Nashville Children's Theatre's STRONG INSIDE Offers Emotional View of the Segregated South

Compelling World Premiere Production Opens NCT's 2023-24 Season

By: Sep. 23, 2023
Nashville Children's Theatre's STRONG INSIDE Offers Emotional View of the Segregated South

Nashville has come a long way since its sordid, shameful and violent Jim Crow past and perhaps nowhere has that evolution been more evident than in the segregation of two cultural areas: church and theater. Oftentimes over the past four decades during which I’ve been covering theater in Tennessee’s capital city, I’ve heard it expressed that no two places have Nashvillians found themselves more segregated than in church on Sunday morning and in a theater most any time a show was in performance.

Nashville Children's Theatre's STRONG INSIDE Offers Emotional View of the Segregated South
Photos by Michael Scott Evans

In 2023, mercifully, we can attest to the fact that things have changed, however incrementally, particularly in the past decade. No theater entity has been more instrumental in bringing Nashville audiences into the 2lst century than Nashville Children’s Theatre, the venerable company that specializes in theater for younger audiences which has distinguished itself over the years by making all people feel welcome in its home by presenting works that reflect the social/cultural/racial/economic/political make-up of its hometown.

The reason I conflate theater attendance with church-going in this instance is that during a cursory Wikipedia search for more information on Perry Wallace Jr., the young man who was the first Black athlete signed to an athletic scholarship at Vanderbilt University and the subject of a new world premiere play at NCT, I learned that University Church of Christ (which was located across the street from the Vandy campus during Wallace’s matriculation there) asked him not to attend services because of his race. That alone proves the level of prejudice and bias endured by the native Nashvillian – the very son of the city in which his athletic exploits were renowned and revered – and which makes his story all the more compelling and intriguing. And deeply moving.

Nashville Children's Theatre's STRONG INSIDE Offers Emotional View of the Segregated South Thanks to Andrew Maraniss’ best-selling book Strong Inside – adapted for the stage by Tyrone L. Robinson – Wallace’s storied basketball career in the Southeastern Conference and the details of his upbringing in the segregated South are now brought vividly to life onstage in a history-making production from NCT, the third-oldest theater for younger audiences in the United States. Founded in 1931 by members of the Junior League of Nashville, there can be no denying that NCT, like its hometown itself and one of its favorite sons (Wallace), has been reflective of the growing diversity of its people and the evolution of its cultural and educational institutions.

Co-directed by celebrated actress Tamiko Robinson Steele (in her directorial debut) and Ernie Nolan (NCT’s artistic director), Strong Inside is a fast-paced and thoroughly engaging play that appeals to audiences of all ages, while offering sublime entertainment while offering lessons about Nashville’s sometimes overlooked role in the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. Robinson’s script for Strong Inside offers an edifying glimpse into Wallace’s life growing up in North Nashville as a straight-A student, more inclined to play music than to play basketball. Wallace’s subsequent introduction to the sport by a beloved cousin who sparked his imagination, further ignites his goals for success and accomplishment instilled in him by his parents. Inspiring and heartfelt, those scenes resonated deeply with every member of the audience during the opening weekend performance reviewed.

Nashville Children's Theatre's STRONG INSIDE Offers Emotional View of the Segregated South
Gerold Oliver as Perry Wallace Jr.

Performed by a three-member cast – NCT veterans Gerold Oliver and James Rudolph II are joined by Will Henke – who bring a plethora of characters to life (along with Robinson Steele, who plays Perry’s mother and teachers in voice-overs and projections), deepening the connection for audience members, whether they are newcomers to the theater or longtime followers of Wallace’s exploits on the basketball court or in the courtroom (after leaving Vanderbilt, he subsequently became an attorney and law professor).

The seemingly omnipresent Oliver delivers a particularly impressive performance in the leading role, allowing us entre into Perry’s life under very stressful conditions, while capturing the fierce family loyalty and abiding love that sustained him and powers the actor throughout the scant one-hour of playing time. Rudolph does yeoman work, playing so many different and varied characters with such ease that audiences may be surprised – even those aware of the depth of his resume and the versatility of his every performance – by his stunning versatility. Henke, an alumnus of Vanderbilt who has been making his presence felt on other Nashville stages for the past couple of years, creates an equally noteworthy performance that surely is the best we’ve seen from him to date. The deft directorial hand of Robinson Steele, herself a Nashville native, is felt almost imperceptibly throughout the play, with Nolan’s years of experience offering strong support.

Nashville Children's Theatre's STRONG INSIDE Offers Emotional View of the Segregated South Wallace’s story is compelling, not only for the notoriety of his basketball prowess – he was part of the unbeaten Pearl High School squad that earned the first integrated boys’ basketball championship in TSSAA (Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association) history in 1966, prior to signing with Vandy – and being the first Black scholarship athlete in the SEC, but also for the universality of every aspect of his personal tale that ensures every playgoer can identify with part of his story. Growing up in West Tennessee, I remember as an eight-year-old boy hearing people respectfully discuss the stunning successes of Pearl High athletes and how every other basketball team in the state were awestruck by their unequaled power and on-court/off-court conduct. I have no doubt there were some disrespectful things said, as well, but we didn’t hear those in my house.

Of course, no story of the first Black basketball player in SEC history in the 1960s is authentic without the consideration of the reality of those times: Wallace bore the brunt of generations of scorn and prejudice as the lone Black player on the Vanderbilt team, enduring every slight and insult while suffering the loneliness of being the only one of “his kind” on the team and one of very few minority students on the VU campus. Robinson sets these scenes against the backdrop of larger, more newsworthy events of the era, to unflinchingly offer young theater-goers a vision of how things were in that vile time in American history, but he and the rest of the creative team never allow themselves to go over-the-top (no matter how much I wanted them to; but I am no longer of middle-school age, so I’m not necessarily their target audience) with more graphic images or inflammatory rhetoric. Rather, they tell the unvarnished truth in such a way that Perry Wallace’s place in history and his unique perspective are both given respect.

Nashville Children's Theatre's STRONG INSIDE Offers Emotional View of the Segregated South Creatively, Nashville Children’s Theatre’s artists infuse their production of Strong Inside with the same high-caliber qualities that exemplify the company’s reputation. Scott Leathers lighting and sound design are extraordinary – both in setting the scene for the play and giving even more gravitas to its story – and with William Kyle Odum and Sam Lowery’s projection design (and Billy Ditty’s superb costumes) providing visuals that linger in one’s mind long after the play has ended. Special notice is commanded by the superb sound design by Marsalis Turner, who provides a heretofore unequaled auditory experience for the audience throughout; especially impactful were those scenes in which Oliver as Wallace plays basketball or practices his dunk shot, and you feel as if are actually there even when you realize there’s not a real basketball in Oliver’s hand. Never before have I wept at a similar scene, but the perfection of Turner’s sound design certainly made me do that at Strong Inside.

Strong Inside. By Tyrone L. Robinson, adapted for the stage from the book by Andrew Maraniss. Directed by Tamiko Robinson Steele and Ernie Nolan. Stage managed by Abby Locke Austin and Joe Mobley. Presented by Nashville Children’s Theatre. Through September 26, 2023. Running time: 65 minutes, with no intermission. For further information, go to

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From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner launched Dare, Tennes... Jeffrey Ellis">(read more about this author)

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