clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Horrific moment in time tests family bonds in ‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham’

Daddy (Bear Bellinger, center) and sons Byron (Stephen Allen Jr., left) and Kenny (Nelson Simmons) shave before embarking on a family road trip through the Deep South in "The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963" at Chicago Children’s Theatre. | Charles Osgood

Anybody who had a secret fort as a child will relate to the sense of safety that fourth grader Kenny Watson finds behind his living room sofa. In Christopher Paul Curtis’ Newberry Award-winning book “The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963,” the couch provides a sanctuary that — crucially — is too small to accommodate grownups and all their often incomprehensible ways.

The actions of adults are indeed incomprehensible in Cheryl L. West’s hour-long, new adaptation of Curtis’ story of a family forever changed by the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s, 16th Street Baptist Church.

‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963’

★★★

When: Through May 19

Where: Chicago Children’s Theatre at the Station, 100 S. Racine

Tickets: $25 – $41

Info: chicagochildrenstheatre.org

As both a harrowing depiction of lethal racism and a testimony to the power of family, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” maintains a delicate balance. Its the height of the civil rights movement, and The Watsons’ titular trip from Michigan leads Kenny directly to the Alabama church on the day it was infamously bombed by Klansmen. The girls killed in the September 15 explosion — Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — weren’t much older than the young audiences taking in the production now playing at Chicago Children’s Theatre.

Director Wardell Julius Clark doesn’t pull back from the violence. As the smoke clears and the concussive booms of the explosion settle to a ringing in the ears, projected images of the girls stare out at the audience for several long moments while Kenny crouches, frozen in shock. The scene is difficult to watch, but it’s emblematic of the smart, uncompromising production.

But if unease hangs over “The Watsons” like some kind of toxic humidity, so does the light and love that defines the Watson family, even when its members are squabbling. Their trip south is necessitated by Kenny’s sixth grade brother, Byron. Byron’s been acting up — skipping school, lighting fires in the bathroom, bullying his brother. When he comes home with flat-ironed hair, it’s the last straw. As Daddy Watson (Bear Bellinger) glowers with anger, Byron (Stephen Allen Jr. ) is sentenced to a summer with Grandma (Deanna Reed-Foster). Grandma, warns Daddy, would “spank a grizzly bear” if the bear needed checking.

Nelson Simmons plays Kenny and Deanna Reed-Foster is Grandma Sands in “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963,” based on the Newbery Medal—winning book by Christopher Paul Curtis, now playing at Chicago Children’s Theatre. | Charles Osgood
Nelson Simmons plays Kenny and Deanna Reed-Foster is Grandma Sands in “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963,” based on the Newbery Medal—winning book by Christopher Paul Curtis, now playing at Chicago Children’s Theatre. | Charles Osgood

The road trip captures the exasperations and the joy of a prolonged family excursion. If you remember vinyl 45s, you’ll envy the “ultra glide” portable record player Daddy has installed in the car. If you don’t, you’ll be bouncing along nonetheless as Kenny (Nelson Simmons, who alternates in the role with Jeremiah Ruwe) bops along to his favorite songs – in true road trip fashion, over and over and over again. But the trip is punctuated by fear. Mama (Sharriese Hamilton) has a well-worn copy of the “Green Book,” which details where black families can safely find lodging, food and bathrooms. Daddy’s disregard of her meticulously mapped three-day schedule is funny at first. But when the Watsons find themselves in the heart of Appalachia after dark, nobody’s laughing.

When they get to Grandma’s, the line between safety and danger seems to shift with each passing scene, instilling even happy moments with a sense that things could change at any moment. Kenny gallops off to a swimming hole, only to find himself caught in a whirlpool by a monster wearing a white hood and a murky tangle of drifting vines. The “monster” is nothing compared to what lurks on dry land.

Clark’s cast makes the nuances of the story accessible without condescending to its young audience. Bellinger’s Daddy is the strict, compassionate, slightly embarrassing father every kid could benefit from. Hamilton’s Mama is a matriarch you don’t want to mess with. Reed-Foster’s Grandma suffers no fools, and didn’t raise any either. As Kenny, Simmons has the endearing, energetic innocence of a grade schooler on a great adventure. When that innocence gets stolen, it’s heartbreaking. And we all know a kid like Allen’s Byron, whose determined yet clueless adolescent rebelliousness could take him down a heartbreaking path of his own.

Costume designer Izumi Inaba uses a pair of pastel housedresses to illustrate the unbreakable bond between Mama and Grandma. Smooch Medina’s projection design beautifully honors the four murdered girls while lighting designer Jason Lynch captures the heat and beauty of the South, as well as the blood that seems to fill the air after the bombing. Arnel Sancianco’s flexible, minimalist set design takes the audiences from the wide-open roads of Interstate I-75 to the woods of Tennessee to Grandma’s backyard.

There’s a scene early in “The Watsons” during which Daddy talks to his sons about fear. There comes a time, he tells Kenny and Byron, when you have to “stare fear in the face and see what it has to teach you.” That’s exactly what “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” allows audiences to do, whether they’re grade schoolers like Kenny or battle-tested like Grandma.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Editor’s note: Author Christopher Paul Curtis will visit Chicago Children’s Theatre April 13 and 14 for public signings of his book, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963.” Book signings will start at 3:15 p.m. both days, immediately following the afternoon matinees.

Nelson Simmons plays Kenny in this scene from “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” at Chicago Children’s Theatre. | Charles Osgood
Nelson Simmons plays Kenny in this scene from “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” at Chicago Children’s Theatre. | Charles Osgood