When the Sankofa Theatre Company started in December, co-founder John Ervin III said he’d be happy to get one full production under the troupe’s belt in its inaugural year.
Now, less than a full year later, the group is set to complete its third show. Modesto’s first black theater company will perform “The Freedom Riders” at the Gallo Center for the Arts on Saturday.
“The response has been tremendous and overwhelming. We want to embrace what’s happened to us and continue to enlighten the community through theater from an African-American perspective,” Ervin said. “We originally set out to do one a year, but opportunities keep coming our way and we keep accepting them. We’re at a good place right now with our theater.”
“The Freedom Riders” chronicles the bus rides civil rights activists took in 1961 to fight racial segregation. Ervin said the piece, written by Philadelphia-based playwright Tom Quinn in 2001, was selected as an homage to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The Freedom Rides two summers earlier helped pave the way for the historic march in Washington, D.C.
“We wanted to present this in a way that could educate young people about the historical significance of the Freedom Rides,” Ervin said. “It’s our goal is to educate our entire community, but young people in particular, about the civil rights movement.”
The play re-enacts the rides and brings in significant figures, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. The cast of about 15 includes area actors and college and high school students. Ervin said having students make up the majority of the cast is only fitting, considering the key roles students played in both the Freedom Rides and civil rights movement as a whole.
Sankofa Theatre Company, which took its name from a West African term that means learning from experience in the past to move forward in the future, finished its first show (“The Piano Lesson”) in February and its second (“Looking Over the President's Shoulder”) in July.
“We’ve been really touched and we hope they’ve been able to educate and entertain,” Ervin said. “It’s been a blessing to be able to start off so strong.”