St. Paul. More information and tickets are available at 651-225-9265 or www.steppingstonetheatre.org.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.