Renee Chatelain was struck by the Time Magazine title of the 1953 article, “The Supreme Court, The Fading Line.”
The subject was equal justice under laws in the U.S. It was published in the same year as the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, one of the nation’s first successful boycotts of the civil rights movement. Chatelain was researching the boycott for a multimedia production to commemorate the 50th anniverary of the 1953 boycott.
This was before Rosa Parks, in Louisiana’s capital city, where a local ordinance divided seating on the city’s public buses, with some seats reserved for whites and others for nonwhites.
“The Fading Line” was the perfect title for what she wanted the Mid City Dance Project Inc. to portray on stage.
Chatelain is founder of the dance company and executive director of the Manship Theatre, where “The Fading Line: A Commemoration of the 1953 Bus Boycott” will be performed Tuesday and Wednesday, March 17-18.
Mid City Dance is producing the show with New Venture Theatre, the Manship Theatre’s resident theater company.
The show includes video interviews of Baton Rougeans involved in the boycott, and New Venture’s artistic director, Greg Williams Jr., will portray local pastor Rev. T.J. Jemison, who organized the peaceful protest.
“A lot of our dancers had relatives who were involved in the boycott,” Chatelain says. “It’s something that I didn’t know about when I was growing up, and I believe it’s important to this community.”
“The Fading Line” was first staged in 2003 at Episcopal High School, where Chatelain taught social studies. The show was inspired by a film project she assigned to her students.
The more Chatelain watched the interviews with boycott participants, the more she realized just how important this story was to Baton Rouge and the nation.
The 40-member cast ranges in age from 7 to 60-something.
Cast member Celena Noel took leave time from her job with IBM in Washington, D.C., to perform in the show.
“She danced with the Mid City Dance Project, and she got her degree from LSU, then moved to Washington,” Chatelain says. “She saw on Facebook that we were going to do the show, and she contacted me, saying she wanted to come back and be a part of it.”
“This was the first production I collaborated with Miss Renee,” Noel says. “It’s been a blessing for me to be able to come back and dance in this show.
“‘The Fading Line’ was also an educational experience for me when I first danced in it, because I didn’t know about it.”
Performing the role of the bus driver is Wayne Talbot, director of fine arts in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. He was a little uncomfortable with the role at first.
“I didn’t want people to think that I was like this bus driver, because he’s racist,” Talbot says. “But Renee reminded me that it’s a role I’m playing, and it’s an important story to tell. It’s also important for me to be a role model for the kids in the arts, and I am proud to be a part of this production.”
This is Talbot’s first time participating in a stage production. He and Chatelain have been friends since teaming up to dance in Big Buddy’s local Dancing With the Stars competition.
His dance steps, as are all others, are being choreographed by Mena Estrada, who also is the Manship’s education outreach coordinator.
“Renee decided to redo the show this year, and the final dance scene is more serious,” Estrada says. “I was inspired by the content, and I’m thoroughly delighted to be working with this multigenerational cast. The last dance is a beautiful moment of reflection, asking what you would do. Would you have helped? Ignored? Advocated? Shunned? It’s about reflection and hope.”
And through this production, the 1953 boycott is no longer a historical footnote lost among other stories.
“It was the catalyst for the larger civil rights movement in this country,” Chatelain says. “ In nine days, the bus system in Baton Rouge was successfully integrated, and it was done peacefully.”