Playwright Toby Armour Draws on Personal Experience for “Freedom Summer”

Toby Armour worked in the theater as a stage-hand, a dancer, and a choreographer before turning to playwriting. Since then, her plays have been staged from New York to Key West, London to Cairo. Her play Voices From the Black Cannon won the Lewis National Playwriting Competition; Fanon’s People won four Dramalog awards. Freedom Summer, her latest play, is about two young women --a college girl from the northeast, Sylvia, played by Clara Francesca and Terry, African-American woman born and raised in Mississippi played by Arianne Banda--who volunteer to register voters in Jackson, Alabama during the famous Freedom Summer of 1964. It premieres June 8th at the Theatre For The New City, her theatrical home since 1988.

| 26 May 2023 | 03:33

You traveled to Mississippi in the 1960s to register voters. How much of the play is true and how much is fiction?

As far as the characters go–though they’re certainly based on experience, the actresses themselves have pretty much built their characters. But what happens is pretty much what happened when I was there. I arrived just after they discovered the three boys who’d been killed, and I left in mid-September. I wasn’t in the inner councils, I was one of the civil rights workers, but I knew the day-to-day. The day-to-day is true.

You’ve written plays about Marxist philosopher Franz Fanon (Fanon’s People) suffragist Susan B. Anthony (Susan B.). and now the Freedom Riders. Do you see all your work as political?

I hope not! I don’t really think I have an agenda beyond storytelling. Hopefully the audiences can find their way to it, decide for themselves. But one doesn’t know one’s own path. I can’t remember what set me going on Fanon’s People except that I read the book, The Wretched Of the Earth, and I was just taken by it. This play I began about three years ago. Yale has an African Studies Department, and they called me and wanted to interview me about that time. I really found myself talking a lot. And after that I thought, “hm, maybe that’s a play.”

You’ve written this play at a time of increasing voter suppression. What relevance do you think this play has to the political climate of today?

I think it has a lot of connection to what’s going on. That was so long ago, fifty-odd years ago, but what we were feeling and thinking then, and what’s going on now, and our own hopes and fears then and our hopes and fears now, are really all the same. I’m in Florida, and there’s a lot of voter suppression here. I hear that younger people are more active now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems.

The Theatre for the New City has been your theatrical home since 1988. What does that kind of relationship, over so many decades, mean to you as a playwright? How did that relationship first develop?

It’s really a very personal relationship. Crystal Field and I go back a long way, and I just admire her so much. Years ago she was a dancer, I was a dancer, and she danced in one of my pieces–then, years later, she did one of my very first plays. I just think it’s wonderful how the theater has survived. More than survived–they’re thriving. I live in Key West, and so there’s a theater there I’m technically the ‘playwright-in-residence’ of, but it’s great to have a home in New York.

This is not the first play of yours to be directed by Joan Kane–what does the writer-director relationship mean to you?

This relationship is really God-given. Not only does she know how to work and how to direct, but she’s really helped me with the script in a way that I appreciate. This has to happen. I’m good at rewriting, compromise is in my soul, and sometimes she’ll tell me, “well this could happen” or “that could happen” and I just realize, “yes” and take her idea.

How involved are you in the production of your work?

I like to be very involved. Right now I’m in Key West, but we talk quite frequently. If I was up there I would certainly be at rehearsals. Though I know how to mind my manners.