On an early summer day in 1963, four women are talking in a local Civil Rights office in Virginia. Today they’re riding high with excitement. They have been preparing for this for months and years — Rosa Parks is planning to speak at a convocation, a gathering of hundreds of people.
Eight years after the Montgomery bus boycott brought her international attention, she is traveling and speaking across the country — and she has been working with the national NAACP for 20 years. She has served as a branch secretary and an investigator, documenting brutality, gathering testemonies, organizing defenses.
And today she will catalyze events and propel these four friends to face new risks and a deep consideration of freedom and protest and friendship. Nationally awardwinning playwright Tori Sampson tells their story as WAM Theatre performs her play, Cadillac Crew, at Shakespeare & Company, with taneisha duggan as director and Cate Alston as Abby, MaConnia Chesser as Dee, Kyra Davis as Rachel and Alicia M.P. Nelson as Sarah.
The story begins in a makeshift and welcoming room, as Sampson imagines it, with mugs around a coffee pot, and papers on the desks with jotted notes, and signs recognizing confidence and a woman’s right to pleasure and imagination and choice in her own body — Sexual violence IS violence and My body is not your commodity and Sex is always consensual.
‘“Within this room, they can talk freely, and we get to see them with that audacity.’ — taneisha duggan, director
These are tumultuous times, two months before the March on Washington. As the play reveals in sounds and glimpses, the Civil Rights movement is gaining momentum, and Freedom activism work can be life-threatening. In this Virginia town, the public schools are reopening — they closed when desegregation became law, and protests against integration are loud in the streets.
These are the years of Freedom Rides and sit-ins at movie theaters and lunch counters, when registering to vote can get a woman beaten.
And here in their own office, these four women are confident, duggan said. In this room, they are in a safe space — in their own space. They have made it a place where they can make their ideas visible, protest and rant, banter, sing, tell their dreams out loud.
“Within this room, they can talk freely,” she said, “and we get to see them with that audacity.”
And they are friends. They hold each other up. Chesser sees Dee as the eldest of the four. Dee is the mother of the group, Chesser said. She is caring for her family, thinking about her daughter and what world her daughter will live in, what choices she will have.
“The power resides in numbers,” Dee says in the play. “Make no mistake, it isn’t the purpose that people are latching on to. It’s the movement. The masses. We have to show up to every front line standing together. That’s the key to all this.”
She’s a woman from the South, Chesser said. She brings a strength and stability and laughter into the group that holds them together. And in her interactions with these women, she may sometimes think through her life in new ways. For her in that time, women were not supposed to lead, especially in the church and in her community.
And yet that morning she has walked her daughter to her first day in an integrated school. Dee fights for her daughter in a new generation, Chesser said.
I say, “Debra, you stay in your place, you stay outta trouble.”
… (she) say, “Mama, I belong wherever I walk.”
“I grew up in a generation who were told we could have it all,” duggan said, “and Abby and women like her are the progenitors for that generation. They led the way.”
‘I grew up in a generation who were told we could have it all, and Abby and women like her are the progenitors for that generation. They led the way.’ — taneisha duggan
In 1963, Abby is 22, just graduated from Hampton College. She wants meaningful work and the independence to make the life she imagines, Alston said — she wants family, love, ambition, the resources to create her own business. She wants to create her own line of makeup, to help women feel beautiful.
“When I agreed to bestow my talents here after I graduated,” she tells Rachel, “it was predicated upon your promise of more agency — a chance to flex and climb.”
“How’s it going, job training the teenagers?” Rachel answers. “You created that program, and now you’re bored by it?”
Abby wants it all, Alston said – and there are no models for her, in her time and place, in the 1960s. She’s not following any rules. She’s young, full of energy, laughing. And at the same time, she knows the dangers of the work they are doing.
She is afraid, and with reason. A few days before, she and her friends could have heard Dr. Dorothy Height on New York radio as she gathered the work of 24 women’s activist groups, investigating violence against women freedom activists and demonstrators in Southern prisons.
And now, with steep odds against them from white pressure, Abby and her friends will face tension within their own movement as well. They have worked to bring Parks as the first woman to speak at a convocation in their town, and she is set to speak on her decades of anti-rape actvism. The event will become a catalyst when Black men within the Civil Rights group want to her deny her the chance to speak.
Why does she face this resistance from her own people? Maybe some of the leading men in their community are frightened, duggan suggested, that Rachel and her friends in the Civil Rights office could take the movement to places they can’t control.
Rachel, leading the Civil Rights office with advanced degrees from Fisk and Howard, is a force to be reckoned with. She is brilliant, active and passionate and experienced — and she has made this day happen. At 26 she’s done this work for years, duggan said, and she knows what she’s doing. And platforms can have power.
“The steam behind these open convocations is unmatched,” Abby says in the play. “Last one alone brought close to 800 attendees. Kings are made on that stage.
“Leadership is dandy when Rosa chants about the evil White man forcing himself into the Black woman’s body. Soon as she lays facts about how the same attacks happen within our community — That’s when they have issues.”
In the face of this new opposition, Abby and her colleagues will rethink how to get where they need to go and make a move beyond their office door.
Abby has college friends from Hampton driving through the South in one of the Cadillac Crews, on their way from Florida. Two white women and two Black women share every car, she says — “… stopping in the most segregated cities, equipping willing women with integration practices — that not revolutionary enough for you?”
The play takes its name from a real historical movement, Sampson and WAM explain, that almost no one has recorded. Dorothy Height, an activist on a national scale, organized a network of women activists, Black and white, who traveled together and met together across the South.
Height had long been active in the civil rights movement and on women’s rights, and in summer 1963, she was leading a national YWCA program for integration and desegregation. She had become the fourth president of the National Council of Negro Women five years before, a position she would hold for 40 years, working with Civil Rights leaders from U.S. Rep. John Lewis to Martin Luther King Jr.
She brought women together to make connections. Many of them were middle-aged, middle class, trying to build bridges.
They would meet in living rooms to talk about community programs, to share parks, open pools. And even while the media and the country denied their existence, they risked their work, their families and sometimes their lives. And Sampson asks through the play, who were they — who recorded even their names?
The theme recurs, voices heard and not heard. duggan imagines what Rosa Parks might have said that day at the convocation, and what all four women could say if they had the chance to stand on that stage.
They could have had a rich debate about intersectionality, she said, and the overlapping challenges and strengths of being a woman and Black. They could have played on infinite and fluid experiences of race and gender, imagining a world where they can live without fear and love who they love, and teach their children.
They touch on that world as they show their determination to carry on their work to build it together. Though they approach from different perspectives and with different strategies, the futures they envision are closely interwoven.
In activism people come from all directions, duggan and Chesser and Alston agreed — people who loudly call for change, people who negotiate, people who work behind the scenes, people who build alliances, people who lead in the light.
Rachel and Abby and Sarah and Dee are each finding their own answers to how to do the work and how to move forward collectively, as they share their experiences on the road and claim their own lives. Abby recalls her friends in that earlier Cadillac Crew, and their excitement in the world.
“Henrietta and Livvy. Henrietta and Olivia Nobles. … Good dancer too. Real good. Could pick her laugh from a crowd it was so unapologetic. Henrietta Shire is … she liked to talk about birds … wanted to travel the world just to see new ones. She’s from Philadelphia. Has a brother who’s deaf so she knows … knew sign language. See. She taught me to say my name.” Abby signs her name in the air. “Two names right there.”
This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer in October 2022 — my thanks to editor Fred Daley.