A new play written by Quinton Cockrell, an Associate Professor in the College of Communication and Fine Arts, is set to debut Friday, Sept. 24, at the Red Mountain Theatre in Birmingham, Ala. as part of the theatre’s “Human Rights New Works Festival.”
Commissioned by Keith Cromwell, Executive Director at Red Mountain Theatre Company, “Memorial” highlights racial violence in Jefferson County, Ala. from the 1890s through the 1930s, namely lynching.
“That’s how it was put to me, about lynching,” Cockrell said, “and (Cromwell) said he wanted it to have traditional music of the time, so I set about doing that.”
For historical accuracy, Cockrell turned to research provided by the Jefferson County Memorial Project (JCMP) that’s connected with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. The JCMP aims to tell the untold history of lynching in Jefferson County and has identified 34 victims of lynching or racial violence from 1833 to 1940.
Cockrell said that until he started research for the play, he never realized there was so little information recorded about the victims. Despite growing up in Birmingham, seeing the 800-plus monuments in Montgomery changed his perspective.
“You hear [that] this happened, lynching happened, but I didn’t know anyone’s name or how bad it was. I’m embarrassed. I didn’t know anything, and I grew up in Birmingham,” he said. “It’s kind of overwhelming when you look at this sea of slabs of marble and each one has names on it of people who were lynched over the history of the United States. I learned a lot about all of that during this process, and I think I also matured.”
With the nature of the theme, Cockrell said he spent a lot of time thinking about the main point of the play and how he wanted the audience to feel at curtain close. As discussions of racism and its effects continue to be a conversation in society, he said the root of the matter is for history not to repeat itself and for the victims to be remembered.
“One of the issues that’s at the center of the play is that we can’t just move on from this. It did happen a long time ago, but these people deserve to be remembered, and the fact that this happened needs to be remembered because we need to make sure that the attitudes that lead to it don’t crop up again,” Cockrell said. “A point I really try to make in the play is that it’s not just about white people did this to black people, but the kernel that caused this kind of inhumanity is in everybody—it just takes the right conditions to bring it out.
“Before this, a part of me was one of those people that thought we just needed to move on. I thought, ‘Why are we talking about this?’ Now, I want people to recognize that this history is part of all of us, we can’t forget it and we can’t really move on until we have examined it carefully.”
“Memorial” is a project 18 months in the making that has undergone multiple rewrites after the initial script was drafted about a year ago. Over the course of editing and rewriting, Cockrell said the focal point shifted to also include the effects of lynching on the community as a whole.
“The work has become more about not just what happened to these people, but also about the effect it had on the community. I’m very proud of how it’s grown, and I’m really pleased with the script that we have now,” he said. “I had the opportunity to see a reading of it, and I just felt proud. I still feel pretty new at all of this, so I’m always kind of amazed that people are taking the time to do something that I wrote. This still feels unreal to me.”
A native of Birmingham, Cockrell received a theatre arts undergraduate degree from Birmingham Southern and attended a master’s program for professional actor training at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in partnership with the University of Alabama. After living and working in New York for 15 years, he moved back to Birmingham in 2001 and taught at Miles College and the University of Alabama at Birmingham before beginning his career at TROY in 2009.
After years of playing “the same roles over and over again,” Cockrell decided to write stories with roles he wanted to act in.
“At some point, I decided that the parts I was going up for weren’t enough for me,” he said. “I started writing for myself for things for me to play in, then as I continued writing I got to the point where I would write things that didn’t have a part for me, and that’s when I realized that I’m a playwright.”
Cockrell worked with numerous theatre companies in New York City and throughout the United States, including Riverside Shakespeare Company, Westbeth Theatre, Soho Rep, The John Houseman Theatre, Playwright’s Horizons, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Studio Arena Theatre, Heritage Repertory Company, Birmingham Children’s Theatre and City Equity Theatre. He is also a recipient of the Alabama State Council on the Arts Fellowship in playwriting for his plays “Low Life” and “Shot House,” which premiered in Paris at L’Ogresse Theatre in July 2007.
In 2011, Cockrell was selected as a Kennedy Center playwright. He also performed as a vocalist in cabarets in New York and Paris and is a five-time recipient of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Meritorious Achievement Award for Excellence in Directing. His play “City Limits,” which debuted at Troy University during the 2020-2021 season, was recently picked up by a theatre in Virginia for its 2022-2023 season. “Memorial” is one of four shows that will debut during the fourth annual human right’s festival at Red Mountain Theatre. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets can be purchased online.