‘Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom’ gives a topical testimony to a uniquely American story

The stage adaptation of the 2015 memoir succeeds in bringing the time period and its issues to life.
Freshman Aderinola “Nola” Adepoju plays Lynda Blackmon Lowery, the youngest demonstrator in the 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Freshman Aderinola “Nola” Adepoju plays Lynda Blackmon Lowery, the youngest demonstrator in the 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Mike Liu

In 1965, Lynda Blackmon Lowery was the youngest person to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery in a campaign for African-American voting rights. One day into the trip, on March 22, she turned just 15 years old. Lowery’s march is likely what she is most known for, but Wake Forest University Theatre’s recent stage adaptation of her memoir, “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom,” does the important work of highlighting her life and work leading up to that consequential moment.

The musical opens with Lowery, played by freshman Aderinola “Nola”  Adepoju, singing “Woke Up This Morning (with My Mind Stayed on Freedom)” before being quickly reinforced by the triumphant voices of the choir. This interaction set the stage for what was to follow, as the choir was a central piece in the show despite rarely crossing over into the story world. Most of the songs in the play are not necessarily tied to 1965 or Lowery’s story, so I was surprised at how effectively they worked as a vehicle for immersion. The universality of the music did a fantastic job of simultaneously rooting the story in a deep, rich tradition and reminding the audience of the importance of Lowery’s story in our current moment.

After this opening song, we quickly learn that Lowery lost her mother at a young age because of Alabama’s racist segregation policies — her mother was unable to receive a blood transfusion in time because she was not allowed access to donor blood reserved for white people. This scene, which was delivered with precise poignancy, perfectly primes the story for Lowery’s activism that would follow shortly thereafter. Outraged by the unnecessary death of her mother and the segregation around her, Lowery joins the older kids in her neighborhood in their efforts to protest segregation and demand equal voting rights. Her early activism — which led her to be arrested nine times before she turned 15 — would lead to her presence on Bloody Sunday and then the historic march.

BG Cave, left, plays a voting registrar who asks impossible questions to bar African Americans from being able to vote. (Mike Liu)

Across the board, the acting and singing performances were truly stunning. Nola was strong and compelling in the lead role, while also leaving enough space for the rest of the cast to bolster the story around her. Malachi Woodard — who played Jimmy Webb, one of the teenage activists — shined through as a leading figure on stage with his beautiful vocals. Senior Nathaniel Avery’s towering presence as Lowery’s empathetic but protective father was powerful and moving as always. The cast was also significantly supported by actors and actresses outside of the undergraduate community, such as Jasmine Logan (Betty Fike) and LaShon Hill (Lowery’s grandmother/Neighborhood Lady). 

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Behind the scenes, I was impressed by the subtle yet effective sound and lighting choices that heightened the production without drawing attention to themselves. The projector at the back of the stage — which displayed real photographs relating to the story as it unfolded — also helped charge the emotions of the story without pulling me out of it.

While Lowery’s story is now an inspirational one, I think that this production succeeded in showing the immense struggle, setback and loss that brought her triumph to fruition. Aside from the death, jailing and bigotry, this production effectively captured the fear that had to be overcome or set aside on the road to freedom. 

The choir, composed of members both in and outside of the Wake Forest community, sings a traditional hymn at the beginning of the play. (Mike Liu)

In perhaps the most moving scene of the entire play, Rev. Orange — the leader of the march to Montgomery, played by Kareem Chappell — attempts to console a terrified Lowery. Lowery, who believes that the National Guardsmen enlisted to protect her are going to kill her, refuses to march. Instead of sending her away, Rev. Orange admits that he is afraid, too. In that shared fear, they remind each other of why they have to keep marching. They remember Jimmie Lee Jackson — who was shot by a state trooper as he attempted to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick — and all of the people who were counting on them to finish the march.

“Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” holds Lowery as an inspiration, not for her youth, but for her ability to find determination even when a better future seems impossible. The production succinctly solidifies the timeline of its major themes at the very end, when the projector displays images of Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd. The play reminds us that the struggle is ongoing, the work is unfinished and it hopes we can imagine a more equitable future in the same way Lowery did.

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    Lynda Blackmon LoweryNov 7, 2023 at 1:54 pm

    Thank you so very it was a humbling honor to read this article. You articulated my feelings about the musical, it’s actors and actress, the music.the powerful scene from the projector. I am still in awe. The production brought the words of the pages of the book. My co Authors Elspeth Leacock , Susan Buckley and I simply say Thank you, Thank you to all involved. Miranda Barry I love you. It was your dream to produce Turning 25 as a musical play. Again awesome article. Thank you Wake Forest for your amazing contributions to bringing Turning 15 to life yes once again. Thank you Lord God for your love, grace, mercy and favor on my life and Turning 15.