Clarksdale play brings civil rights leader to life

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Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Tarra Slack (left, portraying Vera Mae Pigee), Brian James (as Paul Pigee), and Jessica James (as Mary Jane Pigee) during a rehearsal for “Beautiful Agitators” being presented this weekend at the Crossroads Cultural Arts Center in downtown Clarksdale.

 

CLARKSDALE – Capturing a moment in time that was becoming a vague memory, local playwrights are bringing to life the story of Vera Mae Pigee this weekend in performances of “Beautiful Agitators” at the Crossroads Cultural Center.

The play  — a StoryWorks production by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting — portrays the life of Pigee, a civil rights activists who strategized, along with fellow Clarksdale resident Aaron Henry, much of the local and state movement from her Clarksdale beauty shop.

Pigee served as secretary of the NAACP’s Caohoma County branch, organizing demonstrations and helping thousands register to vote. She is regarded as an integral leader who ushered in some of the first civil rights gains to the Delta.

The original production from StoryWorks, co-sponsored by Mississippi Today, takes a biographical look at her life and key moments of the Civil Rights movement that is followed by a discussion with the audience.

Kelsey Davis, Mississippi Today

From left: Jennifer Welch of StoryWorks, director; Fred Anklam, co-editor of Mississippi Today; Aaron McClinton, grandson of Civil Rights activist Aaron Henry join “Beautiful Agitators” playwrights Jessica Iman James, Aallyah Wright, also a Mississippi Today reporter, Nick Houston and Charles Coleman. James, Houston and Coleman also portrayed characters in the play.

 

“I just wanted to say it’s an honor to be here and to be able to witness the characters. Reverend J.D. Rayford was my grandfather,” Gail Rayford-Ambeau tearfully said from the audience as the playwrights engaged with audience members.

Rayford aided Pigee and others during the civil rights era.

“I knew that he did some things and I heard many stories about this growing up. My mother and my father shared many stories about the things that were going on in and around Clarksdale. It’s an honor to be here and see these young people reach back and grab a piece of history,” she said.

Her sentiments were repeated by nearly everyone in the crowd who chose to speak during the discussion.

“In the late ’60s I was on the streets fighting about the Vietnam war, getting hit, getting tear gassed, fighting for civil rights. I’m from Clarksdale, my family is from Clarksdale. The play was so damn good I’m furious all over again,” said Richard Bowlen.

Scenes from the play depicted agonizing moments during the movement, like when civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered, or when three civil rights workers were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Not only were these deaths tremendous losses for the civil rights movement in general, but for Mississippi specifically.

“When we lost Medgar in your play, it all came right back again. And when the civil rights workers got killed in Philadelphia you brought it right back home,” Bowlen said. “And I remember that day in ’68, screaming at the television when Martin got killed. That’s how good your work is.”

Bowlen wasn’t alone in reliving personal history as it played out in “Beautiful Agitators.”

The very first scene showed two young African-American men studying for the notoriously unfair “citizenship” test they were required to take before being allowed to register to vote. It delved into how complex and subjective the test was, allowing whites the power to withhold voting rights even if those testing answered correctly.

That prompted another audience member to stand up and recount her experience going to take the test, saying she identified with the characters in the play.

Four local playwrights — Jessica Iman James, Aallyah Wright, also a Mississippi Today reporter, Nick Houston and Charles Coleman — wrote various scenes for the production with the assistance and supervision of Jennifer Welch of StoryWorks. Houston proposed a play on the life of Pigee, whom some in the community still recall, during a brainstorming session.

The play can be seen again Saturday at 7 p.m. or Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Crossroads Cultural Arts Center on 332 Delta Avenue in Clarksdale.