Mississippi Burning

For local attorney and community activist Stanley E. Tolliver Sr., “Bourbon at the Border” is more than a play — it’s a reminder of how dangerous it was to be in Mississippi during the mid-1960s, when legions of voting-rights activists descended on the South in an effort to end black disenfranchisement. As Ensemble Theatre and Karamu House prepare to debut their coproduction — the cast of which includes Cuyahoga County commissioner Peter Lawson Jones — Jan. 5 at Cleveland Play House’s Studio One Theatre, 82-year-old Tolliver remembers his month in the state.

How did you end up in Mississippi?
In Mississippi, when a white person came down to vote, they’d ask, “What’s your address?” A black would come down, and they’d ask, “How do you spell Czechoslovakia?” or “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” — any ridiculous question to keep from letting him vote. The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, and the government sent registrars down there to register black people.

Just how dangerous was it for activists like you?
The local white people resented all of these “Communist agitators” coming from outside of Mississippi. So it was safest to live in the black community. [Ensemble Theatre board member] Harold Ticktin, a fellow from Maine, and I were roommates in the projects of Jackson, Miss. A friend of mine, Judge Hugh Corrigan, said, “Now Stanley, don’t you go down there with that big Cadillac of yours. They will use you as target practice.” So I took a plane.

How is Peter Lawson Jones as an actor?
I’ve never seen him act, but I’ve seen him in court. He is dramatic and has a presence that commands respect.
Stanley E. Tolliver Sr. (right), here with Martin Luther King Jr., helped register black voters in mid-1960s Mississippi.
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