Earlier this year, a spotlight shined on Selma, Alabama, in remembrance of the civil rights march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that was brutally interrupted by police in 1965. Though the violence of Bloody Sunday catalyzed the successful battle against Jim Crow laws, the city of Selma remains fraught with racism and segregation.
According to the Freedom Foundation, 80 percent of the town is black, but its only country club remains open exclusively to white members. Dallas County, which encompasses Selma, experiences unemployment at two times the national average; the crime rate is five times higher. This is what President Obama was referring to, when he said in a speech he gave on the bridge on the anniversary of the event. “Our march is not yet finished," he said, "but we are getting closer.”
Partaking in the metaphorical march is an organization called Random Acts of Theatre Company (RATCo) which aims to allow youth from all races and economic backgrounds to express themselves through art. Founded in 2007, it has locations nationwide, with headquarters in Selma. Director Joseph East took an interest in the group after visiting Selma on a history tour, and noticing the impact it had on its members.
“There is still evidence of the Confederacy and tributes to racism everywhere you turn [in Selma], from the street signs and public architecture named after Confederate Generals to the large Confederate flag waving in the cemetery,” East told The Huffington Post. He was taken aback by the dual sidewalks that still run through the town’s downtown district, with a raised path that was once reserved for white citizens.
"In East Selma -- the poor, predominantly black part of town, you'll see the poverty firsthand,” East said. “Including abandoned houses corroding and overgrown with vines; broken or boarded up windows; and unemployed mothers and fathers, and especially young men on porches.”
East says these not-so-subtle messages indicate to Selma’s citizens -- especially its youth -- that they are inadequate. But, at RATCo, kids of all races and economic backgrounds come together to dance, write, perform, express themselves and “discover a greater vision for their lives.” East’s documentary, “I Will Dance,” follows three of the organization’s members as they hone their artistic skills, and use them to confront the turmoil in their lives.
One such Selma resident, Semaj, has a passion for writing poetry, but fears his interest will make him at outsider. In East’s documentary, he’s shown crafting a piece about his absent father, and discussing how the writing process helped him come to terms with his anger. Another resident, Tori, uses poetry to face her introversion. And a third, Macio, is naturally more exuberant. “Every day, I dance," he muses. "I turn up the music. My mom hates it when I turn up the music really loud. It’s the only way I can get myself up and stop feeling crappy.”
East notes that the art created by the members of RATCo reflects their experiences growing up in Selma. “At first, a lot of kids come into [the program] feeling rejected, shut down, angry, and often wanting to inflict the same hurt they’ve experienced on others,” he said. “But they learn how to channel that frustration into a poem, or find joy through dance. When they do, it’s some of the most beautiful, powerful stuff.”
His hope -- as well as that of National RATCo director Amanda Farnsworth -- is that the group’s members carry its message wherever they go next. So far, it’s been a productive mission. Both Tori and Macio are still members of the organization, and Semaj, whose poem you can hear above, is studying literature in college, attending poetry slams and working for social change as a member of the only integrated fraternity on his college’s campus.
“[I] discovered not only that he is a gifted writer, but that he wants to use that gift to fight for change,” Farnsworth told HuffPost, noting that he exemplifies “one of the most exciting transformations we witness in the youth […] a shift from 'onlooker' or even 'victim' to 'activist.'”
"I Will Dance" is screening next at the Denver Center for Performing Arts on May 2. For more information, check out the film's website here.