By Stephanie Ottey
Feb. 1 marked the beginning of Black History Month, and the Youngstown Playhouse is celebrating with a special presentation of a show that focuses on a tragic event from the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
“Six Nights in the Black Belt” is an American history lesson in a play that shares a true story of determination and unity that often is overlooked. It exposes the life and hopes of Jonathan Daniels, a young white man inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to move from his home in the North to Alabama to join in the fight for black equality. In the play, Daniels’ initial struggle to find acceptance in the South is forgotten as he stands firm in his fight, until his untimely death at the hands of a prejudiced gunman.
The Playhouse has another good reason for staging this timely play — Managing Director Mary Ruth Lynn is a friend and supporter of the play’s author, Lowell Williams.
“Lowell and I met while I was living in New Hampshire. I have been impressed with his writings since, and I am thrilled to support him now,” she said.
To fully celebrate his award-winning piece, director Carla Gipson took great care in choosing a cast to represent some historical characters.
Ryan Newell gives his strongest performance to date. Seen last year in the Griffith/Adler drama “Buried Child,” Newell has the opportunity to shine as central character Jonathan Daniels in this production. He creates a determined, unassuming character and plays him with consistency and heart. He’s a natural, good fit for the role.
Arianna La’Shawn makes her Playhouse debut as Ruby Sales, the vibrant and eager young woman who becomes Daniels’s protege. La’Shawn delivers a character that feels completely organic. She is sweet and bright on stage; nothing about her performance feels affected. Her show-closing monologue is sincere — a hint of good things to come.
The rest of the seven- person ensemble is cast well, too. Rayshone Oliver is an immediately likable Loretta, C. Richard Haldi is an appropriately cowardly Rev. Watkins, Geri DeWitt is a hypocritical and callous Mary Anne Hasham, and Dawnelle Jewell is a good fit for Judy Upham. Keith Baker returns to the Playhouse stage with another noteworthy performance. He grabs attention leading a right-to-vote rally as Stokely Carmichael.
Though these performances are satisfying, there werere moments of hesitation Friday, revealing opening-night nerves. Of course, the cast has reason to be nervous — next weekend they will be acting for the playwright himself.
Author Williams will be visiting Youngstown next weekend to attend performances Friday and Saturday. There will be a reception in his honor Friday, making the closing weekend even more exciting than opening.
To reserve tickets for remaining performances of “Six Nights in the Black Belt” at the Youngstown Playhouse, call 330-788-8739. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The show runs just over one hour, and seating is limited.