We knew when we walked into the Kennedy Center Family Theater space, this was not going to be an ordinary play. And when the central character, Ikarus, appeared, we just knew this was no ordinary story about the new kid at school. This curious boy, with red ribbons twisted into his hair, carrying a shiny backpack that kept twitching and yanking him out of his seat, was hiding something live back there.
Even before the performance started, kids walking down the aisles to their seats nodded in approval at Meghan Raham’s inviting set with its fantastic depth and saturated colors. It aptly translated to the stage Christopher Myers’ collage-style illustrations from his book “Wings.” I heard one kid mutter, “Not boring!” And he was right.
The Wings of Ikarus Jackson is dance-theater at its finest, a human story delivered through words, music, and, especially, movement.When the show began and the electronic score by MacKenzie Lewis kicked in, it was as if a whole urban street scene came to life. Characters popped up in separate windows, bringing an apartment building to life as a “day in the life” hummed into being, leading us into a show that was lively and well paced throughout.
The musical has some strong “bones” in its lineage. Christopher Myers, the son of well-known writer Walter Dean Myers, cut his teeth as an illustrator on collaborations with his father. His own book, on which this production is based, is nothing less than gorgeous. Jerome Hairston, who adapted the book for the stage, is an award winning playwright. Both Myers and Hairston have received attention and support for their work at the Kennedy Center before, and it is a tribute to the Kennedy Center Family Theater that these talents have been brought together.
Devanand Janki (Off-Broadway credits include Zanna, Don’t!) may be the most brilliant collaborator on the show. As Director and Choreographer, Janki’s not afraid to use everything at hand to create a montage style that is as accessible and captivating to boys as it is to girls, bringing in athletics, street walks, hip hop, elements of fight choreography, as well as mime, modern dance, and ballet. He has choreographed sequences where every sound gets a corresponding movement, switching often between a slow, dream-like quality that gets interrupted by sharp movements and framed by characters in suspended pauses.
The performers realize Janki’s choreographic style wonderfully, communicating multiple characters and relationships. F. Lewis Feemster, as Jogger, pounds pavement, oblivious to all but the sound in his earphones. Lynette Rathnam as Cris, a painfully shy adolescent, winds her way to school, all the while keeping her nose in a book. Neville Braithwaite nearly brings down the house as an old immigrant woman anxiously shuffling across a road against traffic.
Felicia Curry springs into a game of hop scotch as if it were a test of do or die. Mark Hairston floats around the stage as a Pigeon in one scene then, in the next, strides stiff leggedly into the classroom as a teacher determined to make every class an inspiring lesson in the laws of physics.
Andreu Honeycutt plays the title role of Ikarus, the outsider taunted by classmates and made to feel unwelcome because of his “differences.” He is most appealing and moves comfortably between the many styles of dance asked of him. His relationship with Cris ends up making him reveal how very special his “differences” are and involves a chase across the city with Ikarus flying over buildings.
One of my favorite scenes is when three bullies (played by Curry, Feemster and Braithwaite), all swaggering with attitude, take Ikarus on in a three-on-one “game” of street ball. They’ve got the numbers. But he’s got the wings. I loved how the choreography incorporated fast jabs and throws (accompanied by great sound effects) with acrobatics and cover-of Sports-Illustrated slam dunks.
The biggest challenge in this production is how to communicate Ikarus in flight. It’s achieved with a combination of scrim, lighting, projections, sound effects, and swooping balletic movements that are quite inventive.
I am not sure I understand the connection of this modern tale to the boy (Icarus) in the Greek myth who attempted to fly too close to the sun and, when the heat melted his wax wings, plunged into the sea. To me it’s more linked to the the African-American spiritual “All God’s Chilluns’ Got Wings”. The story surely wants to remind us that every child, no matter how “different,” is a precious child and maybe hides an angel whom one should treat with tender devotion.
Certainly, the theme of persecution and bullying factors hugely in the The Wings of Ikarus Jackson, as we watch how the new boy gets treated. But isn’t persecution a more insidious and complex issue than the central story? What about when Felicia Curry’s bully girl is called “ Shorty” and “Stump” just because she’s “vertically challenged”? Might her feistiness be a way to compensate for her having been put down in other circumstances? Similarly, I challenge those audience members who whooped it up laughing at the Old Woman. Are we meant to find aged infirmity funny? This is what happens when theater and literature for young people start hammering themes and a take-home moral; you risk letting loose the politically correct watchdogs.
On the subject of children’s theater, another aspect that’s always been a curious one for me is how adults playing children so often fall into the trap of using loud and artificially flat “outside voices.” Having been in the education business, I have rarely heard children sound like that in real life. Rathnam and Curry are both so wonderful physically – Rathnam lithe and graceful and Curry like a powerful ball of fire – that it’s a pity both women don’t entirely trust their believability but at times push the vocal aspect of “playing at” being young people.
Still, there is plenty to enjoy in the show. In a spectacular climax, Cris seems to throw herself off a tall bridge scaffolding to the horrow of the policeman and citizens below. Does she slip accidentally or does she intentionally risk her life because she knows that her new friend Ikarus can swoop down and save her?
Their swirling fall becomes a graceful duet between Rathnam and Honeycutt which winds up the story beautifully. Cris’ rescue by a hero with wings proves there is magic indeed in theater.
The Wings of Ikarus Jackson
Adapted by Jerome Hairston from the book Wings by Christopher Myers
Music by R. MacKenzie Lewis
Directed and Choreographed by Devanand Janki
Produced by The Kennedy Center Family Theater
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 45 minutes with no intermission