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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013

First Stage’s ‘To The Promised Land’

Meaningful theater for young audiences

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Ruth, an African-American student at Milwaukee’s Fourth Street School, grieving her brother’s murder by police during the city’s battles for open housing, has gone truant. Forced back to school, she is assigned to give a class presentation on Golda Meir, Israel’s Prime Minister. It’s 1969. Meir is about to visit Ruth’s school, the very school she attended as a girl in Milwaukee. One day it will bear her name.

From pogroms in her native Russia, to discrimination in Milwaukee’s Jewish ghetto, to the struggle for a homeland in the Middle East, Meir’s life has profound resonance for Ruth as she ponders the present promise of Milwaukee. This is the daring premise of Jonathan Gillard Daly’s new play, To The Promised Land, the second of six world premieres planned by First Stage under the collective title The Wisconsin Cycle.

First Stage is in the vanguard of a revolution in theater for younger audiences. Several decades old, this revolution has toppled the belief that children deserve stories devoid of real-life circumstance performed by adult actors in sometimes-deliberate mockery of childhood. First Stage has been a leader in advancing the claim of the famous Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski that the only difference between children’s and adult theater is that, since children are more discriminating, productions aimed at them require a higher degree of artistry.

A national leader in theater for young audiences, First Stage is seen by writers, agents and publishing houses as a company that can be trusted to develop artistically sound scripts that other companies will adopt. First Stage’s rendition of the Broadway hit The Wiz (premiered 2010) is now a standard for children’s theater. That success led to this season’s adaptation of Big, The Musical. The first of The Wisconsin Cycle commissions, Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly by acclaimed playwright Y York runs Jan. 24-Feb. 10 at the Nashville Children’s Theatre. It tells the story of Della Wells, a contemporary Milwaukee African-American visual artist.

First Stage remains a pioneer in age-appropriate casting—still not universal in children’s theater—casting child actors as child characters. The company’s world premieres position children to originate key roles. Running through Jan. 27, Mole Hill Stories is a bilingual adaptation of author/illustrator Lois Ehlert’s work. Adapted by UW-Milwaukee’s Alvaro Saar Rios, the show was developed through improvisations by First Stage child actors that were led by Danceworks choreographer Dani Kuepper.

The Wisconsin Cycle takes other brave steps. Broken are the rules that successful young-audience plays must spring from literature, and that the more familiar the book to parents, the more kids in seats. More radically, the focus is the cultural history of Milwaukee’s minorities. Rios is writing a coming segment reflecting Mexican-American culture. Sheri Williams Pannell is writing about Milwaukee’s Bronzeville. A Midnight Cry, resident playwright James DeVita’s 2003 play about Milwaukee’s Underground Railroad, will be revived.

The Cycle is the brainchild of Jeff Frank, First Stage’s artistic director since 2003. “We’ve received so many accolades and thank you’s over the years,” he said. “This is a way to give back.” He adds, “We are a community of many cultures. Part of our mission is to reveal those cultures, to recognize our commonalities.”

Says Pannell, who is directing To The Promised Land: “We really have not come as far as Golda Meir and Father Groppi had hoped we would by 2013 in terms of peace in the Middle East and segregation in Milwaukee.”

Milwaukee natives Daly and Pannell remember the 1967 uprisings, the marches and Meir’s visit. Daly became interested in Meir when his daughter enrolled at the Golda Meir School. He learned that Meir spoke of identifying with the black struggle in Milwaukee.

Can the Irish Catholic Daly write black characters? Pannell, an African-American, thinks so. “When you’re a seeker of truth, you do your homework so it can awaken truth in somebody else,” she said. “When we’re rehearsing, we see out the window the same cream city brick buildings Golda Meir saw on Third Street. This is the legacy; now what are you going to do with it? This is what Jon is doing with it.”

Jonathan Gillard Daly’s
To The Promised Land runs Jan. 25-Feb. 10 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, 929 N. Water St. Call 414-273-7206 or visit www.firststage.org.

John Schneider is a playwright/performer, a member of Marquette University’s performing arts faculty and the Shepherd Express’ editorial staff.