Charleston Stage, as a gift to the community will present a free streaming video recording of its acclaimed 2016 production of The Seat of Justice, available for viewing all Easter weekend – April 10, 11 and 12, 2020. The Seat of Justice, an original play by Charleston Stage Founder, Julian Wiles, tells the true story of South Carolina’s and Charleston’s pivotal role in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Desegregation Ruling. The online presentation was recorded live at the Historic Dock Street Theatre on March 3, 2016.
To stream this acclaimed production, visit CharlestonStage.com/SeatofJustice.
South Carolina’s pivotal role in the United States Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling was celebrated in 2016 in Julian Wiles’s acclaimed play, The Seat of Justice. Chronicling the heroic efforts of the brave citizens of rural Clarendon County, their leader the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, and Charleston’s farsighted Federal Judge Waties Waring, The Seat of Justice tells the story of the fight for justice that led from the cotton fields of Clarendon Country, South Carolina, to the Federal Courthouse in Charleston and ultimately to the United States Supreme Court.
“This is a story,” says playwright and Charleston Stage Founder, Julian Wiles, “that needs to be told and retold. Too many people are unaware of South Carolina’s pivotal role in these landmark cases and the story of the brave individuals who fought for freedom and justice in the 1940’s and 50’s, really the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. These brave individuals, through the cases of Pearson v. Elliott, Briggs vs. Elliott, literally changed the world-all because a group of ordinary parents stood up and demanded a better world for their children. Their brave stand was not without retribution however-many lost their jobs, their credit, and their homes. Shots were fired into their houses, and they saw their homes and churches go up in flames.”
Wiles, who grew up on a cotton farm in nearby Calhoun County a few years after the events of the play, remembers those times well, and yet, he only discovered this story as an adult. “Although my grandparents had grown up in Clarendon Country, I didn’t learn of this amazing struggle until much later in my life. It was amazing to me that this struggle had taken place literally on my doorstep, and yet, I knew nothing about it. It was something my family simply did not discuss. That discussion is long overdue and I was hopeful our 2016 production of The Seat of Justice helped spark those conversations. I truly believe that only by confronting our past can we truly move forward, and The Seat of Justice is an effort to do just that. The history of that time, the individual struggles and even the violence are all part of this story, but at its center are the brave men and women who stood up and fought for a better tomorrow. More than anything through The Seat of Justice, I hope to honor them. For it wasn’t the lawyers or judges-even the lofty nine judges of The United States Supreme Court-who truly set the wheels of justice in motion. Instead, it was a community of brave tenant farmers, housemaids, mechanics and schoolteachers-simple mothers and fathers who took their seat one by one in the seat of justice and changed the world. They are the ones who as Dr. King once said, ‘bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.'”
The 2016 production of The Seat of Justice featured a cast of 22 led by professional New York actors Marvin Bell, who played the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, one of the ministers who led the desegregation movement in Clarendon County and Crystin Gilmore, who played Mrs. Ruby Cornwell, the legendary Charleston Civil Rights leader who sat on the front row of the Federal Courthouse in Charleston when the case of Briggs v. Elliott came to trial in 1950. Bell and Gilmore were joined by members of Charleston Stage’s Resident Professional Acting Company, as well as, leading Charleston based performers. In addition, students from Ashley River Creative Arts, Charleston Development Academy, Charleston School of the Arts, Howe Hall Aims and Mason Prep played the students of Clarendon County.
The production featured a number of special performances, enrichment events and other activities that provided additional insight into this moving story. These begun with a special performance on February 17, 2016, for members of the surrounding and state Bar Associations and featured a post show discussion featuring South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Costa M. Pleicones, United States District Judge Richard Gergel and was moderated by South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman. The discussion focused on the ethical issues, the struggle and the legal case of Briggs v. Elliott brought to the forefront. The 2pm private matinee on Saturday, February 20th, hosted by The College of Charleston’s Avery Institute for Afro-American History and Culture honored the descendants of the Briggs vs. Elliott parents who signed a desegregation petition demanding desegregation in 1948, as well as, honoring descendants of other key players in the struggle for freedom and justice. Following the 3pm matinee performance on Sunday, February 21st, a special post show panel discussion, sponsored by The International African American Museum and moderated by College of Charleston Professor of History, Bernard Powers, provided insights into the historical context of the story. The panel included Dr. Jon Hale from the College of Charleston, Dr. Marcus Cox from the Citadel and Reverend Joseph A. Darby. In addition to the 3 weeks of public performances, more than 5,000 area school students also attended special school day matinee performances including performances for the present day Clarendon County students, who go to school in Summerton, where this struggle for freedom and justice began. An exhibit of Civil Rights photographs taken by Cecil Williams, a native of Orangeburg and acclaimed photographer who captured the images of many of the players portrayed in The Seat of Justice, were also on display at Dock Street Theatre in an exhibit during the run of The Seat of Justice.
Receiving a special recognition award in 2004 by the Charleston branch of the NAACP, Julian Wiles’s The Seat of Justice is based on original transcripts from the Briggs v. Elliott case. The Seat of Justice is told through the eyes of the late Mrs. Ruby Cornwell, a Charleston civil rights leader who, until her death at the age of 100, was at the forefront of the struggle for justice and equality in Charleston. When the Briggs v. Elliott case was heard in Charleston, Mrs. Cornwell sat on the very front row for every day of the trial. One of the judges on the panel of three, J. Waties Waring was an outspoken advocate of Civil Rights and a friend to the struggle. Over time, Mrs. Cornwell became a close friend with Mrs. Waring, the Judge’s wife who too was quite progressive and an outspoken critic of the current social order. When Mrs. Waring invited Mrs. Cornwell to her home for tea in the early 1950’s, it was the first time that a black person had been invited as a guest to a white home in Charleston for a social occasion. Wiles interviewed Mrs. Cornwell prior to her death in 2003 to gain her insights on the case. His research also led him to conversations with Joseph DeLaine, Jr., son of The Rev. Joseph DeLaine, as well as, conversations with Joe Elliott, grandson of Roderick Elliott, the Chairman of the Clarendon Country School District 22 Board of Trustees.