From left to right, Saran Bakari, Naila Kenya, Mariama Sonko, Victoria Jones sing in "Four Little Girls, Birmingham 1963" in the Family Theater.
On September 15, 1963, dynamite ripped through the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, claiming the lives of four little girls in a moment that gripped the nation and helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Last night, a performance presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Project1Voice and Howard University, commemorated that historic event.
A packed audience filled The Kennedy Center's Family Theater for a staged reading of "Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963," a play by Christina Ham. Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad made her directorial debut in the performance, which featured a cast comprised of students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Mixed in with childhood banter about school, clothes and parental guidance, the play has a serious undertone. Racism, segregation and violent hate crimes are all discussed.
Washington resident Saran Bakari, 15, portrayed the character of Denise McNair, who at 11 years old was the youngest victim of the bombing. Bakari says she's learned about the event in the past.
"But then I realized, they had names, they were my age," Bakari says. "They didn't just die; they had lives before then. They had hopes, they had dreams."
Maryland resident Victoria Jones, 14, says that being part of the performance helped her identify with her character, Cynthia Wesley.
"It could have been anybody," Jones says. "It could have been me, if I was born 50 years back then. It could have been my sister. It could have been anybody's sister."
At the end of the reading, as if on cue, the audience rose and joined the chorus in singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
In a post-performance discussion moderated by Dr. Carolyn Shuttlesworth, Howard University African American Studies professor Dr. Greg Carr, journalist Jerry Mitchell, 1963 bombing survivor Carolyn McKinstry and others fielded questions from the audience.
"This presentation resonates very well with my memory," says McKinstry. "This is a painful memory nonetheless, but I think we have so much to be thankful for at this juncture, this 50-year-culmination. We've come so far."