PicksInSix Review: THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM - 1963
SUPERB ENSEMBLE, STORY DRIVE POIGNANT ‘WATSONS’
Christopher Paul Curtis’s 1995 historical novel, The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963, the source material for Cheryl L. West’s remarkable new play, now in a world-premiere production at Chicago Children’s Theatre, recounts the travels of the African-American Watson family on a road trip from Flint, Michigan into Birmingham at one of the turning points of the civil rights movement: the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963, which caused the senseless murder of four young girls preparing for church services, ignited national outrage and galvanized efforts to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Curtis’s work first came to the attention of director Wardell Julius Clark when he was a sixth grade student in Fairfield, Alabama, and it became a deeply personal story as his mother had longtime connections with the family of Denise McNair, one of the victims of the tragedy. West’s beautiful adaptation appeals to young and old with an insightful view of what happens when generational awareness intersects with childhood innocence. Clark’s carefully crafted production, infused with an evocative original score by Paris Ray Dozier, results in an atmosphere ripe for understanding and discussion about the serious emotional impact of racism on children.
The Watson family story centers on the coming-of-age experiences of young Kenny Watson (Nelson Simmons), the smart and inquisitive middle child of Mama (Sharriese Hamilton) and Daddy (Bear Bellinger) Watson. The Watsons are loving, attentive parents, but become concerned when Kenny’s rebellious older brother Byron (Stephen “Blu” Allen) skips school with his pal Buphead (Ian Paul Custer) and tries to get Kenny to cover for him. So, Daddy and Mama pack up the “Brown Bomber” with the boys and their youngest daughter, Joey (Lyric Sims), and head off for Birmingham to deliver Byron to live with his Grandma Sands (Deanna Reed-Foster).
Mama has carefully planned a three-day excursion, but Daddy decides that it will be better for everyone if they stop along the way as little as possible. This presents logistical problems, of course, and also allows for a disturbing confrontation to occur along the way. Upon arrival, Grandma Sands waits with open arms—and a dire warning that ultimately proves to be a bonding experience for the young boys and sets the stage for a series of skillfully executed moments of drama later on.
The family relationship that the two fine actors Hamilton and Bellinger create together and with their children is touching and real. As the narrative voice of the play, Simmons’s Kenny relates to every young person who struggles to cope with events as they unfold, aided by the fine work of Allen as the self-centered older brother who has his own issues. Sims is as disarmingly sweet in the role of the youngest Watson as Reed-Foster is as Grandma, with the talented Custer playing multiple roles. Scenic design by Arnel Sancianco, with lights by Jason Lynch, costumes by Izumi Inaba, sound by Kevin O’Donnell and projections by Smooch Medina evoke the open highway for the trip to Birmingham and events in the youthful experiences that Kenny tries to process and overcome.
Opening a door for discussion with children of all ages, the Watson family in West’s moving production bursts with heart and understanding–as when providing comfort to Kenny, Grandma compares the strength of family to endure hardships like the roots of trees that “no matter what’s coming at ’em, keep these trees standing strong and standing tall for years on end”—one of many valuable lessons that run deeply through this poignant work.
Casting Note: Jeremiah Ruwe (Kenny) and Jillian-Giselle (Joey) share performances for this production.
CHICAGO CHILDREN’S THEATRE
THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM —1963
weekends through May 19th
100 South Racine Avenue
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