FESTIVALS King of the Tyne

A unique festival connects the River Tyne to the legacy of civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King. Patrick Kelly reports

The Tyne Bridge will stand in for another iconic bridge as part of a spectacular perfomance celebrating the courage and sacrifice of civil rights campaigner Dr Martin Luther King.

On Sunday October 29, the bridge will become the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, scene of one of the most famous moments in the civil rights movement as King and his sup- porters were attacked by police while peacefully marching across.

Freedom on the Tyne will bring together international artists, performers and community groups from across NewcastleGateshead in a unique afternoon of theatre, music, dance and art. Starting from various locations across the city, four stories of the global struggle for civil rights will be told in a unique performance, building through- out the day before coming to a climax on the Tyne Bridge. Hundreds of local actors, dancers, singers, musicians and performers will be recruited from communities from across Newcastle and Gateshead to work alongside professional artists to bring Freedom on the Tyne to life.

Behind this extraordinary event is the little-known fact that Martin Luther King visited the city to accept an honorary degree from the University of Newcastle, the only such honour accorded him by a UK institution in his lifetime. The university has been celebrating this event in a quiet way for many years, but on the 50th anniversary, it was keen to make a bigger splash. It got together with production company Northern Roots and the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, and made a bid for support from ACE’s Ambition for Excellence funding strand. ACE bosses believe that a major event like this is a way of using art to create a step change in diversity within Newcastle’s cultural offer.

The performance is part of Freedom City, a year-long, city-wide programme looking at the three themes - war, poverty and racism - of King’s acceptance speech back in 1967. For example, Newcastle’s regular Juice Music festival is taking over the Hancock museum with a celebration of the positive social changes which have taken place over the last 50 years. The Hancock is also devoting an exhibition to the story of Dr King’s visit. Other events include exhibitions at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, a painting by artist Frank Briffa at Gosforth Civic Theatre and a new installation created by a team of young writers from Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.

“The people of NewcastleGateshead will be the stars of the performance,” says Tim Supple, who will direct from a script by BAFTA-award winning playwright Roy Williams. “But even people coming to watch will be involved in a moving, inspiring and memorable afternoon. Standing together on the Tyne Bridge in a moment of reflection and solidarity for civil rights will be a powerful and striking image to send the world.”

Supple, a former artistic director of the Young Vic Theatre, has several large scale international productions on his CV, including an Indian version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Dash Arts and the epic Arabic story, One Thousand and One Nights, at Edinburgh International Festival, but he has been struck by the extraordinary level of co-operation in the city, from the local councils to local community organisations and commercial businesses.

“There’s no perfect rulebook for organising this sort of event, but there are two really important factors – the way that the creation of something pulls people together and the legacy created in getting the involvement of people not usually engaged in the arts,” he says. “It’s best to describe it as a people’s passion play. It’s not a spectacle, it’s an unforgettable experience, not just for those who take part but for everyone who sees it.”

The arena for the event is not just the bridge, “one of the best performance venues I have ever seen” says Supple, it is the city itself. Four events at four locations will look at the massacres in Amritsar, Sharpeville, Peterloo and of course, the incident at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. From there, four processions, plus a group commemorating the Jarrow march, will converge on the bridge, which bears a striking resemblance to its counterpart in Alabama.

“Despite all those tragedies,” points out Supple, “this is a story of triumph as the spirit behind these protests finally won through in terms of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.”

Vikki Leaney, senior festival and events manager at NewcastleGates- head Initiative, said organising the event on October 29 will be a major operation, even for a city well used to holding major events. “In some ways it will also be a step change for Newcastle and Gateshead too. We are used to getting organisations to co-operate here but this is like holding the Great North Run, New Year’s Eve parade and a host of political demos all at once.”

The NGI is also pleased that although the programme was kick-started by that Arts Council grant of £595,000, they estimate that they have garnered more than £1m in match funding from a variety of sources in the cities of Newcastle and Gateshead. In some ways, the event can almost be seen as a trial run for the Great Exhibition of the North, the George Osborne-inspired event designed to provide a cultural impetus to the Northern Powerhouse.

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