Managing director on theater group bringing 'Freedom Riders' to Common Ground

Managing director on theater group bringing 'Freedom Riders' to Common Ground
Chris Westhoff (Courtesy photo)

As one of the keynotes at McDaniel College’s three-week Common Ground on the Hill Festival, Mad River Theater Works will perform their original show “Freedom Riders,” that peeks into the lives of the Freedom Riders, a group of black and white Americans who traveled together on buses that crossed state line in order to peacefully protest the segregation practices that still existed even in the years after segregation was outlawed by the Supreme Court.

The performance take place Monday, June 25 at 8 p.m. in Alumni Hall. Admission is $10, but traditions week participants and children under 12 are free. A conversation between the audience and the theater company will follow. The show is an original one-act play with music created by Mad River Theater Works and run time is under an hour. The Times caught up with Managing Director Chris Westhoff to learn more about “Freedom Riders.”


Q: Because the play is historical, do you think it lends itself more to question and answer?

A: “[With] any piece of art, I think there’s always interesting questions and conversation that comes out of it. But I think specifically when you bring history to life, which is what we do at Mad River Theater Works, there is value in digging into that a little more.

Q: Is there any context or knowledge that would help people going into the show beforehand?

A: Definitely you can come in and not know anything about it, because our job as storytellers is not just presenting and telling this story in the production, but also as a theatre company that made it … it’s pretty self-contained and has a clear beginning, middle and end. And we explain a lot of the historical precedents and organizations at work because ... so much of our audiences are younger audiences and there are people like even myself for instance that weren’t alive in 1961.

So you can’t assume a knowledge base that you would necessarily understand what the Congress of Racial Equality was all about. Or that someone like James Farmer was the director of it. But we’re going to present that in a pretty natural way. I don’t think there’s any preparation that’s necessary. But certainly any background information on the Civil Rights Movement could only add to the experience of being in the audience.

Q: In the Traditions Week after that, there will be a workshop that you all will lead?

A: It’s an extended workshop, same participants every day for a two-period block, and we’re going to use the play as a kind of starting point or building block for which we can make our own play with the workshop participants.

Q: Like a full, complete show?

A: No, a small piece. Six to 15 minutes of theater, depending on what the group wants to get into and how much room they have.

Q: For the participants in the workshop or other people who are interested in working with historical eras in their theater work, do you have any tips about what can be hard or what can be really rewarding?

A: It’s a really cool experience to make theatre of any kind. Working with other people, telling stories in way that’s physical and moving. … But I think specifically, when you deal with history, you have a lot to look-up and research. But you also have this very interesting responsibility to do it justice. And on top of that, when you’re dealing with history that is in so many different ways alive, the stakes are even higher. Which is to say, the Civil Rights Movement is very much an ongoing process in conversation, even if we don’t call it that anymore. Allowing people to take that up through art, through theatre, creating a space for it where we do it together, has tremendous social potential and value.

Even more to the theme of that history being alive, as we toured the play this past winter, we met people that were Freedom Riders. While it’s historic, it’s not old history, it’s very young history. Many people that went on the rides, as our play explores, were just young people themselves, children almost, college age students. And today, they’re in their 70s and 80s. We met them as we toured, and they were able to reflect with us on how the play did and didn’t tell the story that they were a part of. Everybody has their own telling. So it’s really kind of an amazing opportunity to be a part of the play and to be carrying it into the communities that we’ve been going into. Getting back to your question about the workshop, we would hope to suggest that to our participants.

Q: That reminds me of a photo I saw of Ruby Bridges (as an adult) recently.

A: This man came up to us after a show near Dallas somewhere and not only was his name William Harbour, and not only was he a Freedom Rider, but his mugshot when he was arrested in May of 1961 was actually reproduced in our set.


We knew that that was Willian Harbour because we had pulled the graphic from the files, but we didn’t know that we’d be meeting William Harbour that day. And it doesn’t say William Harbour on it, so I had certainly forgotten that. I just knew it was mugshot number 21058. But he walked up and he said ‘This is me.’ And he stood next to it, and it blew our minds.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about with this show?

A: I guess we’d just like to say that we’re really excited to bring the play, which we toured to 25-plus states this past year to Common Ground. That’s been a really valuable and informative place for us as a company and also for a few of us as individuals. Our company’s artistic director, Bob Lucas, and myself have been a part of it many times, and we know how rich and rewarding the program is, and we’re honored to be included as a company the way we will be next week.

And we know that at McDaniel College, there is a really vibrant history of activism and inter-racial, inter-denominational, inter-everything collaboration. That’s what Common Ground is all about, of course. We feel glad to fit in and see our people there.