When Charlie Thomas reads the words spoken by Sam Oni during Friday nights production of Combustible/Burn, hes about as attuned as one can be to their weight.
After all, it was Onis breaking of the color barrier at Mercer University in 1963 that allowed students such as Thomas to attend and graduate from the college.
I was Sam in the original production in the fall of 2001 as well, said Thomas, who graduated from Mercer in 2005. Its hard to imagine the weight of what he accomplished. Saying his words helped me imagine what he experienced. (Playing the role) is a great responsibility; I want to give it justice.
Mercer will hold a staged reading of Combustible/Burn Friday night at the Grand Opera House at 8 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.
Because its the 50th anniversary of Mercers desegregation, President Bill Underwood asked Andrew Silver, the Page Morton Hunter professor of English, to revive the play Silver wrote in 2001 after he collected hundreds of hours of interviews with those who participated in integrating the university.
Thomas said during the original production, Oni helped him perform with an African accent. Thomas said he could spot Oni in the audience every night.
It was intimidating, he said. I could see his glasses in the crowd. Youre playing the person who gave you permission to (attend Mercer).
The cast of 10 performing the readings includes current and former Mercer students and faculty.
Its a really important play, said cast member Tory Johnson, a 2011 Mercer graduate. Its something thats going to hit home with a lot of people here. Its really powerful -- Im excited to share it with Macon.
Director Scot Mann said Silver has revised the play since its original performance to make it more relevant for todays audience.
(Silver) has brought a lot of (new) original material to the play, he said. Its more relevant to today than when it was originally performed.
Silver said the style of the play is in the form of a documentary -- the actors read several roles on stage with a background of images projected on a screen behind them. Virtually all of the dialogue came from the participants who helped spur Mercer to integrate.
Its a different performance with each time we perform it, he said. It should speak to its time and place when its performed.
While Onis first year at Mercer is a focal point, the play also covers the years leading up to Mercers integration as well as a few years after.
Silver said when he originally wrote the play, it was about Baptist life and where Mercer was heading as a school, trying to balance secular and religious curricula.
In 2001, there was a lot of push and pull as to where Mercer was going as an institution, he said. I think Mercer was steering between two poles -- its spiritual mission and being one of the best colleges in the country.
In the new version of the play, Silver said conglomeration was on his mind -- how society has evolved after the work of the civil rights movement.
In some ways, Silver said Macon has fallen short of the expectations of what the civil rights leaders were trying to achieve.
Fifty years ago, we were able to speak to each other and work toward a common goal, he said. Theres a question as to why we cant do that again. ... After 15 years in Macon, the (racial) divide is so wide. We need to work extra hard. I think theater brings us together and helps us pay attention to each other and bridge the gap, I hope.
Silver said many of the people who he originally interviewed are no longer alive, so its important to continue to remember what they achieved.
(The play) is not just about Mercer University, its about our city and our nation, Silver said. Its about a whole generation finding its voice and doing justice. We havent come nearly far enough.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.