My children and I recently had the opportunity to see The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 at the Chicago Children’s Theatre (CCT). Playwright Cheryl L. West created an impressive adaptation of acclaimed author Christopher Paul Curtis’ book of the same name. I highly recommend a trip to CCT to see this play with your kids (appropriate for ages 9 and up) where you will get a glimpse into one of the darkest moments in American history through the events of the Watson family.
The play is geared toward children nine and older, though adults will enjoy it as well. My ten-year-old twins were especially interested in the play, as it was a perfect compliment to the Civil Rights lessons they are learning in school.
The staff of CCT was very welcoming and enjoyed chatting with us before the play, engaging my children in a nice discussion regarding the book and author. The theater is small inside, yet cozy, with no bad seat in the house. The play highlights a trip the Watson family is planning from their hometown of Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama to drop off the rebellious oldest child with his grandmother, who will set him straight. The year is 1963 and the south is in a fight to end segregation, with a lot of civil unrest in the struggle for basic human rights.
Scenic designer Arnel Sancianco and props designer Mealah Heidenreich transformed the space perfectly, with few distractions; keeping furniture and props to a minimum allowed us to focus on the characters and their words, which led us to better understand the struggles of the times. Composer Paris Ray Dozier and sound designer Kevin O’Donnell collaborated beautifully, with music and sound effects complimenting script and actions perfectly.
Natural talent abounded, with each actor bringing a unique energy to the show. Director Wardell Julius Clark should be proud. Daddy’s (Bear Bellinger) sense of humor and enthusiasm coupled perfectly with Mama’s (Sharriese Hamilton) strict love for her children.
The three children shined in their roles, seeming as close as siblings throughout the play. Stephen “Blu” Allen played the oldest brother, Byron, superbly, with the 13-year-old boy realizing the importance of family and protecting his siblings once in the south. Jeremiah Ruwe played Kenny — the sophisticated, too smart for his age 10-year-old brother — and nailed his role as the serious sibling who visibly suffered the most from events of the time. And Jillian-Giselle playing the youngest, Joetta, who is protected by her brothers from the civil unrest, did a beautiful job, shining in her role as the precious baby sister.
Grandma Sands (Ti Nicole Danridge) greeted her family with great energy upon their arrival in the South, showing her love for her family and the character Wool Pooh (Ian Paul Custer, who also played Buphead) was depicted very cleverly and uniquely, expressing the gravity of what was going on in the south.
From the song and dance that open The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963, to the events during the family road trip in “The Brown Bomber”, to visiting Grandma Sands in Birmingham, to Kenny’s birthday back in Flint, this is a show you won’t want to miss. It has encouraged a lot of discussion in my family regarding segregation and the civil rights movements, one of the darkest moments in American history.
Head over to Chicago Children’s Theatre – it won’t disappoint. Shows run Saturday and Sunday at 11 am and 2 pm through May 19 (no show Easter Sunday or Mother’s Day). The theater is a beautiful, hidden gem in the city; definitely worth a visit!
Rachel Fortiz is a mother of seven: boy/girl twins, three singletons, and girl/girl twins. When not in the car driving her children to school or extra-curricular activities, she’s at home doing laundry or cleaning the house. Rachel works full-time as a pediatric speech therapist with Early Intervention. She loves exploring the city and suburbs and especially enjoys exposing her children to their Hispanic heritage, proudly raising them to speak, read, and write in both English and Spanish.