A chapter of Tampa’s history involving the struggle for civil rights is the subject of a new original play at Stageworks Theatre.
“When the Righteous Triumph” details the sit-in protests at downtown Tampa lunch counters in 1960 that led to their desegregation. The play was written by dramatist and University of South Florida professor Mark E. Leib and was commissioned by Stageworks.
Leib is originally from Tampa, but left for many years to live in the northeastern United States. When he was looking to write about social justice questions, his wife suggested he write about Tampa. After doing research, he discovered the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.
On Feb. 29, 1960, barber Clarence Fort, who was the president of the NAACP Youth Council, and civil rights leader Rev. A. Leon Lowry led Blake and Middleton high school students in a sit-in at F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter on Franklin Street.
Despite Woolworth’s attempts to ignore the teens, the sit-ins grew. Then-Mayor Julian B. Lane assigned police to escort the protesters and agreed to form a biracial committee to look into the complaints. Tampa’s lunch counters were integrated by that September.
Fort, Lowry and Lane are the main characters in the play, along with Joseph Dasher, who led another protest at the same time. Leib interviewed Fort, who will attend the play.
While the Woolworth’s no longer exists in downtown Tampa, a historic marker naming the students who took place in the protest stands where the building remains. Fort is honored with the Clarence Fort Park Freedom Trail at a park in East Tampa, and a downtown riverfront park is named for Lane.
Last year, a staged reading of the script was held at Stageworks. Feedback from an invited audience found there wasn’t enough tension in the play, leading to rewrites.
“I needed to add more bigoted, villainous characters, and then make more relations between some of the younger African American characters and I went back to the drawing board,” Leib said. He credited the actors and director for their support and for being so “intelligent in their criticism.”
One character he added was the leader of the Tampa chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He also included the assassination attempt on Lowry and his wife at their home.
“I want to remind audiences that African American people in Tampa had to overcome huge difficulties,” Leib said. “There was no smooth transition to perfect race relations.”
If you go
“When the Righteous Triumph.” Opens March 17 and runs through April 2. $40-$50. Stageworks Theatre, 1120 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. 813-374-2416. stageworkstheatre.org.