Teens lives have always been filled with algebra, rebellion, and nonconformity — like an inexplicable word problem. In Threshold Repertory Theatre’s 1963 two teens, one white and one black, face this impossible equation on the eve of desegregation.
Molly Chandler (Eden Teichman) is a 16-year-old struggling to demystify the topic of algebra before the school year starts again. Fellow teenager James Walter (Maurice McPherson) has mastered the subject and passes along useful tips for analyzing algebraic equations: “Separate what you don’t know from what you do know.” However, Molly is white and James is black, and in a year where desegregation is a tense topic throughout the South, these two characters are questioning the status quo of “separate but equal,” applying James’ math hint to the current state of affairs in their small North Carolina town of Rutledge.
Threshold Repertory Theatre’s 1963 opens in the front yard of the Chandler family home, where all of the action takes place. The stage is set with a charming, shuttered Southern front porch facing the audience, complete with screen door, rocking chairs, and porch swing. Here, the audience meets Molly’s mother, Sarah Jane (Kristen Kos). Sarah Jane is planting her flower beds and has hired James as a gardener. Sarah Jane is polite but high-strung as she tries to keep everything — her garden and her only child — in its place. Molly fills the set with kinetic action — dancing, fidgeting, and challenging her mother’s uptight attitudes.
The plot unfolds as slow as a long, Southern summer, and at times, the affected Charleston or even Savannah accents trickle in and out of conversation, curious for a play set in North Carolina.
Molly’s contrarian uncle Zeke (Mike Kordek), a lawyer, loves to kick up dust, while his wife, Laura (Margaret Nyland), ever tries to settle it down. Molly’s father Ezra (Mark Gorman),is the high school principal, and worries about the effects desegregation will have on the black students integrating his all-white school. His paralyzing anxiety is palpable.
James becomes active in the local Civil Rights movement, frustrated by his father’s lack of action in the community. Several violent events explode near the end of the first act, bringing out excellent performances by James and Laura, a once-meek character who is forced by circumstance to stand up to her narrow-minded husband and define her beliefs about segregation.
The second act opens full of tension as Molly wants to participate more actively in the Civil Rights movement with James, but both children are met with dissension from at least one parent, for different reasons. James and Molly continually challenge their parents’ conventions and way of doing things, and as the older characters are made to examine their roles in society — the questions, internal and external, continue to multiply.
James’ parents, Joe and Lou (Kyle Taylor and Michele Powe) offers brilliant performances depicting their friendship with the Chandler family and each deliver powerful monologues showing that “separate but equal” is not as neat and tidy as society would like it to appear. The polite-but-distant relationships introduced in act one are shaped into stronger emotional bonds as characters, particularly Sarah Jane and Laura, remove the blinders of polite society and truly come to recognize that Lou is their equal, and that maybe both families are on the same side of a larger struggle.
Each character in Threshold Rep’s eight-role cast of 1963 offers a unique view into the world of segregation, and that view is challenged and unpacked as the plot progresses, with characters coming to realizations of varying degrees. The cast provides a snapshot of fictional families maneuvering their way through a very real time in history and should be of particular interest to teen audiences, as it spotlights a summer from over half a century ago and brings it to life. It shows that sometimes, meaningful change starts with one teenager, questioning why things are the way they are, and trying to solve the difficult equation.