AART’s Inspired Light: Coretta’s Song

Coretta Scott King, American peace, social justice, women’s rights, anti-apartheid and LGBT activist, author and civil rights leader, recipient of the International Gandhi Peace prize, passed away on January 30, 2006.

Martin Luther King, Jr. & Coretta Scott King

On Feb. 7, 2006 a reverential, multi-ethnic, multi-generational crowd of over 115,000 people filed past the open coffin of Coretta Scott King, during a public viewing at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both her husband and his father had preached. More than 40,000 men, women and children viewed her body in the Georgia Capitol’s rotunda, the first woman and the first African-American given such an honor.

After an eight-hour funeral at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, a hearse brought her coffin to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which she founded in 1968 to continue her husband’s legacy. The service in honor of Mrs. King featured tributes from political leaders, longtime friends and celebrities, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy; poet Maya Angelou; singer Stevie Wonder; and civil rights leaders Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. Then Senator Barack Obama attended the funeral.

During the service, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin referenced King’s training as a singer. “The last stanza and the highest note of Coretta King’s freedom song remains to be sung,” she said. “She’s gathered us here today from all walks of life and all persuasions to lift our voices in songs of freedom, equality, social and economic justice.”

Pearl Cleage’s play A Song For Coretta, presented by African American Repertory Theater in DeSoto, is a loving, evocative tribute to a remarkable woman whose life inspired and uplifted the lives of so many others.  It’s February 7, 2006, rain pours down, and strangers gather outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church, waiting their turn to pay homage to Mrs. King’s remains inside. Five women, different ages, different circumstances, different reasons to attend, converge outside the church entrance and learn about tolerance, acceptance and the strength to go on, in spite of adversity. A respectable society widow, over 40, who met Mrs. King as a child, a pushy college wannabe journalist, a middle aged portrait artist and Katrina survivor, a street-smart, wise-mouthed teen-aged mother-to-be, and a traumatized Iraq war veteran contemplating desertion: all have faced harsh realities, and all seek inspiration from the woman they have come to honor. Lives that at first seem so alien and inspire hostility, begin to resonate with commonality. By the time the Katrina survivor and Iraq war veteran pour out their tortured personal tales of horror and destruction together in grief and outrage, speaking sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, the importance of Coretta Scott King’s vision, accomplishments and legacy fills the stage. It’s a potent, artistic work of political theatre and a powerful statement about the resiliency of women, unified.

Director William (Bill) Earl Ray has cast this show with strong performers, each equally suited to the individual challenge her role presents and the overall challenge of creating an ensemble piece, not just recounting a string of disconnected, if interesting, stories. Eleanor Threatt, Regina Washington, Dee Smith, Shundra Grubb and Kristal Jemerson create vital portrayals in private sorrow and expectation. Every woman follows a believable, unique theatrical arc of self-realization as each one awakens to the inspired fire that unites. Bryan Wofford’s sparse scenic design, Regina Washington’s realistically detailed costumes and props, Scott Davis’ lights and Craig Wills’ sound help define the reality of this somber moment in history with enormous respect for the subject matter, clarity and accuracy. “She’s not a real saint, but she’s the closest thing we’ve got,” exclaims one character, describing Mrs. King. Walk into this play feeling you’re a lonely sinner, you just might waltz out humming a saintly song for Coretta, ready to take on the world. A Song for Coretta, by Pearl Cleage, runs through April 25 at The Corner Theatre, 211 E. Pleasant Run in DeSoto. For tickets, visit African American Repertory Theater at www.aareptheater.com,  or call 972-572-0998.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,

Ev’ry day, ev’ry day, ev’ry day, ev’ry day,

Gonna let my little light shine.

On Monday, He gave me the gift of love;

On Tuesday, peace came from above.

On Wednesday told me to have more faith;

On Thursday, gave me a little more grace.

On Friday, told me to watch and pray

On Saturday, told me just what to say,

On Sunday, gave power divine

Just to let my little light shine. (oh)

Now some say you got to run and hide.

But we say there’s no place to hide.

And some say let others decide,

But we say let the people decide.

Some say the time’s not right,

But we say the time’s just right.

If there’s a dark corner in our land,

You got to let your little light shine. (oh)

Coretta Scott King's temporary gravesite in Atlanta, Georgia

This Little Light of Mine, folk song & spiritual, artist unknown

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