‘One Voice’ Performance Shares the History of African Americans Through Spoken WordApr 12, 2022 01:27PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker
“One Voice,” Jeremiah Dew’s exploration of Black history through the words of historical figures, uses Dew’s voice to illuminate the struggles and triumphs of Black Americans over the past 200 years.
But the production, which Dew presented at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville on Feb. 13, also utilized the voices of others, of African Americans with ties to Greenville, to tell a larger story of history writ large and small.
Dew, 38, the former emcee for the Greenville Drive baseball team, performed excerpts from speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama; Frederick Douglass’ “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: An America Slave, Chapter 1”; and sermons by James Weldon Johnson, who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” commonly called the Black national anthem.
Interspersed with Dew’s powerful re-creations were videotaped interviews with Wilfred Walker Sr., the longtime Sterling High School football announcer; Dr. Margaree Seawright Crosby, who participated in a 1960 sit-in that led to the integration of the Greenville Library; and the Rev. Dr. Grady Butler Sr., who shared a jail cell with King after a protest in Atlanta.
Dew created the show more than a decade ago, inspired by Walker’s memories of racial hatred in 1930s Greenville.
At the time, Dew was 24. He was working as a camera operator, helping out a friend who was putting together a Leadership Greenville project. Dew filmed the friend’s interview with Wilfred Walker Sr., and hearing Walker’s story about the racism he faced in 1935 when trying to transfer his driver’s license from Virginia to South Carolina moved Dew.
The white men at the DMV used a racial slur as they demanded that Walker remove his hat, a memory that brought Walker to tears decades later.
“This is pre-civil rights movement,” Dew said. “This was Jim Crow (era). This is what shocked me, changed me, because this man, 60-plus years later … he’s still crying, very emotional about what happened to him. So that really was the genesis, the seed of the show.”
The “One Voice” show had its world premiere at Warehouse Theatre in 2011, but it all came about because Dew wanted to find a reason to share one man’s story, to give voice to one person’s experience.
“It wasn’t initially only about me doing speeches,” Dew said.
Each individual in the show is defined with a title: Johnson as The Poet, Douglass as The Runaway, Walker as The Carolinian, King as The Moral Leader, Crosby as The Protestor, Obama as The Politician, and Butler as The Cellmate.
Dressed simply in a suit and tie appropriate to the era of each individual and speaking without notes, Dew modulated his voice to match the cadences of each person.
As Johnson, Dew recounted a story of the creation of the world, beginning with, “God said, ‘I’m lonely; I’ll make me a world.’”
While contemporary audiences have no reference to the sound of Johnson’s voice, Dew nonetheless offered a credible impression of a 19th-century preacher, the timbre rising and falling with the cadence of the sermon.
Speaking as Douglass, his voice boomed as he told of the brutality of slavery, describing how Douglass was taken away from his mother as an infant, and recounting in detail the savage beatings his aunt endured at the hands of an overseer.
He appeared as Obama, recounting the then-future president’s concession speech from the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary, which resounded with Obama’s signature line, “Yes, we can!”
Dew appeared twice as King, once in the middle of the performance, delivering King’s “I have a dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington, and then at the end, closing out the evening with the civil rights leader’s “mountaintop” speech, delivered in Memphis the night before his assassination.
The show has evolved since its 2011 beginning. The First Presbyterian performance was geared to a church audience, but in some venues, Dew also includes speeches by boxer Muhammad Ali.
Dew structures each performance as a timeline, beginning in the 19th century with figures such as Johnson and Douglass, culminating in the 21st century with Barack Obama, but returning to the 1960s to end the show with the final speech of King’s life.
Bob Jones University theater professor Ron Pyle worked with Dew to develop the show a decade ago. Pyle said that one of Dew’s gifts is the ability to find the human element in the story of a person who has become an iconic presence.
Dew approaches each character from an actor’s perspective, looking for the individual’s motivations, Pyle said.
“He uses that connection to present a historical figure in a way that is really accessible. They come across as a real human being,” Pyle said.
Growing up in Georgia in the 1970s, Pyle never learned the deeper stories behind many of the people that Dew portrays, so it gave him a new understanding of the importance of race relations.
“I’ve seen the show probably five times, and it’s evolved,” Pyle said. “Every time I see it, I’m moved by it emotionally. I forget that it’s Jeremiah, and I think about the struggles of the person” being depicted.
It takes a few weeks for Dew to memorize each speech, but he’s developed a system to make it easier. Dew said it took him 1½ years to completely memorize King’s “I have a dream” speech because he was building the show at the same time; a decade later, he had King’s “mountaintop” speech down in three weeks.
“I get in the zone when I’m memorizing and trying to rehearse them with myself, and getting the timbre and the flow and the feel and the drawl that he used,” Dew said. “And in both cases, I’m in the zone and reciting it to myself while driving – 10 years apart – I rear-end somebody, both times.”
The speeches that Dew chooses give the audience a chance to reflect on each person in a long-form performance, rather than just a brief snippet of their life.
“People are really emotionally moved because we’re listening; we’re not looking to respond, and we’re not going to see or hear these stories in 140-character tweet format. They’re being presented by real people. … We have a lot of time to reflect and to ask ourselves individually, internal questions. There’s no commentary, so I’m not telling everybody what to think, but the show does help us all think about these things,” he said.
While the people he portrays did not interact with one another, Dew does see the unifying theme in the show as each person speaks in their own voice to tell a story that resonates through the centuries.
“These people in their sphere of influence, in their work, in their ministries, in their corner of the world, their neck of the woods, they’re doing what they thought was right. And that is something that can be passed on to us,” he said. “We’re all different, we all have different points of view, and these people did not agree on everything. I think that’s one thing about Black History Month that sometimes gets watered down or muddied sometimes.”
While each person’s opinion may be different, “they were using their voice for justice, equality, for what they thought was right and fair in their time,” he said.
In 2020, Dew created a virtual version of the show, with an expanded roster of characters, including Malcolm X, John Lewis, and Booker T. Washington.
He’s also working a curriculum-based version of “One Voice,” which will include a library of content. Lesson plans and interactive learning experiences will be part of the curriculum. Dew hopes it will be ready to launch by Juneteenth of this year.
Dew’s aim with “One Voice” is to inspire others to work to better the world.
The “performer’s note” in the program for the First Presbyterian performance shared a bit of Dew’s vision. Part of his goal is to share the experiences of African Americans through the generations.
But, Dew wrote, “this event is also about you. It’s about what you can do, and achieve, and change with your individual voice.”For more information about Dew and the show, go to www.onevoiceshow.com