Crossroads Theatre Company’s ‘Freedom Rider’ vividly captures a moment in Civil Rights history

freedom rider review

The Crossroads Theatre Company is presenting “Freedom Rider” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through June 26.

In 1961 — six years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus because of her race — segregation on buses and at bus terminals had been declared illegal. But bus companies, in the Deep South, were still conducting business as usual. And to protest that, idealistic activists — male and female, Black and white, many of them college students — rode on southbound buses together, in nonviolent protest, even though they knew there was a good chance that violence was waiting for them. Many, indeed, ended up being arrested and/or beaten.

Martin K. Lewis in “Freedom Rider.”

There were just a few dozen Freedom Riders at first. But more followed the initial protesters — this went on for months — and in late 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally responded, changing its policies and effectively ending segregation on buses and in terminals.

At the end of “Freedom Rider,” a new play currently being presented by the Crossroads Theatre Company at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, hundreds of names appear on a screen. They’re the names of all known Freedom Riders, and it’s quite moving to see them. But the play tells the Freedom Riders story by following a group of young protesters, from all over the country and different backgrounds, on one of the early rides.

Carl (played by Martin K. Lewis), for instance, a Howard University student, is a natural leader who knows what to do in every situation. Joan (Kelsey Ann Brown), a white woman with a Black boyfriend back in California, contemplates leaving the ride at one point but decides to go on. Jennifer (Alexis Louise Young) is frequently seen reassuring her worried parents back home. Phillip (Josh Lerner) is only there because he lost a bet, but becomes committed to the cause.

Crossroads’ artistic director, Ricardo Khan, conceived “Freedom Rider” and developed it, co-writing the script with Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, Muray Horwitz, Nathan Louis Jackson and Nikkole Salter. Each co-writer supplied dialogue for one of the characters — a strategy that makes a lot of sense for a play that features a lot of scenes of strangers getting to know each other.

Still, too much of “Freedom Rider” is aimless and diffuse: The young people are seen passing time together on the bus, but are really living in their own separate worlds, and the bonding at the end seems a little forced.

Ryan Foreman and Kelsey Anne Brown in “Freedom Rider.”

There are some riveting scenes, particularly when Carl is humiliated and attacked at a lunch counter (but remains resolutely nonviolent) and later, in a nightmarish scene in which the riders are brutally ambushed. But ultimately, “Freedom Rider” is more educational than dramatic.

Unquestionably, it serves an important function by honoring the sacrifices that the Freedom Riders made, and giving some sense of what this chapter of the Civil Rights movement was all about. It includes some uplifting music and, in a clever and powerful twist, it is only revealed toward the end of the show that the vertical columns that dominate the set (designed by Beowulf Borrit) are means to represent the stripes on the flag.

But “Freedom Rider” doesn’t give its characters enough depth to make us feel fully engaged in their stories. It might have made more sense to focus on one of the characters — as you might expect from a play titled “Freedom Rider” and not “Freedom Riders” — instead of touching lightly on all of them.

Remaining performances of “Freedom Rider,” presented by the Crossroads Theatre Company at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, are scheduled for June 22 at 11 a.m., June 23-25 at 7 p.m. and June 25-26 at 3 p.m. Visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.

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