Alameda playwright illuminates landmark school desegregation decision  

Presentations of “Words That Made the Difference: Brown v. Board of Education” commemorating the landmark desegregation ruling are slated for May 10-11 in Alameda and May 18 in Oakland. (Courtesy Cindy Acker)

Alameda educator Cindy Acker has written a play full of conflict and triumph about the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that made segregation in public schools illegal 70 years ago.   

In “Words That Made the Difference: Brown v. Board of Education,” which is being presented May 10-11 in Alameda and May 18 in Oakland to mark the 70th anniversary of the unanimous May 17, 1954 ruling, Acker drew directly from the monumental case’s transcripts.  

Her goal in creating the dramatization, she says, is to open minds and hearts: “I want to provide people with true history. We have learned that so much history has been hidden and changed.” 

She adds, “I want them to understand the courage it has taken to leave the legacy we have so far. And I want young people to understand that their ability to learn came on the backs of people who went through a whole lot for that to happen. Education is not a given.” 

Cindy Acker, a playwright, scholar and Montessori school principal, developed “Words That Made the Difference” using transcripts from court cases that challenged segregation in public schools. (Courtesy Cindy Acker) 

In the production, which she also cast and directs, Acker used excerpts from five NAACP-sponsored cases declaring segregation unconstitutional that were combined in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka as it was argued before the Supreme Court. 

Acker, a principal at two Montessori schools in Alameda, says she was able to make stilted verbiage from court reporting engaging by casting actors committed to the project. 

She told her cast, “It’s important to me that what people hear is exactly what was said, and they put themselves into the body of the character they are portraying, so the words mean something to them.” 

She researched the various characters who appeared in court, she says, “so the actors could live into the words as they were spoken.” 

Acker’s research into her parents’ history inspired her to write the play. They insisted she excel at school and read 10 books a week. Her mother was born in Topeka and her father in Kansas City. While her father was illiterate, her mother graduated from eighth grade, the highest grade a Black child was allowed at that time. The achievement was a point of pride. 

In addition to court transcripts, Acker in writing the play drew from memoirs of Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, offered to her by his granddaughter Darlene Warren and intensifying her resolve for the project. She also used language from arguments by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall (a future Supreme Court justice).  

At one point, Marshall pointed out that Black and white children play together before and after the school day; go to university together and vote and live together, but, he said, “If they go to elementary or high school together, the world would fall apart.” 

The play, which premiered in 2019 in a Marin readers theater presentation, has since been staged in various locales in California and Florida, and streamed live. Acker was particularly satisfied with a 2022 production in Sausalito, which at last desegregated the Sausalito Marin City School District in 2019 after being challenged by the state of California. At that performance, Acker commended city leaders who acknowledged that the equal protection law had been violated.    

Acker has additional aspirations for the show. She says, “I would love for this play to end up in the White House so people on both sides can understand it is possible to come together about things that really matter.”  

“Words That Made the Difference” is at 7 p.m. May 10-11 at Rhythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Ave, Alameda; tickets are $35-$60 at The show also is at 7 p.m. May 18 at the Valley Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Holy Names University), 3500 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, presented free in the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series. Reservations are encouraged; call the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center at (510) 434-3988.  

The post Alameda playwright illuminates landmark school desegregation decision   appeared first on Local News Matters.

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