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TURNING 15 ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM Q&A with narrator Damaras Obi and director Ally Sheedy

by Emily Parliman, Editor at Listening Library

TURNING 15 ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM is an award-winning memoir by Lynda Blackmon Lowery who, at age 15, was the youngest person to walk all the way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, as part of the 1965 Selma Rights Voting March. The book was adapted for stage by director Ally Sheedy (The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire) and actress Damaras Obi. Lynda told WMAC Northeast Public Radio: “The first time I saw [Damaras] I was in awe. This girl is awesome.” We were lucky enough to have Damaras narrate the audiobook, with Ally directing. Here they discuss what it was like to adapt the memoir into a play, and then collaborate on the audiobook:

Director Ally Sheedy

Director Ally Sheedy: How has the show changed you as an actress?

Narrator Damaras Obi: I think at first, this show was something that scared me. It was political in nature and I didn’t want my first real show right after high school to be something so defining in regards to my political standing. But then I realized that as an actress, and especially as someone of color, I don’t have the privilege of ignoring these issues. Theater is powerful, and as a storyteller I have a responsibility to share the stories of others through my work. This show has definitely allowed me to take more pride and integrity in the work that I choose.

AS: How has the show changed over the past two years with different audiences?

Narrator Damaras Obi

DO: At first, the show was accepted as just a piece that we could shop around and perform every year for Black History Month. Audiences saw it and viewed it as a history lesson of hope; and it was great for children to understand the history of voting rights. After the election, the political climate in our country has changed drastically, and so did the nature of the show. The people who wanted to see this show now regarded it as a warning. This was not a history lesson, but it was history repeating itself in our world today. The question of whether or not this piece was relevant outside of the month of February became a real game changer. Now audiences of all different ages, races, and even political backgrounds have come to see the show. It’s incredibly reflective of our current times.

AS: How has the show informed your opinion of Voter Suppression and Black Lives Matter?

DO: The show made these concepts real to me in a way I never thought possible. Suddenly Voter suppression wasn’t something I had just learned in history. It was active, and it was being debated even as we developed this show over the course of two years. Black Lives Matter became a personal movement that I was determined to support. It made me question WHY saying My life Mattered was even a political argument. But then I realized that Black people are a politicized people. Our hair, our clothing, even our skin. This show made me realize that our world is still in an incredibly inhumane state, and nothing has changed. Our country has just gotten better at re-wording discrimination.

Listen to a clip read by Damaras: TURNING FIFTEEN ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM

AS: How was recording the audiobook different from performing the actual show?

DO: Recording this audiobook was an amazing experience for me! I loved every moment of it. I honestly didn’t have a hard time. In a way, the recording became more about the words and the meaning and less about lights and sound and imagery. I really felt like I was telling the story. During the process, I learned that an audiobook, especially one for children, needs to be word perfect. I believe, in that way, I really had a chance to analyze Lynda’s story in yet another way that I hadn’t been able to before. It was a wonderful experience.

AS: How has Lynda contributed to your journey?

DO: If I hadn’t met Lynda I would not have done this show. I am certain that I would have handed the book back and said, “Ally, this is a great project but I just can’t do it.” It was the fear of delving into something controversial, and REAL, that terrified me. When I met Lynda, it was a surreal experience for me. I had read about this woman during high school in my history books. I had learned about slaves and beatings, and a time in our history that so many people were determined to make me believe had “passed,” from behind a desk at school, and on a smart board. And then years later, this piece of history was sitting across from me at dinner, explaining to me that the world had lied to me my entire life. She was living proof of that lie. Lynda made me confront my denial, that history was repeating itself. It’s easy to turn off the television and ignore the shootings and the injustices after they pass, because you almost don’t want to believe it’s about something as trivial as skin color. But it’s not so easy, when history lands in your lap (quite literally) in the form of a book AND a person. Lynda has helped me look at the world in a different way. She has made me courageous and strong, and if I’m being honest, a bit intimated. At 18, I had been afraid to take on the task of this show. But at 15, Lynda was being thrown into jail and being beaten. My perspective on the world and my place in it has shifted drastically. And two years later, at 20, I can say Lynda is still changing my life in ways I never thought possible.

Praise for TURNING 15 ON THE ROAD TO FREEDOM:

A Sibert Informational Book Medal Honor Book
Kirkus Best Books of 2015
Booklist Editors’ Choice 2015
BCCB Blue Ribbon 2015

“This inspiring personal story illuminates pivotal events in America’s history.”—Booklist, starred review

“Vivid details and the immediacy of Lowery’s voice make this a valuable primary document.”—Kirkus, starred review

“One of those rare books that is genuinely accessible to a broad audience…The memoir’s brevity, compelling cadence, and well-planned chapter breaks will make it an excellent readaloud.”—BCCB, starred review

Find more diverse audiobooks at www.heardiversity.com.