Taking Center Stage: Decatur seniors present first theatrical performance

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Standing next to her castmates, 91-year-old Georgia Rogers led the audience and actors in a singing of “We Shall Overcome.”

The song culminated a staging of “A Slave’s Dream,” the debut performance undertaken by Decatur’s senior citizens at Turner-Surles Community Resource Center.

“We do a lot of stuff here every day to keep our seniors active. We want to stimulate them physically, mentally and creatively. It’s about making a difference each and every day,” said Kristy Davis, director of Turner-Surles in Northwest Decatur. “The play was another way to get our seniors involved on another level.”

For most of the cast, “A Slave’s Dream” marked their first theatrical experiences outside of church productions.

“When I was a child, I was in a couple of church productions at my church, First Baptist in Courtland, but that was it,” 70-year-old Gloria Gilchrist Davis said.

In “A Slave’s Dream,” written by Kristy Davis and her friend Corando Orr, Gloria Gilchrist Davis portrayed the main character of a slave, who, during a dream, sees a glimpse of the future.

During the dream, Davis’ character meets Civil Rights leaders Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, former President Barack Obama, entertainer James Brown, businesswoman Madame C.J. Walker, abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Decatur’s own educator Etta Freeman, who, at 106 years old, attended the production. The character also learns about President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and desegregation.

“I was not alive to remember the people and events that are featured and talked about in the play, but most of the cast was alive to experience it. The play tells the story of strength and courage and perseverance,” Kristy Davis said. “This was a way for us to celebrate Black history. It’s an important story to tell.”

To prepare for her role, Gloria Gilchrist Davis practiced at home and thought about her character’s feelings and experiences.

“This has been a lot of fun and a challenge. It’s good to have these types of new experiences and challenges. It keeps your mind fresh,” she said. “I’m glad we put on the play because it has an important message: That no matter what you are going through, a better change is coming. You should always have hope.”

Like Gloria Gilchrist Davis, 91-year-old Georgia Rogers’ acting experience was limited.

“Outside of church, I have never done anything like this,” Rogers said. “It was a different and exciting experience. It was great to work together as a group to create this. We also had a lot of fun.”

The production marked 74-year-old Shawney Bo Wynn’s second time on stage. The former professional wrestler — and bodyguard for Michael Jackson, James Brown and Marvin Gaye — played the role of an executioner in an opera in Connecticut.

“A lady with a TV station up there said I needed to try out for the role. I told her I didn’t know anything about opera, but she kept insisting,” Wynn said. “When I went and told the director I was trying out for the executioner, he cut everybody else on the spot and said he had found his man.”

The play represented another way for Wynn to be involved with the senior center, which is open five days a week and offers drum and rhythm practices, games, puzzles, exercise classes, self-defense classes, line dancing, day trips and more.

“This is something I don’t normally do. It’s a great way to keep having fun,” said Wynn, who played the role of James Brown.

After announcing that Turner-Surles intended to stage a play, Kristy Davis asked the center’s members what people they were interested in portraying. Essie Love selected Harriet Tubman, a role she played at her church, Fletcher’s Chapel, several years ago.

“I learned about Black history in school and witnessed a lot of it too. I knew a good bit about the events and the people who were involved,” the 76-year-old Love said. “I wanted to be part of this because it is important to know your history. It is important to know where God brought you from and where God has brought you to.”

In introducing the play, Kristy Davis shared some facts about slave life. She talked about the physical, mental and emotional struggles the slaves endured, how they worked six days a week for 16 to 18 hours a day, how, during sugar cane harvesting, they only slept for four hours a day, and how the average life span for a slave was 21 to 22 years.

Leading up to the performance, the cast, who wore costumes created from their own clothes, practiced for three weeks.

“I was a little scared about performing, but it helped that I tried not to look at the audience,” Gloria Gilchrist Davis said. “All of that work and nervousness was worth it to be able to share this story of resilience and fortitude.”