Greensboro show presents multiple sides, reactions to 1960 sit-in movements

Marlena Chertock

FEB. 24, 2011

The stage for "Periphery" is set with background pictures of the Greensboro Four, a few tables and chairs. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

What surprises Bobby Pittman the most about the sit-in movement is not many people know it started right in Greensboro, in their city. The peaceful protesting of four A&T University freshmen ignited a nation-wide movement of sit-ins and protests.

“I went to A&T University and didn’t know (the sit-ins took place in Greensboro),” Pittman said.

Pittman played Eugene in “Periphery,” a play hoping to inform the public about the sit-in movement and the diverse reactions.

Thursday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. 12 cast members took the small stage in the Broach Theatre at 520 S Elm Street in Greensboro, N.C. in pride and brought the audience back to 1960 and the civil rights movement.

Information from the Community Theatre of Greensboro website. Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

The Community Theatre of Greensboro (CTG) put on its second-week production of “Periphery,” a play in honor of the Greensboro Four sit-ins. The play, written by N.C. playwright Ed Simpson, has been revived this year. It also ran two years ago to honor the anniversary of the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, a museum in Greensboro in the original Woolworth store where the sit-ins took place.

The play is also a way to help increase visitor numbers to the museum, as it is suffering from lack of visibility, according to executive director of CTG Mitchell Sommers.

The play will be showing Feb. 18-27.

The sit-in movement encouraged other movements, such as read-ins at segregated libraries, kneel-ins at segregated churches, sleep-ins at segregated hotels and play-ins at segregated parks, the cast said in one scene.

The play was filled with messages of standing up and acting, messages that talking is not always enough to bring about change.

A subtitle on the playbill describes the show as “Conversations about the ‘Greensboro Four’.” The play isn’t only about the four freshmen who started the sit-ins, it’s more about the reactions that people in the community had to the sit-ins, Sommers said.

"Periphery" offers diverse views and reactions to the 1960 sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. Photo courtesy of Community Theatre of Greensboro.

“Periphery” showed how difficult it was for some people to accept change, how difficult it was for some people to understand why their college students, sons and daughters, black and white, were becoming involved in such a movement and being arrested for peaceful protests.

Several members of the cast became white, rich folk, holding wine glasses and wearing vests and hats with lace.

“I don’t understand why things have to change,” one rich, white woman said in the scene. “They have their own places, we have ours.”

A black shop owner discouraged his son from getting involved in the protests.

“Their (the students involved in the protests) mama’s didn’t send their kids to college to skip class and sit around a dime store all day,” the shop owner said.

The play also offered perspectives of people who were drawn to the movement, who believed in it.

Mike, a white student, played by Lee Wilson, a freshman from UNC-G, went through a change in the play. In the beginning, he was confused about what his professors were pushing and asking of him. But by the end of the play, he shouted at his father in a standoff.

“If something is wrong now, then waiting a week, a month, a year is making it wronger,” Mike said.

The cast ended the show by standing together and singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” reminiscent of the protest and revolution songs that were sung throughout the sit-ins and other protests, to keep spirit and resolve alive and show the will of the protesters.

Much like these songs demonstrate will, a statue on the A&T campus memorializes the Greensboro Four, the freshmen from A&T who started the sit-ins. Pittman said he knows about the statue, but never realized the sit-ins happened in his city, down the street.

“People tend to forget their bad history,” he said of the challenges of the sit-ins. “So if you have a black mark on your record you kind of sweep it under the rug hoping everybody forgets about it. But history is history, everybody needs to know about it. Good, bad, whatever.”

That’s one of the reasons he wanted to be in the play, he said. He was able to pass the knowledge along.


Alison Williams of the cast talks about moving to Greensboro in part because of the sit-in movement

Williams had the choice between Tuscon, Ariz. and Greensboro, N.C. when looking for a job. She chose to come to Greensboro.

“This is a really important part of the country for me and I’m really proud of it,” Williams said.

Williams talks about the importance of sharing the message of the Greensboro sit-ins

Executive director Mitchel Sommers talks about people not knowing the sit-ins happened in Greensboro

Sommers talks about informing the public about  the Greensboro sit-ins through the play


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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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