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'River City' Explores Civil Rights Movement In Louisville

Theatre 502

The synopsis of Louisville playwright Diana Grisanti’s “River City” reads like a familiar story. Lead character Mary Christopher’s estranged father passes away and in a moment of personal identity crisis, she drops her life at home to obsess about the lost history tied up in his.

At the time of its first 2013 staged reading as part of the nuVoices Festival at Actor's Theatre in Charlotte, N.C., the reception wasn’t incredibly enthusiastic. Local critic Perry Tannenbaum said “the script irritated me more than it delighted me” and that he “disliked Mary for her self-absorption and had no interest in seeing her story reprised.”

But then about a year later, during preparations for a fully-staged production of “River City,” Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, was fatally shot by police -- resulting in protests and riots in the city.

While Grisanti had been working on this script for four years, in light of these real-life events, her fictional world became complicated for several reasons. For one, in the script Mary is a mixed-race woman. Her mother, who primarily raised her, is white and her father was black.

When “River City” was brought back to the stage as a full production a year later, the political climate in which it was performed heightened its messages about racial tension and historic erasure. Audiences were hooked and even Tannenbaum said it was a “pleasant surprise.”

Now the play is coming to Louisville, where the majority of its action is set. Amy Attaway (who works as a fill-in host for WFPL) is the co-artistic director of Theatre 502, which is hosting the Louisville premiere of “River City” on Oct. 7.

“As we’ve been rehearsing this play in Louisville, there have been more killings, more protests -- in fact, in Charlotte right now -- so I can’t imagine a time that this play hasn’t been relevant,” Attaway says. “As we think of the Civil Rights movement as being in the past, we can see it all around us.”

Grisanti is the playwright in residence at Theatre 502. Attaway, a Louisville native, says it has been interesting for both of them to discuss some of the city’s history that informed this play.

“I will say that I was vaguely aware of the Civil Rights history of Louisville, but in doing research for this play, I learned a ton of things I didn’t know before,” Attaway says. “I knew there were lunch counter protests here, but I didn’t know how violent they were. I knew that there were uprisings, but I didn’t know black protesters took over buildings at the University of Louisville. I didn’t know about the demonstration that turned violent that is specifically referenced in this play that happened at 28th and Greenwood.”

In preparing for the play, Attaway says the cast talked a lot about their own sense of identity and historic city race relations.

“Without speaking for them, I will say we all learned a lot about the Civil Rights movement in Louisville, which has made it even more exciting to be working on this play,” Attaway says.

“River City” will run Oct. 7 through 15 at the MeX Theater at The Kentucky Center. More information is available here.