Carolyn McCullam may leave novel writing to her older brother, Ernest Gaines, but she knows how to tell a good story.
And she’ll join a cast of 40 in telling the story of the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott on Saturday when the Mid City Dance Project once again stages its theatrical-dance production “The Fading Line” in the LSU Union Theater.
“It was the first bus boycott in the nation,” McCullam says. “And a lot of people don’t know this, but Dr. Martin Luther King came to Baton Rouge to talk to the Rev. T.J. Jemison about how they carried out the bus boycott in Baton Rouge. He was seeking T.J. Jemison’s advice, and then he used that advice nationwide in the civil rights movement.”
Jemison was born in Selma, Alabama, and died in 2013 in Baton Rouge at age 95. He was pastor at Baton Rouge’s Mount Zion First Baptist Church when he found out it was against the law for black people to sit in bus seats reserved for white people.
Though black people made up 80 percent of the riders, they ended up standing in bus aisles while seats remained empty.
“I thought that was just out of order; that was just cruel,” Jemison said at the time.
Jemison organized and launched the six-day peaceful bus boycott on May 15, 1953.
Now McCullam joins a cast of actors and dancers from the LSU Dance Program, the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition and Thrive Academy in telling this story.
“This is my third time to do the production,” says McCullam, a special education teacher at Labelle Aire Elementary, where her 9-year-old granddaughter, Samiya McCullam, is a fourth-grade student.
Samiya McCullam also is her grandmother’s fellow cast member in this show. Both, along with Carolyn McCullam’s daughter, Imani McCullam, a student at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, are part of the church scene where Jemison makes the boycott speech to his congregation.
Jemison is played by Michael Pepp, a student in the LSU Department of Theatre’s master of fine arts program.
“Playing T.J. Jemison is a huge responsibility,” says Pepp. “I grew up in New Orleans, and we learned about the boycott in school, so I was familiar with it. But I had to do a lot of research when I learned that I would be playing Rev. Jemison. I did a lot of reading, and I found him in some YouTube videos. I wanted to make sure I got his mannerisms and way of speaking right.”
The production was first staged at Episcopal High School in 2003 by Renee Chatelain as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the boycott. The title was taken from a 1953 Time Magazine article, “The Supreme Court, The Fading Line,” focusing on equal justice under laws in the United States.
Chatelain’s Mid City Dance Project has staged the show several times since at Independence Park Theatre and the Manship Theatre using casts filled with community members.
Dance Ambassadors at LSU, an auxiliary group formed in LSU’s Dance Program, was looking for a Black History Month project when it discovered “The Fading Line.”
“This will be the first time we’ve done it at LSU, and the Union Theater will be the biggest house we’ve ever performed in,” Chatelain says. “We’ve been rehearsing with different groups in different places, and we’ll bring it all together the week of the production.”
One rehearsal was being held at the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition office, which is only a blocks away from T.J. Jemison Boulevard.
Cast members sat in rows of chairs representing church pews, moving to “This Little Light of Mine,” while anticipating Pepp’s entrance as Jemison.
Samiya McCullam sits on the back row, too shy to sit beside her grandmother on the front row.
But there’s no shyness in Carolyn McCullam’s performance as she celebrates Jemison’s entrance with dance.
“I love this show, and my daughter told me that I couldn’t be in it this year, because it was only for Baton Rouge Youth Coalition dancers,” McCullam says. “When I showed up at a rehearsal, Renee saw me and hugged me and put me in the show, and I stuck out my tongue at my daughter.”
Now Carolyn McCullam leads the church’s dance procession around the pews, dancing and thanking Jesus. It’s a story of her own life that she can add to her book when she finally sits down to write it.
“I do have a book in mind, and I even have a title for it,” she says. “But my brother is the novelist of the family.”
But he isn’t the only storyteller.