I’ll admit I wondered if a stage adaptation of “Locomotion” could capture the powerful voice in Jacqueline Woodson’s award-winning novel in verse. Well, it can. And it does. The show is a superior work in its own right, and an excellent addition to the fall line up at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater.
Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, the play sticks closely to the original story. Eleven year-old Lonnie, living with his foster mother, Miss Edna, is still, after four years, mourning his parents who died tragically in a house fire. Lonnie is also haunted by the bullying he experienced at a group home and his subsequent separation from his younger sister, Lili. With his pain bottled up inside, Lonnie eventually responds to his teacher’s encouragement to write his thoughts and feelings down. In contrast to his friend, Enrique, who much prefers to sing, Lonnie learns to express himself through poetry.
Over time, and despite his shock at learning Enrique has Sickle Cell Anemia, Lonnie eagerly looks to a brighter future. He begins to bond with his foster mother, anticipates seeing his new big brother, and counts down to summer when he’ll spend two weeks at camp with Lili. Lonnie hopes one day he and his sister will live together.
Nickolas Vaughan is a perfect Lonnie – mostly serious and contemplative, but like many other eleven year-olds, fun-loving, too. The scenes about him at school with Enrique are especially energetic, full of realistic banter and humor, and therefore appealing to kids. Fatima Quander has her hands full switching among four different roles: Ms. Edna, Ms. Marcus, Lili and Mama. My favorite is Ms. Edna, with her no-nonsense but loving approach to rearing Lonnie. The other roles, particularly Lili at five then eight-years old, are well done too, though Quander would’ve benefited from more distinct costume changes to help us figure out who was who more quickly. G. Alvarez Reid, as Enrique, Daddy, and the Agency Man, masterfully switches between his varied roles. His quick change in demeanor alone – from hunched teen saying “I want more baccalaitos!” to towering Dad made me wonder if he was indeed the same actor.
Hannah Crowell’s neon-colored set depicting a Brooklyn neighborhood converts into clever versions of Lonnie’s bedroom, a classroom, Ms. Edna’s kitchen, and a living room, fitting like puzzle pieces into the background (including the requisite bridge). The scenes change quickly, though not altogether noiselessly, while the changing sky helps us follow the passage of time with charming subtlety (Allen Lee Hughes).
Though Lonnie’s story is “a sad one,” as one child said, the play offers lighter moments, such as when Lonnie and Enrique sing and dance to the “Locomotion” song (the inspiration for Lonnie’s name – Lonnie Collins Motion). Another foot-tapping fun scene is where the boys create a rap version of Langston Hughes’s famous poem “Dream Variations.”
As the story does not unfold chronologically, the program (which replicates the composition book used by Lonnie to record his poems) helps to explain all the jumping forward and flashing back that goes on. “On stage, change happens fast, as quick as a memory flashes into your head.” Between these lightning quick scene changes and the same actors playing various roles, kids can easily get confused about what’s going on. Nonetheless, if they stick with it, they’ll get the gist of the story and can’t help but be touched by Woodson’s breathtaking use of language, so deftly transposed from novel to stage.
Because of the play’s mature themes, I would take the advice in the program and have kids “talk about [their] impressions of the play with other people who saw it.” In one short hour, we learn that Lonnie has lost his parents, been separated from his sister, and has found out about a friend’s serious illness. Lonnie’s life could jumpstart a conversation about hardships, about ways to cope with them, or even about the power of poetry.
Adapted by Jacqueline Woodson from her book “Locomotion”
Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson
Reviewed by Miriam Chernick
Celia Wren . Washington Post