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Chicago Children’s Theatre’s ‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963’ is a tender ode to family, perseverance

By Quinn Rigg | April 3, 2019

It is easy to submit to hatred—to relinquish oneself to dark insecurities and lash out in fear of the unknown. Conversely, love is much stronger than hatred. Love requires significant work; it takes time, patience, comfort, and an abundance of joy to overcome painful obstacles. Love is what often keeps us rooted when the world is turbulent and unfamiliar. Through the strongest winds and coldest winters, a tree’s roots ground it to the earth, stalwart, strong.

Chicago Children’s Theatre’s latest production heralds that love is the root of human perseverance. Chicago Children’s Theatre’s production of The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 is a poignant, heartwarming, galvanizing love letter to the beautiful — if not maddening — complexities of family life. Originally a beloved children’s book by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 has been adapted to stage by Cheryl L. West with loving accuracy—little has been changed from the original work, a synopsis of which will be found here.

Though not a musical by design, music is an integral aspect of the motion of this play’s narrative. As the Watsons travel into the depths of Alabama from their native Flint, Michigan, the records they bring along become the soundtrack to Kenny’s departure from the comfort of boyhood into the unknowable horrors of the world around him—a struggle shared by children and adults alike throughout the play. Compositions by Paris Ray Dozier are designed with the sound of the early 60s in mind; the tasteful tunes do well to draw an audience’s ear to a relevant turning point in American history.

Director Wardell Julius Clark poetically constructs the Watson family’s journey through captivating moments of stillness and enrapturing moments of surprises both delightful and horrific. The use of an alley orientation in the intimate Pritzker Family Studio Theater space place emphasis on the subtleties of characters that are bound to one another—every move and every word can be held under scrutiny and observation. This spyglass effect of space’s intimacy is to the benefit of the staging, as a car filled with disgruntled Watsons becomes a playground for dynamic character relationships. The facade of the vehicle serves as a distillation of the entire play — a concentrated pill of the Watson family’s quarrels, resolutions, and joyful celebrations.

Clark’s direction is expertly intertwined with sound design by Kevin O’Donnell, each car door slam and echoing the line of dialogue timed tightly with the action on stage. There is an engrossing depth to O’Donnell’s sound design that imbues inherent energy into the ambiance of a given scene; from crickets in a dark forest to the tragic church explosion, O’Donnell’s soundscape is immersive and striking from the get-go.

Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco plays to Clark’s dramatically interpretive vision, painting the stage as a roadmap that runs across the room and up the wall, showing projections of the sights the Watsons encounter on their trip. A rolling two-part car, doors worn with charm, and a lived-in couch are the only set pieces adorning the otherwise-empty map of the stage. The set pieces are ornamented with character and rich life of their own as they set the many scenes the Watson family comes across.

Bear Bellinger brings a child-like sense of play into the dutiful shoes of Daddy Watson. Lovable flirt and guiding hand for two boys coming into manhood, the role demands an actor who can balance endearing parental ineptitude with a genuine tenderness. Bellinger readily steps up to the plate as a bumbling, well-meaning father.

Sharriese Hamilton dazzles and enraptures as anxiously caring matriarch, Mama Watson. Her dynamic range of expression turns on a dime with striking efficacy. Hamilton tactfully recreates the familiar archetypes of motherhood, ranging from tender caregiver to “I took you into this world and I can take you out of it.” Hamilton is nothing short of a firecracker — delightfully engaged and readily energized.

Deanna Reed-Foster is a powerhouse and joy and stolid grace as Grandma Sands. Filled with contagious humor and sobering rage, Reed-Foster embodies a woman familiar with hardship but comforted by the overwhelming power of love.

Most core to play are the young children around whom the story emerges. Nelson Simmons weekly and smartly portrays young Kenny Watson. Simmons is a friendly, sensitive, and delightfully opinionated envoy to the audience throughout the play. Lyric Sims is a delight as sweet little sister Joey Watson, and Stephen “Blu” Allen mixes contentiously hot-headed fire with protective sincerity within older brother Byron Watson. (Kenny Watson is also played by Jeremiah Ruwe, and the role of Joey Watson is additionally shared by Jillian-Giselle.)

This production candidly depicts the intricacies of family life: the unconditional and endearingly overbearing love, the frustration of domestic dysfunction and differing communication styles, and the stalwart, unwavering communal support in times of distress, however grave. Chicago Children’s Theatre is a beacon for relevant theatre accessible to audiences of all ages. Should any person be searching for hope and love in a seemingly cruel world, then they should look no further than 100 South Racine Avenue, where The Watsons Go to Birmingham —1963 will take a journey filled with laughter, grief and joyful revelry in the power of family.

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