“Let Us March On…” will play at the Rialto Center for the Arts on May 17.

A theatrical reimagining of the March on Washington is coming to Atlanta on May 17.

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is presenting “Let Us March On…” a play written by Atlanta playwright and director Nikki Toombs. The performance will be part of the center’s 2023 Power to Inspire fundraiser, which will honor civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams in person. 

The performance remembers the march, which took place on Aug. 28, 1963 and culminated at the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. But Toombs said she hopes the performance can open the audience’s eyes to aspects of the march they might not have known of before. 

Toombs said that while researching for the play, she was shocked at how much she didn’t know about so many important figures in the Civil Rights movement. Names kept appearing that Toombs had never heard of, particularly the names of many women, such as Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who was the only woman to serve on the planning committee for the March on Washington.

Nikki Toombs

“It made me check what I am doing, to understand what am I contributing to … making a difference,” Toombs said. ”Who are the Big Six of this generation? What am I doing to make sure that voices are being heard?”

The Big Six refers to the leaders of six civil rights organizations who became prominent faces in the Civil Rights movement. These leaders were King, James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. 

The performance will take a deeper look at the contributions of the Civil Rights leaders and organizers who helped set up the March on Washington, including gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who will be played by actress Maiesha McQueen. This will be a repeat performance of sorts for McQueen, who previously played Jackson in “Mahalia: A Gospel Musical.”

“There is such a ministry in her esophagus,” Toombs said of McQueen. “This lady is absolutely, insanely talented.” 

Jackson, a hugely influential vocalist of her time, performed at the March on Washington in 1963, but McQueen said she hopes to help audiences understand just how important she was to the movement.

“I think oftentimes, we see her just as this vocal powerhouse, but we don’t understand how pivotal her role was in the Civil Rights movement,” McQueen said. 

McQueen talked more about Jackson’s close relationship with King, and how she often served as a moral light for many Civil Rights leaders. Jackson even prompted King to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, which was not the speech he had planned on for the march. Standing behind King while he spoke, Jackson told him to tell the audience about his dream. From there, King left his prepared notes behind, and the rest is history. 

Maiesha Mcqueen

“Her ability to open her mouth and render a feeling, a call to action, was what she was put on this earth to do,” McQueen said. “And some of the most powerful men of that time looked to her to do that.” 

Despite the contributions of Jackson and other women such as Evers, Dorothy Height, Diane Nash, and more to the Civil Rights movement, women were sidelined during the march, one of the many aspects of Toombs’ research that left her feeling angry. While some women did speak at the march, the original program included no female speakers and the disparity on the day was still great. Female leaders such as Rosa Parks were asked to lead a separate march down Independence Avenue, while male leaders marched on Constitution Avenue accompanied by the media.  

Toombs said that the justifications for leaving women out frustrated her. 

“We cannot find a woman that would not offend a specific group – that was literally from some of the text,” she said. “We have to find a woman that won’t be offensive if we put them before the masses. And it’s like, really?”

“Let Us March On …” will feature an “artistic melting pot” of different types of performance, according to Toombs. There will be singing, dancing, and plenty of audience immersion and breaking of the fourth wall. Victor Jackson, known for his work with the likes of Jennifer Hudson and Lil’ Wayne, serves as choreographer, and Emory University’s Dr. Emorja Robinson serves as the music director. 

Toombs said she hopes that watching the performance, the audience feels entertained, educated, and emboldened. 

“There were so many things I learned, so many names I learned through this process,” Toombs said. “I feel that we should always be a life-long learner, and so I definitely want people to feel as if they’ve learned something more than what is in their history books.”

The performance will take place at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts on May 17 starting at 6 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.