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Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009

Witness to Racism

Theater Review

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Prejudice is a difficult subject to tackle, but First Stage Children's Theater is no stranger to such thorny subjects. Based on a popular book by Karen Hesse, Witness deals with race in the 1920s, showing how a small Vermont town is affected by the infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan. First Stage's production runs through Feb. 22 at the Marcus Center.

Hesse does a nice job of contrasting the specter of the Klan with the town's longtime reputation for friendliness and neighborliness. This is fully evident in John Urquhart's stage adaptation. The residents who most strongly fear the Klan are two father-daughter families; one is Jewish and the other is African-American.

The adult actors stand out in their sympathetic portraits of the townsfolk. Sarah (played by Sarah Day) shines as a beacon of common sense. She is a single, older woman who takes in the Jewish family as boarders. Sarah has a reputation for being cranky, but this is tempered by her affection for the adorable six-year-old daughter (Sydney Salter). This kid is a natural, and her innocent charm wins the audience's hearts as well as Sarah's. Her doting father is played by Richard Ganoung. The story's African American girl (Ishtar Njaaga) must endure the taunts of her classmates and the unkind stares of their parents. Her character seems immune to this unfair treatment, refusing to let others see her pain. An unlikely friendship with an elderly man (Robert Spencer) softens her generalizations about "white folks."

Witness demonstrates how people viewed their world, sometimes with compassion and wisdom, sometimes with ignorance. In these initial days of the Obama administration, it's interesting to look back at a time when blatant acts of bigotry and hated were tolerated-and even praised.

First Stage advertises the play as suitable for ages 10 and older. Witness has numerous themes and incidents that no doubt would upset younger children (the least of which is the mysterious death of a pet dog). However, the play has no onstage violence, and most of the disturbing events are referenced only in the dialogue. Still, the disclaimer is appropriate.

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