Just two months into the administration of the nation's first black president, it is easy for young people to take for granted the common struggles that plagued the lives of ordinary black families for generations. What adults might remember from experience, children never knew to begin with. It is up to families and communities to responsibly teach kids about history. And sensitive topics demand sensitive but honest approaches.
Enter the Lexington Children's Theatre and its latest production, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963.
A Reginald André Jackson adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis' book of the same title, The Watsons Go to Birmingham follows the lives of a typical black family in Flint, Mich., in 1963.
While mother and wife Wilona (played by Maya Harris) has roots in Birmingham, Ala., her husband, Daniel (Dmetrius Conley-Williams), and their three children are accustomed to big-city life up north, where they have been spared the violent, organized racism raging through the South.
When their eldest son Byron (solidly played by Terrence Thomas) begins a spree of mild trouble-making, the family packs up for Birmingham, with the hopes that a good dose of "slower" living and the wisdom of his hawk-eyed grandmother will improve Byron's behavior. However, the Watsons' time in Birmingham coincides with a racially motivated, deadly act of terror that exposes the entire family to the perils of the Jim Crow South.
Despite some halting moments and awkward transitions that rankled the integrity of the audience's suspended disbelief at Sunday's opening performance, the play offers an entertaining, imaginative, and gentle exploration of the darker elements of our past.
Jeremy Kisling, along with actor-turned-assistant-director Cathy Rawlings, deserves praise for carefully fleshed-out direction, particularly in establishing the family's web of quirks, flaws, inside jokes and general believability. For the great bulk of the play's first act, the Watson family is less defined by its racial and cultural heritage than it is an example of a regular old ordinary family that most folks, especially kids, can relate to, no matter their background. Like most families, they're imperfect but well-meaning, if slightly zany at times. The children fight, make silent truces, get in trouble and tease each other with the same ferocity and passion that they later protect each other.
Funny, inspiring and compelling, Conley-Williams' and Harris' spirited performances anchor the show in their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Watson. While the supporting cast boasts some fine performances, they did not feel cohesive and unified as an ensemble. Fortunately, this is the kind of obstacle that can improve on its own as the cast eases into the run of the show.
The show also occasionally suffered from a stilted flow of momentum. While all of the usual LCT elements were present — innovative and well-crafted sets, costume, and lighting design — the requisite magic was not.
Watching the opening show with its choppy but careful execution was a bit like hearing musicians who have just learned a new song: They hit every note, but without the confidence and feeling that will later flood subsequent performances.
Until the material seems organic, like second nature, this show might not sing like other LCT ventures. Even so, it is a fun and meaningful excursion into one family — and one nation's — complicated past.