In only 27 years, Jonathan Daniels helped change the world. Playwright Lowell Williams has only two hours to tell Daniels’ story in Six Nights in the Black Belt, a newly revised play opening in Milford.
Daniels was born in Keene in 1939. After studies at the Virginia Military Institute and a sojourn at Harvard, Daniels answered the call of god and became an Episcopal seminarian. It would not be the last call he answered.
In March of 1965, heeding the urgings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Daniels headed down to Selma, Ala., to march on Montgomery. He wasn’t alone, as thousands of people from the North descended on this hotbed of the civil rights movement. But what defined Daniels and made him different than others, according to Williams, who wrote Six Nights in the Black Belt and will now direct it beginning Aug. 26, is that he didn’t leave. He stayed in Alabama for the spring and summer, worked side by side with African-Americans, brought his Episcopal faith to the people and befriended Stokely Carmichael, who would later lead the Black Panthers.
On Aug. 13, Daniels and a mixed group of protesters picketed outside a whites-only store. They were arrested and many were held for six days in prison. When they were released on Aug. 20 they were given no transportation back to their homes. Thirsty, Daniels, two blacks and a Catholic priest went to buy soda. They were greeted instead by Tom L. Coleman, an engineer for the state highway department. Coleman was holding a shotgun. He pointed at one of the African-Americans, a 17-year-old named Ruby Sales. In his final act on Earth, Daniels pushed Sales out of the way, just as Coleman pulled the trigger. The close-range gun shot killed Daniels immediately. He was 27 years old. Coleman was subsequently acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white jury.
At the same time, the Watts Race Riots were happening in Los Angeles and so Daniels’ murder did not receive a lot of national coverage. Yet, President Lyndon B. Johnson personally made sure his body was flown back to Keene, according to Williams. It has been reported that upon hearing of Daniels’ murder, Carmichael questioned whether non-violent protests could work and it is wondered whether the Black Panther movement would have happened had Daniels not died. Daniels is considered a martyr in the Episcopal church, an elementary school is named after him in Keene and every year in Alabama people take a pilgrimage to the place of his murder.
With so much rich material, Williams was still faced with a dilemma. Despite his impact on the civil rights movement, Daniels is still virtually unknown in New Hampshire. Williams had to balance telling a fairly historically accurate biopic with producing an entertaining play.
The process began in 2003, when Williams saw Keene filmmaker Larry Benaquist’s film on Daniels. Williams jotted down notes but didn’t revisit them until 2007 when working for Yellow Taxi Productions. Williams contacted Benaquist and got access to more than 70 interviews from people who knew Daniels, including Carmichael and Sales. The play was put on in Nashua and, according to Williams, almost no one came. Williams showed the play to one of his theater friends who is African-American, and he told Williams the play was written to make whites feel good about themselves. Williams wanted the play to represent the times Daniels lived in. He re-wrote it and the play was performed again in 2008 in Keene, to a much larger audience.
When M & M Productions was looking for a summer performance, producer Mari Keegan said, they wanted to do Six Nights in the Black Belt and allow Williams to direct it.
“The play really speaks to us,” Keegan said. “It is still so relevant. Just watch the news — racial tension is still bubbling over.”
Williams choose to focus the play on Daniels’ many relationships.
“It is like Titanic,” Williams said. “You know the ship is going to sink. It can’t be about the ship sinking. It has to be about the people.”
To liven the performance, Williams wanted to add music. But he wanted to do so in a natural way. “Sometimes in musicals people break into song for no reason and it’s a bit phony,” Williams said.
That is why he chose to incorporate a choir, which sings hymns, folk music, gospels and Negro spirituals. There are multi-media aspects to the play as well.
It wasn’t easy to cast a large number of African-American roles in a state that is still predominantly white. Keegan said members of the Harvard College singing group The Kuumba Singers travel every day from Massachusetts to Milford to sing the gospel music for no pay, simply because they believe in the play.
“That passion and energy really translates on the stage,” Keegan said.
With the election of President Obama and greater equality, Williams said it can be difficult for some people to remember how things were only a generation ago. He said no one wants to be lectured for two hours but he hopes the play can inspire.
“Everyone told Daniels to go home,” Williams said. “The whites told him to leave Alabama. The blacks told him to leave. His mother told him to leave. But he didn’t. He didn’t listen. Because he knew he was doing the right thing.”