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Diverse cast members, music and civil rights quilt will honor MLK’s legacy on Lied Center stage

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Rita Rials’ goal as a playwright is to inspire audience members without telling them what to think. She’ll have that opportunity Saturday on the Lied Center stage with “April 4, 1968: Dare to Dream,” a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We want the message to hit their hearts, which will motivate them to a call to action because I’ve always heard that what comes from the heart touches the heart,” Rita said.

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Under Rita’s direction, the cast and crew will honor King’s dreams and his legacy while reflecting on the civil rights movement and the work that remains.

“One of the things he talked about is justice,” Rita said, referring to King’s declaration that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“We have to be careful, because we have made some progress,” Rita said. “We have gained some ground in this movement. We have to remember the people that still struggle and why they struggle.”

The audience will witness a grandmother and her grandson taking “a walk back through time” amid some of King’s favorite songs, said Rita’s sister Nicole Rials (Granny and Thelma Johnson). Music in the form of protest songs, spirituals and gospel hymns will play a central role in the production.

The characters reflect on the impact of King’s message along with “his dream, his vision, the hope that he brought,” and “the devastation felt when his life was taken,” Nicole said.

April 4, 1968 marks the day King was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis. He was 39.

Nicole described the play as “age and family appropriate.”

“But for younger kids, it’s always helpful to have that dialogue with them after they’ve come to the play,” she said. “So they can be sure they capture the message and know what message they are drawing from it.”

At rehearsal, Kim Allen’s powerful voice shared “If I Can Help Somebody” to accompaniment by pianist Tyson Williams (Johnathan Douglas and Brother Winfrey).

‘April 4, 1968: Dare to Dream’

The production is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Lied Center. Tickets are available at this link or by phone at 785-864-2787.

“Then my living shall not be in vain,” sang Allen (Mayalma Hudson). A rendition by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is one of the most famous versions of the song. 

“That feel good, Kim?” Nicole asked at the end. Allen nodded and Rakeisha Pringle (Mother Davidson) walked up to the piano to run through a tune.

The cast also rehearsed a scene that illustrated its diversity. When two white women, Sheila Martinez (Patricia Norman) and Beth Chambers (Mrs. Williams), were late because one of them joined a protest, Black and white join their voices for a song of unity, “We Shall Not be Moved.”

Also on stage is a civil rights quilt designed and created by Rita and Nicole’s mother, Mary Rials. The daughters had images of the civil rights movement printed on pieces of fabric, and Mary quilted them for the play. Nicole called Mary’s contribution “significant to the story.” Read more about Mary’s Dare to Dream quilt in this story from December.

Additional cast members are Sean Hunter (Jesse Wilson), Jeff Harkin (Memphis Radio News Anchor) and Kristie Mullenix (Understudy).

Rita said she felt proud of the work by her cast and crew, especially the volunteerism that brought her creativity and message about King’s work to life.

Molly Adams/Lawrence Times

“I’m proud of them because they’ve done that and they all take a part of this personally, so they share the dream, they share the message …” she said. “The diversity in my cast makes it wonderful and I try to maintain that through plays of this type, because it’s about all of us; it’s about everyone.”

“April 4, 1968: Dare to Dream” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Lied Center. Tickets, $25 for adults and $15 for youths, can be purchased at this link or by phone at 785-864-2787.

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The production will be staged in partnership with Life Restoration Ministries, which Nicole founded in 2007. The project also received support from the Douglas County Community Foundation, according to Nicole. The mission of LRM’s theater program is to “create the space for people of color” and that’s what makes the partnership with the Lied Center and Executive Director Derek Kwan so important, she said.

“We’ve talked about the importance of expression, and to be able to come and revisit history and revisit our strong traditions and bring life issues to the stage reflected through our culture is really important,” Nicole said. “So people who want to support that, want to buy into that vision and help us move that forward, I also welcome them to reach out to me.”

For more information about Life Restoration Ministries and its mission, email Nicole Rials at info@lrmlawrence.com.

King’s birthday is observed annually as a federal holiday on the third Monday of January. He was born Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta, according to this biography. He would be 94 this year.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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