As part of MLK50 commemoration activities this week, three preview performances of “Union: A Musical” will take place April 6-8 at Clayborn Temple in Downtown Memphis.
Greg Thompson, co-creator of the musical and director for research and strategy at Clayborn Temple, said the soul- and hip-hop-based musical chronicles the story of the events during the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike.
“This (strike) was a very grassroots Memphis-initiated march that was fundamental to the Civil Rights Movement,” Thompson said. “We wanted to focus on the theme of human dignity, which is really embodied in the I AM A MAN signs.”
Thompson said the musical also focuses on love and the role it plays in democracy. Thompson said love and the struggles to love were vital to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message.
The weekend’s performances are showcase events, which Thompson said are staged readings in which the cast will not be in full costume. Thompson said the idea behind the preview is to see if the musical is powerful enough to be built into a full-scale show.
Each of the weekend’s performances will include special events. Friday’s opening night will be a VIP night and fundraiser for the musical. The show Saturday will include two not-yet-announced guest performances.
Open conversations and workshops will take place at the musical’s Sunday afternoon performance. Thompson called this a “talk-back” and said members of the Black Lives Matter movement will be present.
Thompson said he is focused on having young activists in the audience and said the “talk-back” would give people an opportunity to voice their feelings about the musical and share how people can work on racial justice together going forward.
Award-winning Christian hip-hop artist and writer Sho Baraka co-wrote more than half the musical’s songs and will be performing as Rev. James Lawson, a prolific activist during the Civil Rights Movement.
Lawson served as chairman of the Sanitation Workers’ Strike Committee and mentored King, introducing him to Ghandi’s philosophy of nonviolence. Lawson, 89, is scheduled to make a guest appearance during the preview performances this weekend.
Baraka said he feels deeply honored and privileged to portray Lawson and is slightly anxious about communicating Lawson’s words and character to the audience.
Baraka said the musical’s title is meant to have three meanings: labor unions interwoven with the ideas of racial and family union.
Baraka also gave his opinion on the musical’s timeliness in American society.
“There’s a lot of things… within this play that directly correlate to issues of justice that we see today,” Baraka said. “This play is deeply embedded with crimes of economic injustice, people who feel like their work is not being met with dignity.”
Baraka said he loves to write and create and described the role art plays in society.
“Art in general should always provoke something,” Baraka said. “It should pull out elements that brush up against you and make you want to discuss these things.”
Baraka said the best part of participating in the musical was getting to meet Lawson.
“That’s probably going to be the most lasting memory,” Baraka said.
All cast members are Memphians, with the exception of Baraka.
The musical is scheduled to tour nationally in 2019. Ticket prices for the shows this weekend range from $15 to $50 and can be purchased through the Clayborn Temple website, as well as Eventbrite.
A promotional flyer for "Union: A Musical" includes a drawing of participants holding iconic I AM A MAN posters during the Sanitation Strike. The flyers list the musical's schedule.
The new I AM A MAN plaza was unveiled Thursday by city of Memphis officials next to Clayborn Temple. The plaza features a large sculpture of the famous slogan from the Sanitation Strike.
Gregory Thompson, Amisho Baraka, Kristen Adele and Justin Merrick, members of the "Union: A Musical" creative team, stand in front of the I AM A MAN sculpture Thursday during the dedication ceremony of Memphis' I AM A MAN plaza.