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History lands a role in theater

The church bombing in 1963 was horrific. Years later, the emotions it stirred in Hubert Grissom have made their way onstage.

Published January 11, 2007



Hubert Grissom has an impeccable Southern pedigree. He was born in Cullman, Ala., a small town north of Birmingham. He was a frat boy at Birmingham-Southern College. He got his law degree from Duke. For 22 years he was in a corporate law firm in Birmingham, eventually making partner and representing clients such as the Birmingham News.

Like many Southerners of his generation, Grissom, 64, was transformed by the civil rights movement. For him, a defining moment came on the Sunday morning of Sept. 15, 1963, when he was at his fraternity house, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and heard an explosion from 2 miles away.

The explosion came from the Ku Klux Klan's bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in which four black girls were killed.

"It was a horrific event, but it was also nothing unusual," Grissom says. "We would hear bombings all the time in Birmingham. Hate crimes and what came to be called the civil rights movement - there was no name for it then - were happening all around us."

Much has changed in the past 40 years-plus for Grissom. In 1995, he moved from Alabama to Boca Raton to go into treatment for substance abuse.

He now lives in Tampa and works as litigation director for the Advocacy Center for Persons With Disabilities, a federally funded watchdog group.

"It's kind of my second career," Grissom says. "I came to this concerned for persons with mental health and substance abuse problems, which I personally have had."

Grissom has also become a playwright. His play about the Birmingham church bombing, BapBomb, premieres in a production by Stageworks. The play's title was the FBI code name given to the bombing.

Set in 1988, Grissom's play is centered on a senior partner at a Birmingham law firm and his responsibility for recently discovered wiretap tapes of the klan in connection with the murders.

"The play examines the deep origins of American hate crimes and illegal wiretaps by the politically powerful, imputing criminal knowledge to these sad men who could have prevented the bombing," Grissom says.

Grissom, who had two plays produced in Birmingham in the early 1990s, has worked on BapBomb for years. There were staged readings of it by Gypsy Productions in St. Petersburg and Key West in 2004.

"I need a lot of dramaturgy," says Grissom, giving credit to Stageworks producing artistic director Anna Brennen for putting him in contact with literary and dramatic experts in Tampa, Minneapolis and Chicago to advise on the play.

"Hubert did a beautiful job tearing it down and rewriting it," Brennen says. "He knows so much. His whole world was in the play, and we needed to find the story within the world."

Brennen has high hopes for BapBomb. "A friend of mine described it as a brilliant Southern Boston Legal, and it is," she says, referring to the mordant TV series. "But it goes beyond that. The South repeats its history every 50 years - that's a line in the play - and if we don't know history, we're doomed to repeat it."

Grissom still has deep family ties to Alabama. "I love the state, I love the people, but I was disappointed in that era," he says of the racial strife that marked the years when George Wallace was governor. "I spent my career trying to defeat Wallace."

But the lawyer and playwright sees his newfound home state as not too different from Alabama.

"The state of Florida's got just as many foibles," Grissom says. "Florida's got a lot of Alabama in it, particularly north of Tampa."

John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or




By Hubert Grissom, it opens at 7 tonight and runs through Jan. 28 in a Stageworks production at Gorilla Theatre, 4419 N Hubert Ave., Tampa. $15-$25; $10 student rush 30 minutes before show. (813) 879-2914.

[Last modified January 10, 2007, 09:59:57]

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