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Rockwell inspires professor's performance piece


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The 6-year-old African-American girl in the white dress walks between four federal officers on her way to an all-white school in 1960, the wall behind her marked by a thrown tomato and a racial epithet. The Problem We All Live With is one of Norman Rockwell’s most powerful and moving works, and is part of the artist’s collection “American Chronicles” on display at the Crocker Art Museum.

Sacramento State professor emeritus and clarinetist Deborah Pittman, the museum’s Artist in Residence, has created Big Dreams, Small Shoulders, a multimedia performance based on the painting and the true story of Ruby Bridges, the little girl who inspired the painting. Performances are at 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 28, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13, at the Crocker.

Deborah Pittman

Deborah Pittman, Sacramento State professor emeritus, will give performances of Big Dreams, Big Shoulders on Dec. 28 and Jan. 13.

Perhaps better known for works that depicted a more innocent and heartwarming picture of America, Rockwell also created portraits that confronted the issue of race relations and equality. In this case, Ruby Bridges was the first African American to enter New Orleans’ all-white William Frantz Elementary School.

As a young girl, Pittman was taken to white schools by her parents for testing, and while she received invitations, declined. “When it came time to go, I was afraid,” she says. “I remember seeing Ruby on TV when I was a kid. I was impressed with her bravery.”

Big Dreams, Small Shoulders includes music, theater, poetry, puppetry and dance. In addition to Pittman, performers are Susheel Bibbs and Laura Cook as narrator/singers; Nicole Manker, Andrea Porras and Hanna Yanni are the dancers.

The performance is directed by Art Gruenberger; the life-size puppet of Ruby Bridges was created by Kristen Gray and is operated by Spencer Tregilgas, Will Klundt and Slater Penny.

Pittman’s inspiration for the show’s title came from the idea of how we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, “with each generation enduring sacrifices to elevate the next generation.”

Pittman studied many pictures of Bridges in preparation for the performance. “I was struck with how small she was and how brave she was” Pittman says. “She would square her shoulders each day and walk through that hate-filled crowd.”

Dec. 10 marked Pittman’s last academic activity at Sacramento State. She has retired from the University, but will continue to compose, create performance pieces, and expand her pottery business. She is also working on a one-act play with the working title of The Vigil, as well as writing a fountain-of-youth novel.

The Dec. 28 performance, a Family Kwanza Celebration, is free for Crocker members and $5 for nonmembers. The Jan. 13 performance is $6 for members and $12 for nonmembers. The cast will also tour and give performances for school groups and home-schooled students from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8. An $8 advance reservation is required for that. To reserve tickets, visit or call (916) 808-1182.

For more information, call the Crocker at (916) 808-7000.

– Craig Koscho