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Past view shows kids why voting vital now

A play that traverses U.S. history is "a valuable lesson" to teach today's students why having the vote is important.

Published September 18, 2004

CLEARWATER - It was 1917 in the white man's world and Lucy Burns was defiant.

At a protest at the east gate of the White House, the women's rights leader spoke passionately of her imprisoned female friends who were force-fed oatmeal infested with worms.

A woman had been overrun by a mob and hit with a pole. Another was dragged, handcuffed and screaming, across a jailhouse courtyard.

"If you give women the vote, it will be the ruin of this great nation," yelled actor Jared O'Roark. "Women do not have the physical or mental strength to be involved in politics."

The 2,000 students attending the Eckerd Theater Company's production of Vote? on Friday were stunned.

Some of them were unaware that not long ago, women were among the groups not allowed to vote.

Only white men cast ballots - and they fought hard to keep it that way.

"I didn't know...I never knew women couldn't vote," said Lindsey Fuller, 13.

The children watched as the suffragettes prepared to die, shouting to each other in fright.

"The crowd is getting bigger..."

"They have murder in their eyes..."

"Hold the line, ladies!"

The show, an intense, 45-minute drama at Ruth Eckerd Hall, was attended by teenagers in grades six-12 from Pinellas and Hillsborough schools. The program is part of Ruth Eckerd's "SchoolTime Series," which focuses on issues of diversity and tolerance.

The play begins on Election Day and centers around 18-year-old Nicole Harrison, who feels she has better things to do than cast a ballot.

She travels back in time, starting from the Revolutionary War to the present day.

Transported to 1965, she meets Martin Luther King Jr., who teaches her about African-Americans' struggle to vote in the Deep South.

There were poll taxes and literacy tests for voters, but the tests for blacks were a little different.

The test for a white man: Who was the first President of the United States?

The test for a black man: How many feathers on a chicken?

Justin Mercer, Ruth Eckerd's marketing coordinator, said the play was a valuable lesson.

"They can relate to this. They're learning about this in school," he said.

After the show, the five actors answered questions from the audience.

"Why can't 10-year-olds vote?" asked one little boy.

"All I can tell you is the powers-that-be say you can't," O'Roark said, laughing. "But I want you to be aware there is a group of 14-year-olds in California (fighting) for the right to vote."

Afterward, the children grouped around an electronic voting booth in the lobby. They were given voting cards so they could cast ballots for the very first time, voting for Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington or even their dogs.

"I voted for John F. Kennedy," said Daniel Niles, 14, a student at Coachman Fundamental Middle School. "He's a cool guy."

They discussed the play, which seemed to have kindled their democratic spirit.

"It inspired us to vote," said Jessica Hanas, 13.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or

[Last modified September 18, 2004, 01:26:38]

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