By: Chelsea Davis-Bibb, Ed.D.
Photo Credit: Melissa Taylor
HOUSTON-Inspiring, powerful, educational, historic, and phenomenal are just a few words I would use to describe the play, “You Are Cordially Invited To Sit In,” which was written by ShaWanna Renee Brown and directed by Aaron Brown.
The play takes place in Houston TX, spring of 1960 in The Eldorado Ballroom. The play is centered around the lives of four Black college freshmen, who want to have fun, fall in love, pledge, and be successful. They are living in a time where the world is segregated and on their educational journey, they team up to join the fight against inequality and racism. They also learn things about themselves along the way.
One thing that made this play such a great production was that it was based on a true story surrounding the 13 Texas Southern University (TSU) students who made an impact in Houston on March 4, 1960, when they peacefully chose to sit-in at the “whites only” lunch counter at Weingarten’s grocery store. These students were motivated by the first group of students in Greensboro, North Carolina who did the sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter.
The purpose of the sit-ins was to help desegregate Houston and other parts of the country during a time where Blacks had little to no rights and were considered less than. For these students, it was their bravery, their courage, and passion for equality that led the TSU-13 to demand change. Their efforts were not in vain as a few months later, some Houston businesses desegregated. The amazing part of this story is how they made change in Houston in a peaceful manner unlike some other parts of the country who experienced great violence during that time.
Playwright ShaWanna Brown wanted to showcase the history in Houston and “tell the story of these brave Texas Southern University students, celebrate their accomplishments, and publicly recognize how we benefit from their brave actions.” As a native Houstonian, the history of Houston means a lot to her, and she mentioned the importance of preserving history. She stated, “Change is inevitable, but erasure is a choice: We need to keep all the historical aspects of all our neighborhoods intact.”
Back then, there were many migrations that occurred during the 1930s through the1960s where many Blacks moved to the south for a better life, including the migration of ShaWanna Brown’s grandparents, Leo (played by Jordan U. Okeke) and Mae Florence Mays (played by Sarah Sachi). She wanted to honor her grandparents, and include their love story, their dreams, their challenges, and their determination to reach those dreams despite all odds against them. Okeke and Sachi did an amazing job portraying her grandparents and the love they had for each other. Through these characters, it was a love story the audience could connect to.
Furthermore, the acting overall was phenomenal. The characters were truly engaged, connected to their roles, and the chemistry between them made everything seem real. The storyline was not only sensational but included educational elements such as displaying pictures and excerpts from that time period to educate the audience and give them a true visual of what was going on.
In addition, this play was also a musical and showcased many relevant great hits during that time such as Mr. Big Stuff, sung by Charline (played by Rayevin Johnson), Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, sung by Elijah (played by Kaleb Womack) and Leo. The powerful Hannah (played by Stephanie D. Jones) shook the room and took you back to church when she sung His Eye Is On The Sparrow. The playlist was a great addition to the storyline, and the live band did a great job with each song that was played.
Lastly, the set was based on the historic Eldorado Ballroom, founded in 1939 in Third Ward, which was created to give Black people a venue to perform and see musical performances since everything was segregated at that time. The entire play took place on one set, which was simple, yet captivating, as it gave you the look and feel of how some establishments looked back then. Between the set and wardrobe, it made you feel as if you were there in the 1960s yourself.
You Are Cordially Invited: To Sit In was a great production that reached many different audiences. If you are looking for something to do in Houston, I highly recommend that you see this play as it will run until May 22nd.