Peggy Sue Dunigan
The Watsons Go to Birmingham


By - Jan 22nd, 2008 02:52 pm
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The “Brown Bomber,” a 1947 four door Plymouth sporting plenty of chrome, sits center stage amid the day to day family life portrayed in The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. This world premiere play, adapted by Reginald Andre Jackson from the classic children’s book by Christopher Curtis Chapman, touches on America’s racial unrest in the 60’s.

The first act takes place in Flint, Michigan, Chapman’s industrial hometown, and the Watson’s home life concerns sub-zero weather, welfare, school bullies and the discipline of their eldest son, “bad weather Byron.” Kenny, the story’s narrator, is a 10-year-old intellectual odd ball with a lazy eye and horn-rimmed glasses who frustrates Byron and his younger sister Joetta. When Byron refuses to learn from his continual mistakes, all five drive to Birmingham, home of their Grandma Sands, in an effort to get Byron on the right track. Protest marches and bombings in Birmingham’s streets during this time of social change show the significance of family and courage for people of any color.

The set design is important for moving the action, especially the classic Brown Bomber, which rolls back and forth on half the stage. Once again, Kurt Schnabel’s imaginative lighting effects create excitement, especially in the second act. Yet the scene sequences move somewhat slowly, and the action is unclear or confusing at times, as the Birmingham cast appears slightly removed from the emotion in the play. But Jeremy Tardy as Byron creates a believably rebellious teenager, as does young Kelly Perry’s kindergartner, Joetta. The parents play a reduced roll in the production, letting the sibling rivalry between Kenny and Byron carry the script.

It climaxes in the second act during Birmingham’s civil unrest, when the children ask “Why does hate eat them up?’ and “How’s these men hate negroes so much they could kill little girls in a church?” Whether in regards to the pivotal race riots of the 1960s or the violence still prevalent in 2008, these crucial questions warrant discussion after the performance, as these underlying issues remain timely in an increasingly diverse contemporary society.

As Kenny displays courage in protecting his brothers and sisters, people of any ethnicity will appreciate the value of family, and the notion that every family demonstrates courage when they tackle problems together. Day to day rituals, including a belief system of faith, resonate through the performance as First Stage reminds audiences that family is indeed precious, even with their troubles – it’s a great comfort in life to be surrounded by, as Grandma Sands says, “My fambly, my beautiful, beautiful fambly.” VS

First Stage Children’s Theater‘s production of The Watson Go to Birmingham – 1963 continues through February 15 at the Todd Wehr Theater, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. 414.273.7206.

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