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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008

Family Antics

Theater Review

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It is 1963. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. The Watsons are living in frigid Flint, Mich., hoping to make a better life in the north while escaping the economic and racial strife plaguing African-Americans in the South. Based on Reginald A. Jackson’s adaptation of the award-winning novel by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963 tells the story of 10-year old Kenny, his little sister Joetta and older brother Byron as they deal with life’s trials and tribulations, unaware of the civil unrest and growing violence in the South. As Byron’s juvenile delinquent antics grow, Mom and Dad decide to take a trip and drive the family to Birmingham, Ala., to visit strong-handed Grandma Sands in the hopes of straightening out Byron.

First Stage Children’s Theater is presenting the world premiere of the stage version of The Watsons. It intertwines fiction with the historic facts of the infamous bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 to stop African- American children in Birmingham from attending school.

As a result, four little girls were killed. Curtis’ book focuses more on the family interaction and less on the growing atmosphere of racial tension and emerging violence, and Jackson’s stage adaptation remains faithful to the book—to a fault. We get the humor of Byron’s bad boy behavior, playing war games, throwing matches down the toilet and skipping school. Some of the play’s funniest moments include Byron getting his tongue stuck to the rear-view mirror of the family’s car in sub zero weather or suffering the consequences of changing hairstyles much to his parents’ dismay.

But the adaptation does little to connect scenes or build momentum and understanding of the major act of racial violence. Fortunately a solid cast of actors keeps the show moving, aided by the direction of Sheri Williams Pannell. At Saturday’s 7 p.m. performance, the “Birmingham” cast of youth actors did an exceptionally fine job. As Kenny, Josiah Williams is well cast as the soft-spoken, bookish narrator, a perfect foil to older brother Byron’s cool guy attitude, expertly handled by Jeremy Tardy. And showing remarkable depth as young sister Joetta, D’Jena Kelly-Perry is a wide-eyed wonder, full of her own mind one minute, scared and acting her age the next.

The adult cast of actors brings a well-needed range of emotion to the story, including Wayne T. Carr as the Dad, Samantha Montgomery as the Mom. As the ironfisted Grandma Sands, Alma Washington commands attention— and respect. The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963 runs through Feb. 15 at The Todd Wehr Theater located in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
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