In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council set their sights on Selma, AL as the stomping ground for voter registration reform. Twenty-four years later, Selma The Musical took the stage at New Federal Theater to tell the story of the civil rights leaders that inspired its very existence. Tommy Butler, the show’s creator, wrote the book, music and lyrics and then turned to his community to help tell the story.
This 1978 musical not only put black history in the spotlight, the creative team itself featured makers of history. Cornelius A. Tate, Selma’s musical director, has a long list of Broadway credits. This list includes the infamous Hair, a show that gave him the title of being the first Black musical director on Broadway. The accomplishment is well deserved considering Tate led the cast of Selma through a demanding score that cast a light on the pain and injustice throughout Black history.
Selma is unapologetic in its critique of race relations during the Cvil Rights Movement. It uses the same painful language that ran ramped alongside hoses and hounds in Alabama streets. This musical served as a wake-up call. It shook the critics of its day and introduced new performers to voice the frustrations of inequality. Tommy Butler, the shows creator, starred in the musical alongside a collective of newcomers. Denise Erwin, Susan Beaubian, Carton Williams and Ernie Banks led the cast in songs calling for justice, equity and peace. A cry we can still hear from our community.
Selma The Musical was a show that asked the obvious in the most honest way it knew how. The voices who deny the existence of injustice will call Selma “unfinished” and “archetypal.” I invite you to reflect on the events that brought this musical to fruition, the limitations we are still overcoming, and the necessity of telling the difficult stories in our history. The show’s original cast recording can be found on Apple Music. New Federal Theater, where the show saw its debut, continues to release productions that question the justice and equity that is denied to Black people in America. You can view their upcoming projects.