By Daniel Elliot
Standing in front of a small audience in the Council Chamber, Ron Jones took on the role of a working-class black man in 1964, holding his newborn son in an imaginary crowd. Projected onto the screen behind him, Lyndon B. Johnson gave his address following the enactment of the Civil Rights Act.
“Today we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds,” Johnson said, referring to the history of slavery and segregation in the United States. “Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend.” At hearing this Jones, in character, looked down at the baby and said, “See little guy, he’s talking about you,” with a giddy smile. It was a bittersweet moment, filled with the inspiration of hope, but also the foreboding of what was to come in the half-century that followed and the many shackles that still exist.
Jones is a long time actor, having taken part in or leading multiple improv troupes since the 1990s, including “Urban Improv,” which went on to win an Emmy award for Best Children’s Programming. Since 2006, Jones has been touring the country under the company he co-founded, Dialogues on Diversity, performing in front of diverse audiences in hopes of educating people about social justice and the history of the civil rights movement in the U.S. “The Movement: 50 Years of Love & Struggle” aims to do just that, as Jones assumes 10 different characters, from pastors and black panthers to Ku Klux Klan rally leaders, and even just average Joes trying to make due, as he explores the progression, and accompanying setbacks, of the civil rights movement. As part of MLK Jr. Week, Lewis & Clark invited Jones to present his show to the school.
A beat after LBJ finishes speaking, Jones broke the bittersweet moment.
“Oh shoot, I think I grabbed the wrong baby,” Jones said, rushing offstage. The joke was a little silly, and was met by uneven laughter. It was clear that the show is meant to be viewed by middle and high school audiences; much of the presentation’s information was somewhat rudimentary and the style was fairly corny. In one portion of the show, Jones held a conversation with a video recording of himself, the two versions of the actor arguing over the pros and cons of moving out of an impoverished neighborhood and into a wealthier one.
Still, the show had moments of deep impact. Intermixed with his vignettes were videos celebrating black heroes and mourning victims of racial violence. Provocative poetry from high school students was shown as well, which addressed issues like the trauma faced by disadvantaged youth around the country. There was a real emphasis on individual narratives and how something like greater racial diversity in television or a teacher’s quick stereotyping of a student could have tangible effects on real-world people. And for his off-the-wall sense of humor, Jones still proved himself an excellent actor; in the final scene of the act, he goes off on a deeply sarcastic tirade against the idea of a “post-racial America” and how true it must be, considering he was still getting the police called on him while he took walks through the neighborhood he had lived in for decades for being a “suspicious individual.” His raw frustration, almost to the point of bursting out in uncontrollable laughter or rage, was palpable.
Jones was also keenly aware of the circumstances which brought him to perform at LC last week. In an address to the audience, Jones acknowledged the timing of the event.
“This is a busy time of the year for my company,” Jones said. “Everybody wants to talk about ‘the black stuff’ around now.”
Still, Jones relished any opportunity to discuss Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his movement.
“What annoys me about how we remember MLK, is that we only remember the first 2/3rds of his life,” Jones said. “He became far more militant, far more inclusive, intersectional in the final part of his life.”
Dr. King’s story made up only a short chapter of Jones’s performance, but served as a fitting representation for the ideas of “The Movement.” Sitting through the various videos, images and acts of Jone’s show brought about a sense of the importance in the stories of each different person and group affected by poverty, injustice and discrimination, and how essential hope was to bringing about positive change. Jones saw King as less of a hero figure, and more as an example of how to create, and improve a movement.
“I put together this show not just to talk about (King) … but because his movement is a template, for any group,” Jones said. “It’s never just about your group.”