I had a wonderful time at The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, a Theater for Young Audience’s world premiere Kennedy Center commission, on stage at the Center’s Eisenhower Theater through March 24th.
The piece is moving, delightfully performed, and stingingly relevant.
The Watsons of the title are an African-American family who live in Flint, Michigan, but who travel south to Birmingham, Alabama, so that their oldest son, Byron, who is teetering on the edge of getting into too much trouble, can spend a summer with the extended family and, they hope, get himself more centered and stable.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963
closes March 24, 2019
Details and tickets
Byron’s parents and two younger siblings (a boy and a girl) first take the road trip to Alabama (consulting the “Green Book” that has become more broadly familiar since the Oscar-winning film of that name) and then arrive.
The play (based on the Newbery Medal winning book by Christopher Paul Curtis) is told in flashback from the perspective of younger brother Kenny, whose older self is a kind of deejay. The play is full of delightful detail not only about the historical period, but also as the play delineates family dynamics that will be familiar to anyone who ever drove distances with siblings.
And the plot involves two notorious historical events with which the two cities of the story are forever associated: The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963 that killed four young girls, and the more recent — and on-going — water crisis in Flint.
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The least satisfying aspect of the narrative (which I presume, but don’t know for sure, is carried over from the book) is that the Flint crisis is alluded to but is not nearly as central to the story as is the Birmingham bombing. Consequently, it not only feels tacked on and not fleshed out, but also it misses the opportunity to connect the two in a more dramatic way. Were there more details about the water crisis and its effect on the family, there could be a much stronger thru-line demonstrating governmental inattention and societal hostility toward African-Americans as both a historical and an on-going injustice.
Glad as I am to have seen the show, I (as a critic) didn’t pay for my ticket. And, although I’m sure that many who did pay were as appreciative of the experience as I was, it did occur to me that others may have wondered about a performance with a top ticket of $50 that is not only short (sixty-five minutes) but is also presented as a partially-staged reading. (The term of art employed in the program is “staged concert reading.”). The actors hold scripts, and often stand behind music stands.
This is the last production composed by Darius Smith, who passed away suddenly before final rehearsals. He has left behind a striking score that certainly adds value and heft: a singer (Nova Y. Payton) who is backed by The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra (eleven strong, if I’m reading the program accurately).
Faye M. Price (the stage director) and Joey Chancey (the music director) have realized the material about as well as could be expected, given the circumstance that has them and their team stopped short of a full production. But the need for performers to continually look down at the script creates an inevitable, if occasional, tentativeness and awkwardness. Some lines sound “read” rather than lived-in, the way that this capable cast would have delivered them had they had longer time to rehearse and explore the script, and to fully memorize the text.
Tichina Arnold and J. Bernard Calloway as the parents, and Chad L. Coleman and Dante Myles Hoagland as older and younger versions of Kenny, all have lovely moments. Alicia Grace as daughter Joey (replacing Hailey Kilgore, who was announced to play the role; I saw and very much admired Kilgore as the lead in the recent Broadway revival of Once on This Island) stepped up and blended seamlessly into the ensemble.
There were two stand-outs, though, among the cast.
Justin Weaks as Byron brought a compelling presence to the role, and also beautifully balanced the character’s rebellious side with his affection for and devotion to his family. Byron is the most challenging role in the play. In lesser hands, the character’s range would not have been so deftly and convincingly captured.
In perhaps the smallest role, Isabell Monk O’Connor (who, the program informs us, came out of her retirement to join this cast) is a treat: vivid and colorful — a character and an actor that you yearn to spend more time with.
In addition to bringing out the best of her cast, director Price has also worked with the designers to present a handsome environment: Daniel Conway did the set, Trevor Bowen the costumes, Dan Covey the lighting, Roc Lee the sound, and Sarah Tundermann the projections that memorialize the faces of the beautiful children lost at the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963.
One of the reasons that the production felt so powerful to me is that I was watching it so soon after the world suffered yet another hate-inspired atrocity. Grief over the vile murder of four precious children inspired this work, and the play reminds us that the need to struggle for justice is an ever-present imperative, and that, in the wake of atrocity, art is an essential coping mechanism.
Did I mention I was happy to have seen it?
The Watsons Got to Birmingham — 1963. by Christina Ham . Music by Darius Smith . From the book by Christopher Paul Curtis . Directed by Faye M. Price . Featuring Tichina Arnold, J. Bernard Calloway, Chad L. Coleman, Alicia Grace, Dante Myles Hoagland, Isabell Monk O’Connor, Nova Y. Payton, and Justin Weaks . Music Direction by Joey Chancey . Scenic Designer: Daniel Conway . Costume Designer: Trevor Bowen . Lighting Designer: Dan Covey . Projections Designer: Sarah Tundermann . Sound Designer: Roc Lee . Production Stage Manager: Maribeth Chaprnka . Produced by the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.