'A Song for Coretta' details the legacy of a struggle

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

Coretta Scott King is an icon for many reasons: The wife of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. took on the movement and became a symbol of dignity and perseverance.

This is the woman who days after her husband's death from an assassin's bullet in April 1968 drew upon deep reserves of strength to deliver a speech he was scheduled to give. It is that legacy, in part, that drew Wayne State University Faculty Director Billicia Hines to "A Song for Coretta," a play that examines the female activist's life and its impact on generations of women.

"A Song for Coretta" runs through Nov. 16 in the intimate setting of WSU's Studio Theatre. Hines described the Studio Theatre as an ideal place to explore what Scott King was to the public and what she meant to women in particular.

Hines, director of WSU's revitalized Black Theatre Program, said she read Pearl Cleage's play and kept it on a short list because she felt drawn to its story, which unites the stories of five African-American women. The timing felt right for the play to be the subject for her directorial debut at WSU, she said.

"Each woman (in the play) is coming from a different walk of life. But their desire is still the same: They're hunting for inspiration and they found it in Coretta Scott King," Hines said. "You can draw inspiration from someone you've never met. You can believe, 'I can do more because they did.' "

Hines researched Scott King to prepare. On the surface, Hines noted, Scott King was a role model as a wife and civil-rights activist. But she also was a single mother, left to raise four children. How Scott King elevated not only her life but the lives of her children as well as her husband's memory is a tribute to womanhood then and now, Hines said.

"A Song for Coretta" is set in Atlanta in 2006. The characters, who range from a 17-year-old ingénue to a U.S. soldier on leave to a Hurricane Katrina survivor, all meet in front of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Scott King is lying in state. They have nothing in common at first other than that they're all in line to pay their respects to one of their female heroes.

Hines said the play's actors, all from Metro Detroit, have bonded through Scott King and their own life experiences. The cast includes: Breon Canady (Gwen, from Detroit); Tayler Jones (Helen, from Detroit); Kayla Mundy (Keisha, from Detroit); Maria Simpkins (Mona); and Erian Williams (Zora, from Ypsilanti).

Wayne State hopes its presentation of "A Song for Coretta" not only serves as a grand launching pad for Hines but also as an opening to a new and more important restart for its Black Theatre Program. Its spring presentation will be "Fences," an August Wilson play about an African-American family struggling with identity and races relations in the 1950s; it was selected for its potential impact on the campus and Detroit as a whole.

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

'A Song for Coretta'

Thursday-Nov. 16

The Studio Theatre

4743 Cass Ave., Detroit

Tickets $10 - $12

(313) 577-2972