History alive!

By James Zimmerman

When the museum reopens on November 21, we will debut new theater programs designed to engage our visitors, bring history to life, and stimulate our audiences to talk about it. One such performance evokes the emotional and controversial aspects of the 1960s civil rights movement and will provide an up–close look at the strategy used and bravery required to move a nation to do the right thing—end segregation! 

Image_2_704 One of our landmark objects is the Woolworth lunch counter that was the site of protests in Greensboro, N.C., which led to the desegregation of lunch counters in Woolworth department stores throughout the U.S. Performances at the lunch counter will help visitors immerse themselves in the times and the emotions of the sit-ins.

In order to assess the script and get objective criticism, I traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana, with actor Xavier Carnegie to participate in a 3-day “Theatre in Museums” workshop. While there, we put on a test performance.

My primary objective was to learn more about developing a theatrical production—or living exhibition—from an idea to execution. We also wanted to learn how to increase the impact of this one-man program. What better way to achieve these goals than to share the production with a group of theater professionals?

After witnessing the performance by Xavier, audience members described it as a “powerful [interactive] experience”; “a very effective way of relaying information in a way that immersed the audience”; “a powerful tool for teaching a difficult topic like hatred, racism”; “a great use of music and the audience” that “really had an emotional impact.”

Starting November 21, you can see this theater program every weekend at the museum. It is a great way to discover the symbolism of the lunch counter, one of our museum’s most evocative objects. Museum theater—what a way to fulfill our mission to “create learning opportunities, stimulate imaginations and present challenging ideas about our country’s past”!

James K. Zimmerman is a senior public programs producer at the National Museum of American History.