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PHILADELPHIA — For the first time in 112 years, the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan advocacy group for better government, has produced a play.
“We’re thrilled about (the play),” said Patrick Christmas, the policy program manager for the Committee of Seventy. “(There were) 11 shows in three days.”
Back when Philadelphia became known as “the worst governed city in America” after that statement from Lincoln Steffens in 1903, a group of business and civic leaders met to do something about it, and thus the Committee of Seventy was formed in 1904.
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Since that time, the committee has worked to keep the government good in the city by keeping politicians from overreaching, led in the fight to defend campaign financing limits, made lobbying a matter of public record and work to keep Philadelphians informed about their government.
In a new approach, David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the committee, reached out to Bradley last year to do something to mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson and aimed to stop legal barriers at the state and local levels which prevented African Americans from voting.
“(Thornburgh) wanted to do something to celebrate that and tell the story,” Bradley said. “We did a little thing as they were gathering funding for it and then this year, he said, ‘Let’s really do it and tie it to events around the convention.’”
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for the play with the convention in town for four days.
“It’s a great time to get people thinking about voting,” Bradley said. “The real impulse was to tell the story of the activism toward the Voting Rights Act and the opening up of unrestricted access to voting and tie that to the need for youth voter engagement now. In Philadelphia, among 18 to 35 year olds, only about 11 percent or 12 percent voted in the 2015 mayoral election.
“We’re telling a story about how people really risked their lives, their freedom and their personal safety for the right to vote and holding it up against how to have young people think about being a part of that process.”
The play weaves together several events during the 1960’s, from the marches in Selma and Montgomery, Ala., to the march in Washington, D.C.
It even seamlessly moves into today’s time when people, especially the younger generation, feels as though their vote doesn’t make a difference.
“It’s a collage that moves back and forth from the early ‘60s until now and by juxtaposing the way young people think in terms of voting now with the way they did then, we hope that we’re building a larger idea of what it means to take part in the process,” Bradley said. “A big discovery in the research was how important in Selma, Alabama, teenage activists and young people were. Hundreds to thousands of young people were marching, protesting and getting arrested.”
Much of the dialogue in the play from actors Ife Foy, Anthony Martinez-Briggs and Jahzeer Terrell wasn’t fictional, but was in fact actually spoken 50 years ago.
“Most of what the characters in the ‘60s say is drawn right from the interviews and primary source material, so we’re using their words and dramatizing them,” Bradley said. “It was exciting because we had a great group of artists working on it. I think it’s also really exciting because we’re in a political moment right now. We’re thinking about how voting matters and we’re thinking about equality and equal rights in really potent ways right now, so to have a play where we’re seeing, chillingly, words that were said in 1963 could be said now in 2016 about discrimination and about lack of access.”
In its three-day run, the play drew roughly 1,000 people — mostly young — from throughout Philadelphia.
After the show, the actors and Bradley sat down to have an open discussion with the audience about what they just saw, how it may relate to them or to today’s time and if it may have inspired them to want to be a part of the voting process in the upcoming election or when they become eligible to vote.
“You never know how a play will hit, but we were hoping people were going to think, they were going to hear things they hadn’t heard before and they going to get a chance to think about how they could be part of living in their neighborhood and be active and how government really does come from the people and that it doesn’t work if we’re not involved,” Bradley said.