Starting This Week: Ally Sheedy, Damaras Obi Staging Play About Historic Civil Rights March at Local Church’s Theater

A promotional image for Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom.

By Andrea Peirce

Of all the locations to stage the one-person play Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, the Upper West Side’s Sanctuary Theater at The Center at West Park at 165 West 86th Street is a logical and compelling choice for several reasons.

The story of an ordinary Alabama teenager who braved prison and fear to fight nonviolently for the right of African Americans to vote came together as a play just a few blocks south of the Sanctuary Theater, at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music, Art and Performing Arts on Amsterdam Avenue. It was at LaGuardia that actress Ally Sheedy, a creative consultant at the school, collaborated with staff and students to adapt Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s memoir for the stage.

At age 15, Lowery was one of the youngest participants in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Sheedy heard about the book from her mother, literary agent Charlotte Sheedy, who represents the author. This will be the third professional production of the piece in which Sheedy directs LaGuardia student Damaras Obi.

The production brims with happenstance and history in other ways, too. According to oral history accounts, Park Presbyterian Church was a stop on the Underground Railway in the 1850s, before it moved to West 86th and Amsterdam Avenue and merged with West Presbyterian Church to form West Park Presbyterian Church in 1911.

“That earlier wooden church structure at West 84th Street, across the street from the Edgar Allen Poe house, sheltered fleeing slaves for about a day before they were taken to the 79th Street Boat Basin,” says Pastor Robert L. Brashear, who heard the accounts over the course of his 22 years leading West Park Presbyterian Church’s multi-faith congregation (until 2017). Once at the boat basin, these men, women, and children on the run caught rides up the Hudson River to Canada, he says – and to freedom.

Brashear adds that a vital piece of civil rights history also took place next door to the church, at 161 West 86th Street. That’s where social worker and civil rights movement activist Andrew Goodman grew up. Once an aspiring actor, Goodman was one of three activists killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The effort aimed to register as many African American voters as possible in Mississippi. Today, the Andrew Goodman Foundation continues to work for empowerment of young voters across the country.

Another link: African American church-goers who populated live-in maid quarters up and down the Upper West Side got so tired of leaving the neighborhood for services that they organized in the mid-1970s, Brashear recounts, and made West Park Presbyterian their home. “This also explains why we have a lot of Afro-Caribbean congregants, I think. These women attracted them to the church.”

Producer Miranda Barry sees connections, too. “Not only did the civil rights movement start in churches, where African Americans could share their hopes and dreams,” she notes, “but the civil rights movement was in large part brought to life by young people like Lowery.” Adults knew they were risking too much with their jobs and their lives to be very involved.

“I ran straight into the teargas,” declares actress Obi as she channels the Lowery on stage. “All around me, people screaming… I learned a lot about things on that march. Fear – about how to respect and embrace it. The Selma movement was a kids’ movement… [and] we had won! We were making history.” Young people and others fighting alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. had finally secured the right of African Americans to vote.

The play’s 11 performances begin on January 10th. Purchase tickets online through the production’s website or through eventbrite. The Riverside Church Inspirational Choir will open all of the MLK Weekend performances, beginning Friday evening, January 12th through Monday January 15th. The MLK Day Benefit on January 15th will also feature an exclusive Q&A with Lowery.

Learn more about the backstory here. Images via “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” site.

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