Sit-In Cover Art

Sit-In: The Play that Became a Journey

When I arrived in Atlanta in August of 1969, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was only four years old and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had only been around a year longer. Atlanta was changing with the times and in 1970 when a young lawyer named Maynard Jackson was elected the city’s presiding officer of the Board of Aldermen, everybody I met told me he was certainly going to be chosen as Atlanta’s first African American mayor in the next municipal election.

When I got a job on the archival staff of the newly created Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, I found myself right in the center of the city’s close-knit community of Civil Rights activists. My co-workers were not much older than I was but while I was finishing high school in Detroit, they were already staffing SNCC and SCLC officers in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama. They had already been arrested and held without bail in the notorious Parchman Prison, beaten on Freedom Rides, lost friends to Ku Klux Klan violence. They had known Dr. King and marched beside him. I was in awe of their courage and spent hours listening to their stories about how it felt to be on the front lines of the movement that had transformed America.

Those people became some of my closest friends and in the last few years, it has been hard to lose them to old age and the various ailments that sometimes come with it. As I began to work on Sit-In, another one of their number, my amazing friend Donald P. Stone, joined the ancestors. Stone was a key part of the Atlanta Student Movement, which is why I gave some of his history to the character of Mr. Payne, so he could share it with his granddaughter as she discovered her inner activist.

Our play was inspired by the beautiful children’s book, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Brian Pinkney and Andrea Davis Pinkney. But somewhere along the way, their text became more of a jumping off point to develop our own story, deeply rooted in Atlanta’s movement history and present-day activism. The main character, Janet Payne, an 11-year-old student at the fictional Grace Hamilton Academy, discovers her grandfather’s activist history when she herself stands up (by sitting in!) to protest climate change.

“You’re part of a family tradition,” her grandfather tells her when she runs into some resistance. “I’m proud of you.” His faith in her gives her the inspiration to keep going.

In these times of great social change and political upheaval, I believe we all need that kind of inspiration every once in a while! We’re proud that our Sit-In team has been able to translate the play into an amazing animated journey with some brand new freedom songs that none of us could have imagined. But here we are, trying something new to tell a story that is as old as the human struggle to be free!

I think my friend Donald P. Stone would have loved it.

- Pearl Cleage, Distinguished Artist-in-Residence

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