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While event organizers for the May 17 celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision handle the details of observing the landmark case, WSU's Mike Wood is poring through film footage and photographs to tell the story of that era.
Wood is the visual designer for a star-studded reading of a newly commissioned play, "Now Let Me Fly," that will bring to life the stories of the real people behind the desegregation case.
The reading is the culminating event of the celebrations in Topeka that will include the dedication of the Monroe School building, the all-black school Linda Brown attended in the 1950s. Several Supreme Court justices and President Bush are expected to attend the building's dedication as a national historic site.
Bill Kurtis, executive producer of A&E's "Cold Case Files" and the History Channel's upcoming series "Investigating History," will host the evening's reading.
James McDaniel, who played Lt. Arthur Fancy on "NYPD Blue," will read the part of Thurgood Marshall, the young lawyer ready to overthrow the "separate but equal" argument.
Roger Aaron Brown, who plays Chief of Patrol Joe Noland on "The District," will read the part of Charles Houston, Marshall's mentor who in the play takes Marshall on a journey to visit the men and women working in the grassroots struggle to end segregation.
Other cast members include Yolanda King, the Rev. Martin Luther King's daughter who has starred in a number of stage and movie roles related to social change; Kansas City jazz singer Queen Bey; and singer Kelley Hunt. Up-and-coming filmmaker Kevin Wilmott, a University of Kansas faculty member, is the director.
Because of the actors' limited time schedule, organizers are doing a concert reading with music and visuals rather than a full-fledged production, Wood says.
"My challenge is to help set the scene," says Wood, about his involvement.
As Marshall and Houston visit Washington, D.C., Farmville, Va., Hockessin, Del., Somerton, S.C., and Topeka, the two come across a variety of scenes: a black barbershop where a white aspiring jazz-singer is drawn to the voice of Bessie Smith on the radio; rundown black schools in the South; and violent confrontations.
Wood is putting together the visual images that will help bring the actors' words to life.
Wood was invited to join the project in September by playwright Marcia Cebulska, who knew of Wood's talent as a writer and producer through his longtime involvement with the William Inge Theatre Festival. Cebulska was the festival's playwright-in-residence last year at Independence Community College.
Since September, he's been finding footage and photographs, and working with the imaging lab in WSU's National Institute for Aviation Research to create a 3-D animation that will cap off the reading.
He's tracked down photographs archived at higher education institutions in the South. From the National Archives in Washington, D.C., he's getting a copy of a 1940s black-and-white silent film that Houston and Marshall made about the sad state of black schools.
The 3-D animation, however, calls for some creativity. The central theme of the play is thumbprints — that all these ordinary people who became activists in five of the desegregation cases that went to the Supreme Court had their thumbprints on this landmark decision. Wood has been charged with visually morphing the images of thumbprints into a pair of wings that takes flight, just as the choir from the Historic 16th Street Baptist Church from Birmingham, Ala., sings "Now Let Me Fly."
For that visualization, Wood has called on the talents of NIAR's Bill Johnson and his staff, who are WSU's version of Pixar Animation Studios when it comes to creating 3-D animation. They had created a 3-D animation of a flying stalk of wheat that morphs into WuShock, shown on the videoboard during WSU's basketball games this past season.
To help visualize the wings, Wood borrowed a bird from WSU's aviary expert Chris Rogers.
Wood says his experience with this project has been enlightening.
"I've learned a lot about a subject I didn't know much about," he says. "I have a new appreciation for it. It wasn't just Linda Brown and her dad who were involved. There were lots of other people involved, and there still are lots of inequalities that remain."
For more about the play, go online to http://anationacts.brownvboard.org/