1963 church bombings re-examined in play

Kariamu Welsh is on the left and Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon is on the right. CREDIT: Tyra Lockhart

THIS SEPTEMBER will mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The church, which was a hub of civil-rights activities on the part of such figures as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, was blown up by white supremacists.

Because the victims included four young, innocent girls, the event remains a particularly heinous crime, even by terror-event standards. Tomorrow, "Countdown to 'BOOM' We All Fall Down," which takes a different look at the bombing and its aftermath, has its world premiere at Lew Klein Hall at the Temple Performing Arts Center on North Broad Street.

As a pivotal moment in the civil-rights movement, the bombing has been the subject of works across various media platforms, including Spike Lee's 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls." But "Countdown to 'BOOM,' " which was conceived and created by two Temple instructors, approaches the subject from a novel angle.

"What would the girls have become if they lived? That's the central question we ask," offered dance professor/choreographer Kariamu Welsh, who with associate professor of theater Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, created and co-directs the piece, which incorporates spoken-word, dance and gospel-music elements.

As Welsh sees it, the lives the girls never got to live likely wouldn't have had much in common with those of their mothers and grandmothers.

"It was a very exciting time in America for women," reasoned Welsh who, with Williams-Witherspoon, created 2010's "La Baker," about 1920s entertainer Josephine Baker. "Naturally that would apply to African-American women as well. You had the civil-rights movement and the women's movement. So, little girls around that time had a lot of opportunities available to them that their mothers did not have."

At 63, Welsh is roughly the same age the four kids would have been today. As such, the Brooklyn native is old enough to remember the bombing which, she said, had the exact opposite effect on her African-American community than the perpetrators had likely hoped.

Rather than instill fear and terror, "Actually, it was a rallying cry," said Welsh. "It was all the more reason to be faithful. We knew this was an attack on humanity. For it to happen in church was the ultimate insult. It went beyond black people. It was an attack on religion. So, it was a rallying cry.

"I don't remember fear. We knew that danger was there. We knew that was part of the price one had to pay for this incredible momentum that was occurring [within the civil-rights movement]. I won't say there was never any fear, but certainly not enough fear to not go to church. Everyone was cautioned about looking out for each other, but never did the thought of not going to church enter into anyone's mind."

It's difficult, if not impossible, to conjure a scenario in which the murder of four children could be considered a positive development. But, with the aid of a half-century of hindsight, Welsh acknowledged the girls' deaths had significant meaning in a big-picture sort of way.

She admitted that not being a historian, she can't really comment on the bombing's impact. But, she said: "When tragedy occurs, there are definitely lessons to be learned. I think that [the bombing] shocked the nation, and everyone took notice because it was four innocent little girls. No matter what side you were on, or how you felt about equal rights for black people . . . I think most people could agree those four little girls did not deserve to die.

"So, in that sense, it shook people up. It galvanized more people to join 'the movement' as it was called. They didn't die in vain. Although they could not realize their dreams in terms of a changing America, many women of color did realize their dreams. It was in part because of the sacrifice of those four little girls."


Lew Klein Hall at Temple Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St. 1 and 8 p.m. tommorrow, $25, 800-298-4200, templeperformingartscenter.org.


'If She Stood' premiere

"Countdown to 'BOOM' " isn't the only production based on African-American history debuting this weekend. There is also "If She Stood," which today begins a six-show run at Old City's Painted Bride Art Center.

"If She Stood," which is being staged as part of the monthlong Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, is set on Dec. 5, 1833, the day the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was founded. The piece looks at the people behind the group, an early entry in the abolitionist movement that culminated with the Union's victory in the Civil War more than three decades later. It was created by the team of Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson, which is closing its 18-month Painted Bride residency with this work.


Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 8 p.m. tonight, tomorrow, May 3 and 4, 3 p.m. Sunday and May 5, $25 and $30 (day of show), 215-925-9914, pifa.org/events/17.


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