Through a different lens, brightly

Sacramento writer Ginger Rutland brings her mother’s civil-rights-era story to the stage

Former Sacramento Bee editorial writer Ginger Rutland first adapted her mother Eva Rutland’s 1964 memoir <i>The Trouble with Being a Mama</i>, in 2007.

Former Sacramento Bee editorial writer Ginger Rutland first adapted her mother Eva Rutland’s 1964 memoir The Trouble with Being a Mama, in 2007.

photos by lisa baetz

When We We Were Colored premieres at 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 21, at the Pioneer Congregational United Church of Christ, 2700 L Street. Tickets are $20. There will be additional performances at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 6 p.m. Sundays, through August 30. For more information, visit or

There's no doubt being black in America isn't easy. Certainly, the community is often portrayed in the media as one plagued by poverty, isolation and violence—serving as a grim reminder that the quest for civil rights remains an ongoing endeavor.

Yet while there is no shortage of horrific examples of the brutality inflicted on blacks in this country—headlines involving deadly police force against Michael Brown and Eric Garner instantly come to mind—there is also a wealth of stories that don’t fall into the pit of despair and marginalization. Stories that speak to the strength and courage of those who survived the injustices cultivated by institutionalized racism.

Such is the story of Eva Rutland and her family. Rutland, a writer whose work appeared in the pages of magazines such as Redbook and Woman’s Day in the ’50s and ’60s, fled the segregated south in 1952 and landed in Sacramento. And in her 1964 book, The Trouble With Being a Mama, she recalled her experiences raising a family while acclimating to a slowly changing world and culture.

In 2007, in homage to her mother’s story, Ginger Rutland republished that memoir under the title When We Were Colored. Now, Ginger, an award-winning journalist formerly with The Sacramento Bee, is bringing that story to the stage with an adaption that will premiere Friday, August 21, at the Pioneer Congregational United Church of Christ.

What the younger Rutland discovered in reacquainting the public with her mother’s story was that there was more to Eva than her role as the Rutland matriarch.

“What I got out of it was a real appreciation for my mother as a writer,” Rutland said. “I didn’t know how good a writer she was, and I write for living.”

With this profound understanding of her mother’s work, Ginger began to contemplate the deeper meaning within the message borne out of Eva’s experience. She was invigorated by the idea that there was more to the story of black America than what was commonly being told.

Ginger was further inspired by a 2014 trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where she says she witnessed a robust catalog of plays that fed into the notion that the black experience was one of woe, where no glimmer of happiness existed.

“One of the pieces that I saw was called Ruined,” she explained. “It’s about the black Congo, and it was about rape, and it was really, really horrific—horrifically sad.”

Actors Shawna James and Kelton Howard work on a scene from <i>When We Were Colored</i>.

It was then that Ginger decided to adapt her mother’s memoir into a play that would celebrate the triumphs and successes within the black community.

“I went to the people in Ashland and I said, ’Hey, guys, I’ve been black all my life and it ain’t that bad,” she explained. “You know, I had a very happy life, and I think you should do happier stories about black people where it’s not all despair and pain and suffering.”

The festival organizers agreed and set Ginger on a mission to transform her mother’s words into a living, breathing story—a feat that she says her professional experience did not exactly prepare her for.

Determined to bring the story from the page onto the stage, Ginger took set design and playwriting classes at Sacramento City College to familiarize herself with the world of theater. She also sought out players within the local theatrical community to guide her efforts in transforming the narrative.

“Everybody who looked at it said, ’You’re doing something wrong,’ and I made adjustments based on their advice,” she said.

It wasn’t until she found her director, Maggie Adair Upton, however, that the story fleshed out into a piece of work ready for the stage.

“Someone directed me to Maggie, and she looked at my script and she massaged it and fixed it,” Ginger said.

With a sturdy mentor in Upton, Eva’s ability to bring every word on the page to life through her thoughtful and descriptive prose, and the actors Shawna James (Eva Rutland), Kelton Howard (Bill Rutland) and Brooklynn Solomon (Ginger), the story metamorphosed from a memory to be reborn into the present.

Ginger and Upton both say When We Were Colored is a piece that’s constantly evolving. As with any creative endeavor, it’s a living entity that demands nurturing.

“There’s such a wealth of information. A lot of people knew Eva Rutland and know Ginger,” Upton explained. “It was a matter of taking it out of a memoir so that it was not a memory, but something that happened, and translating the memories into more a present situation so that it was happening now, instead of being remembered.”

The play tells Eva’s story of a middle-class black family thriving in the dawn of the civil-rights movement. It’s a personal journey with wide-reaching power. For Ginger the work is not only a celebration of her mother’s work, but of a daughter’s appreciation for her talent.

“When you’re young, your mom is just your mom, and she doesn’t seem to be particularly special. You know, she’s just mom,” she said. “As I got older, I finally understood she was more.”