By Lynn Venhaus
In 1965, the conflict between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson regarding voting rights came to a head because of escalating violence. On the streets of Selma, Alabama, the struggle to end racial discrimination was real. The drive for equality that resulted in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery and the hard-fought triumph that was the Voting Act Rights is depicted in a new historical drama written by British playwright Paul Webb.

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company hosted British playwright Webb for the world premiere of “Hold On!” that began with previews Jan. 10, opening night was Jan. 12, and the show ran Wednesday through Sunday until Jan. 28 in the Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. It was the kickoff to their 47th mainstage season and directed by founder and producing director Ron Himes.

“We’re delighted to be producing this exceptional world premiere and we’ve pulled together an extraordinarily talented group of creatives to tell this story, It’s a great way to kick off our 47th Season,” Himes said.

Webb. who wrote the screenplay for the 2014 film “Selma,” was first inspired to write a play focused on the historic events in the Civil Rights Movement that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a year after the landmark Civil Rights Act was passed, and after King won the Nobel Peace Prize.

“What I came to realize was that the Selma voting rights campaign was the pinnacle of the careers for two extraordinary, although extraordinarily different, leaders,” Webb says.

Webb said he has been fascinated with American culture since childhood, and told a group of us at the opening night party about hitchhiking across America for six months. He saw how complicated race relations were in the South. He was intrigued by President Johnson’s efforts during the civil rights area, and his relationship with King. The importance of the demonstrations in Selma was a way to develop the story he wanted to pursue. .

Webb’s other works include “Four Knights in Knaresborough” about the assassination of Thomas Becket, and the BET mini-series “Madiba” about the life of Nelson Mandela.

Paul Webb, standing next to Ron Himes, says a few words about his play’s cast. Lynn Venhaus photo

Conversations with the Webb were included throughout the opening weekend, at the Jan. 11 preview performance at 7 p.m., followed by a post-show discussion, and after opening night Jan. 12, there was a post-show reception and a meet and greet. On Sunday, Jan. 14, there was a pre-show discussion at 2 p.m. before the 3 p.m. matinee performance.,

In 1957, King said: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind; it is made up for me.”

In the 1960s, Americans debated what the “equal protection of the laws” in the 14th Amendment meant. Did the Constitution’s prohibition of denying equal protection always ban the use of racial, ethnic, or gender criteria in an attempt to bring social justice and social benefits?

In June 1963, President John Kennedy asked Congress for a comprehensive civil rights bill. This was after resistance to desegregation and the murder of Medgar Evans, a civil rights activist in Mississippi, who was fatally shot on June 12.

After Kennedy’s assassination in November, President Johnson took up pushing for it, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, passed. That forbade using race and sex as reasons in hiring, promoting and firing, and strengthened the enforcement of voting rights and desegregation of schools.

Then, Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act to Congress in March 1965, the same month that voter registration protests began in Selma.. The violence there added pressure on Congress to act, and the bill passed in four months.

To further learn about King’s journey, here are some resources:

Fifty-nine years ago, Selma became the battleground for Black suffrage, and. the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights marchers, is now a national historic landmark. Because the attacks were televised, public support for the activists grew, and marches continued for voting rights.

For more information about the landmarks in the historic civil rights efforts, visit the Civil Rights Trail:

The protections that King and his supporters fought for are under actual threat today, with attempts at voter suppression making the Voting Rights Act vulnerable. The Freedom to Vote Act addresses voter registration and voting access, election integrity and security, redistricting, and campaign finance. (Sources: and

Specifically, the bill expands voter registration (e.g., automatic and same-day registration) and voting access (e.g., vote-by-mail and early voting). It also limits removing voters from voter rolls.

Next, the bill establishes Election Day as a federal holiday.

The bill declares that the right of a U.S. citizen to vote in any election for federal office shall not be denied or abridged because that individual has been convicted of a criminal offense unless, at the time of the election, such individual is serving a felony sentence.

The bill establishes certain federal criminal offenses related to voting. In particular, the bill establishes a new criminal offense for conduct (or attempted conduct) to corruptly hinder, interfere with, or prevent another person from registering to vote or helping someone register to vote.

Additionally, the bill sets forth provisions related to election security, including by requiring states to conduct post-election audits for federal elections.

The bill outlines criteria for congressional redistricting and generally prohibits mid-decade redistricting.

The bill addresses campaign finance, including by expanding the prohibition on campaign spending by foreign nationals, requiring additional disclosure of campaign-related fundraising and spending, requiring additional disclaimers regarding certain political advertising, and establishing an alternative campaign funding system for certain federal offices.

‘Hold On!’ at The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s 47th season will continue with “Fly” (Feb. 14 to March 10) in WashU’s A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, followed by “Wedding Band” (March 13-31) at COCA, 6880 Washington Ave., and “Timbuktu!” (May 15 to June 9) in Edison. The season will conclude with “King Hedley II” (June 19-July 14), also in Edison.

Single tickets are now available through the Box Office, in person, or at (314) 534.3807. Reduced pricing is available for seniors, educators, students, and groups of 12 or more. Season 47 subscriptions remain on sale at

Support for The Black Rep’s 47th Main Stage Season comes from The Berges Family Foundation, The Black Seed Initiative, Caleres, Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, Rogers-Townsend, The Shubert Foundation, and the Steward Family Foundation.

Opening Night Meet and Greet: Lynn Venhaus, Playwright Paul Webb, Chas Adams

By Lynn Venhaus

The movement is a rhythm to us
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtapositionin’ us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough

–“Glory” by Common and John Legend
2015 Oscar winner for Best Song, from the movie “Selma”

A remarkable history lesson more so than a lecture, “Hold On!” features a powerhouse ensemble recreating a pivotal period in 1965 that was a clarion call then and eerily an alarm bell now.

The Black Rep honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy with the timing of opening weekend to coincide with the federal holiday marking his Jan. 15 birthday, which has taken place on the third Monday of January every year since 1983.

King, the most prominent advocate for nonviolent activism to protest racial discrimination, helped get the Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, after convincing the president a year earlier to sign the landmark Civil Rights Act (July 2, 1964), the same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 2, 1964).

Their fascinating relationship was at times contentious but also collaborative, and those power battles royale are embodied by Enoch King as resolute MLK and Brian Dykstra as salty LBJ.

Dykstra easily slips into playing the master politician Johnson, for he has appeared twice before in the role – but in the drama “All the Way” that was produced at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in fall 2015, which focuses on the civil rights endeavors in ’64, and as Brian Cox’s understudy in “The Great Society,” playwright Robert Schenkkan’s sequel, on Broadway in 2019

King is tenacious as the motivational visionary, remaining idealistic about moving people to action in divisive times. Both King and Johnson knew they couldn’t advance anything alone but needed supporters to be fervent about progress. The good reverend is a shrewd strategist in getting what he wants with the President, whose legendary battles with the “Dixiecrats” are well-documented.

While both were certainly flawed individuals, they were able to come together and change the course of America, pushing to outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

On March 15, 1965, LBJ delivered a speech before Congress on voting rights — stating that the civil rights problems challenged the entire country, not one region. He asked for legislation that dictated clear, uniform guidelines for voting regardless of race or ethnicity, which would allow all citizens to register to vote free from harassment.

Through a turbulent lens, this sobering play looks back when blacks were being murdered in the South, just for daring to register to vote, use their voice to speak up and stand up, and the killers were not punished. These incidents still pack a gut-punch, and this drama, thriller-like, illuminates gathering storms, and as history prompts us, we must be vigilant.

In 1965, Selma represented the epicenter, and in Alabama, the struggle for justice and equality escalated. This well-researched historical work by Paul Webb depicts the drive for voting rights that resulted in the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” where protesters were beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge trying to march to Montgomery, the state capital.

Two weeks later, King, James Forman and John Lewis led marchers on that landmark trail after a U.S. District judge upheld the rights of demonstrators.

Webb, a British playwright and screenwriter who is credited with the screenplay for the 2014 film “Selma,” first began the project as a play, then moved forward instead with the film, but in the years since, has revised and finished his play. The Black Rep is the first company to produce it.

The Civil Rights Movement was a long and winding road, starting in 1954 and ending in 1968. Webb, fascinated by the motives of both Johnson and King during the 1964-65 period, has formatted the play as a series of vignettes, with 21 scenes, carried out by a cast of 14.

Ambitious, yes, and director Ron Himes deftly moves along characters and action, focusing on the urgency.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

This true story has a lot of moving parts to convey onstage, establishing characters who figure prominently in the tumultuous days highlighted. Scenes are mostly divided between Selma, Atlanta (King’s residence), Brown Chapel and Washington D.C., where Dunsi Dai’s evocative scenic design includes the Oval Office as a focal point, and Meg Brinkley’s prop design conveys.

Because of the nature of a stage play, the action offstage is chronicled through news clippings and video reports, which projections designer Zach Cohn has astutely put together.

The play is dense at first, takes a while to gain momentum, but when it does, it’s riveting and empowering.

Those unfamiliar with this period may need a primer to know who the key players are. People alive then or who remember it from the history books may recall who Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark are, both masterfully played as hot-headed intolerant bigots by Eric Dean White.

The segregationists were firmly entrenched in the power grid during the Jim Crow era, and the selective timeline deepens the storytelling,

Making an impression as racist Al Lingo of the Alabama Highway Patrol and heroic activists Jimmie Lee Jackson and Annie Lee Cooper are Jeff Cummings, Jason Little and Tamara Thomas, who also play another role each.

Little and Thomas are strong in their characterizations of ordinary citizens who represent how despicably treated minorities were – and you’ll remember those names.

Isaiah Di Lorenzo smoothly plays a cruel county courthouse registrar and a redneck state trooper in addition to presidential speech writer Richard N. Goodwin. Thomas Patrick Riley tackles three unflattering roles – the ignorant courthouse worker Leverne, and an unenlightened deputy and state trooper. Tammie Holland is posh as King’s fling Della.

Other dedicated performers resemble the real people of King’s inner circle so we don’t forget their contributions:  Greg Carr Sr. as Ralph Abernathy, Olajuwon Davis as James Foreman, Greg Carr II as (future Congressman) John Lewis, Joel Antony as Hosiah Williams and Little doubling as Andrew Young (future Congressman, US Ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta mayor).

These characters earned a place in history but perhaps are unknown to subsequent generations. (And if history is being rewritten in certain school districts…I digress).

Evann DeBose

For the play version, Webb laudably expanded the role of Coretta Scott King, and Evann DeBose is radiant –and assertive — as a woman working alongside her famous husband on the same goals, a strong force who won’t be diminished or treated callously.

Musically inclined, Coretta is shown singing and playing the piano (kudos to pianist Antonio Foster). DeBose’s soulful and heartfelt renditions of songs associated with the movement — Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” from 1964 and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” a folk song referencing Biblical passages, also known as “Hold On,” popularized in 1963, remain indelible. The rallying anthem “We Shall Overcome” had to be prominently featured and it is.

One of the highlights of this production is sound designer Lamar Harris’ original music score. His compositions vividly capture the moods and punctuate the action in a notable way.

Some of the horrifying attacks are choreographed movements to represent the explosive violence and shrouded in blue lighting by expert designer Sean M. Savoie. Annie Lee Cooper’s front-page-news punch to the sheriff is well-staged for optimum effect.

Costume designer Marc W. Vital II has put together appropriate vintage looks for the women and standard business attire for the men. Special recognition goes to stage manager Tracy D. Holliway Wiggins and assistant Alan Phillips for maintaining the flow of all the comings and goings, no easy feat.

It’s important to keep this story at the forefront today because of its relevancy to equal rights.

The shock of brutal attacks with prejudice and without accountability reminds us that we are again living in tense times and protections are not absolute. As far as we have come in 59 years, scary to even think suppression is happening again.

It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around that more than 60 years ago, people died for the right to vote, and as I write this, voting rights are being threatened. However, a movement is underway supporting the Freedom to Vote Act of 2021 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2023, which would modernize and revitalize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, strengthening legal protections against discriminatory voting policies and practices. Maybe “Hold On!” will be a timely nudge in the right direction.

“Hold On!” is a fine example of people keeping their eye on the prize, illustrating how many marched away from the darkness and into the light because of King’s special skills, and those he passed the torch to during his lifetime and beyond. It’s a refresher course on Selma not being a bridge too far.

Facin’ the league of justice, his power was the people
Enemy is lethal, a king became regal
Saw the face of Jim Crow under a bald eagle
The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful
We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through
Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy
One day when the glory comes


The Black Rep presents the world premiere of “Hold On!” Jan. 10-Jan. 28 with performances Wednesday-Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Performances take place Jan. 10-28. Tickets are $50, or $45 for seniors and $20 for students (17+), with student rush tickets $15. No one aged 5 and under is admitted. Season 47 subscriptions are available. Tickets can be purchased at the Edison Theatre box office; the Black Rep’s box office, 813 N. Skinker Blvd.; or by calling 314-534-3810. For more information, visit:

Cinema St. Louis is pleased to partner with the St. Louis Black Repertory Company for a special screening of the film, “Selma,” on Saturday, Jan. 20, at the Hi-Pointe Theatre at 1 pm. General Admission Tickets are $10, and a discounted ticket of $8 is available for current students and senior citizens aged 55+.” Visit site for tickets: