By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Twenty-five years ago, Christopher Paul Curtis’ first book “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” was published. The story, narrated by middle child Kenny Watson, follows the Watson’s trip from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama.
The story begins with Kenny lying behind the couch. He recounts the events leading up the family’s road trip while grappling with the aftermath of what he’s witnessed.
The book is a historical-fiction novel based partially on Curtis’ own family and the race relations of the 60s, which were reaching a boiling point and ultimately led to the Civil Rights Movement.
First Stage will be performing “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” at the Todd Wehr Theater, 121 E. State St., starting Friday, Jan. 21 to Sunday, Feb. 13. The play is based on the book by Curtis and adapted by Cheryl L. West.
Jeff Frank is the artistic director at First Stage and one of the play’s co-directors along with Brandite Reed, a Milwaukee-based actor, playwright and director. Reed works with Black Arts MKE and is affiliated with First Stage’s education academy.
The production company chose this play in part because it’s the 25th anniversary of the book, Frank said, but mostly because it’s a story of family and growing up complete with sibling dynamics, rebellion, smitten parents and more.
“There’s a lot of love and laughter in this book that is set in turbulent time in our nation,” he said. “It’s so rich and wonderful and complex.”
During one of the novel’s most harrowing chapter’s Curtis details the story of the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in which four girls were killed. Kenny goes off in search of his younger sister, Joetta, who was attending Sunday school at the church. Joetta is found safe and sound, but Kenny is left reeling from what he has witnessed.
Reed, who is also the understudy for Cynthia Cobb (Grandma Sands) and Krystal Drake (Mama), noted that the book takes on a historical moment in time and by incorporating the art of theatre, it becomes a learning moment.
Because the story is told from Kenny’s perspective, the reader and in this case the audience, only see bits and pieces of what happened that year. The story is a collection of Kenny’s kaleidoscopes of memories, Frank said, and they’re fragmented.
As such, Frank and Reed asked the actors to take on physical challenges when it came to portraying certain scenes such as when Kenny’s older brother Bryon’s lips get stuck to the car – which in this portrayal is a couch.
“These actors have a way of pulling you in and making you feel involved,” Reed said. “We have some heavy hitters in these casts.”
In the well-known whirlpool or Wool Pooh scene, Reed led the actors through capoeira exercises, a Brazilian martial art which incorporates dance and acrobatics. This helped the cast’s physical experience on stage, Reed said.
The themes that resonated when the book was first published, continue to resonate today, Frank remarked. The story emphasizes the importance of family and how they help one another deal with the internal and external challenges.
At one point, Grandma Sands reflects that no matter how tangled one’s roots get, they still offer support.
For Reed, it is a pleasure to see a real depiction of an African American family structure.
“They love so hard, and they push so hard,” she said. “And I like that this show shows a clear picture of that.”
She hopes that audience members leave the play with something to reflect on.
“I hope that they all take something away,” she said. “If it’s a family or a group, that they all have discussion pieces. I don’t want to dictate what they talk about, but I want them to talk about it.”
For tickets, go to firststage.org. The show’s pay what you choose performance will take place on Friday, Jan. 28. Tickets for pay what you choose performances are available on a first come first served basis. Patrons are encouraged to arrive early or pre-order by calling 414-267-2961.