On Saturday and Sunday, Gainesville residents are invited to witness North Central Florida’s hidden history come to life in “From Colored to Black.”
“From Colored to Black” examines North Central Florida’s involvement in the civil rights movement. The play highlights historical figures who were not necessarily famous at the time but played important roles in shaping Florida’s integrative history.
Playwright Brittney Caldwell used interviews and archives of the time that would have otherwise been forgotten.
A recent graduate of the MFA Acting Program, Caldwell created a story that reflects on how systemic racism impacts not only the social welfare, but also the physical health of the black community. She links mechanisms of the past to the circumstances of the present. This is the first full-length play she has written.
“I never thought I would like writing, but I totally fell in love with it,” Caldwell said. “I feel like this play serves the black community in a time where people need to understand each other.”
The play features five characters in the present at a cookout who share ideas and opinions on racism in Florida and how it has evolved since the civil rights movement. These discussions allude to vignettes of the past. The vignettes present real events and people from the civil rights movement in Florida.
These people, according to Caldwell, were never famous for their accomplishments in pushing towards integration and breaking down barriers in North Central Florida. Frank Butler, for example, established the first “blacks only” beach in Florida, which, according to Caldwell, started the civil rights movement in St. Augustine.
Caldwell portrays the role of Cora Tyson, who acted as a host to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he came to visit his headquarters in St. Augustine. She transforms her own creative vision from her script to the stage through a careful study of the woman’s interviews.
“It’s important for me to play her truthfully and not to make a caricature of her,” Caldwell said. “She seems so resilient and bright. Her spirit is so warm, and that is exactly what I use to portray her.”
Caldwell also examines events that occurred in Gainesville, such as the history of Lincoln High School, an exceptional black high school, according to Caldwell.
“Once they were forced to integrate, it began to dissolve,” Caldwell said. “We’re able to bring up discussions on education, housing quality standards, public policies and link all of these disparities to a poor health outcome.”
Caldwell discusses how there is a constant thread between the past and present, showing how the issues of the past are still very present in today's day and age.
“We use a Brechtian feel for the show,” Caldwell said. “There’s no separation, there’s no fourth wall.”
The actors onstage discuss the issues of race with the audience as well as with each other in the plot.
She aims to bring this rich hidden history to life in a story that examines not only the past and present but also the concept of racism and how it has evolved over time.
Caldwell’s inspiration for the play came from a short vignette she wrote for an internship presentation at the Harn Museum of Art, supervised by her current co-director Jeffrey Pufahl. She developed a captivating story that Pufahl saw potential in, and he encouraged her to expand on the short story into a full-length play.
Pufahl has played a large role in the process as co-director and supervisor. He and Caldwell spent a year working on the script together. “From Colored to Black” gives a multifaceted perspective on the evolution of racism and how its hierarchy has impacted the health outcomes of the black community, he said.
“We’ve decided that we have to come at this sensitive subject from both points of view so that the play has a uniquely authentic voice,” Pufahl said. “We’re trying to break down barriers and create discussion. What is systemic racism? How does it function?”
“From Colored to Black” will be playing at the Squitieri Studio Theatre at the Phillips Center for Performing Arts on Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Caldwell wants audiences to leave the play with a healthy curiosity and a hunger to start making changes in their own community and their own life.