Love, Laughter and Civil Rights: Stage One Performs ‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham’

By Ana Martinez-Ortiz

Twenty-five years ago, Christopher Paul Curtis’ first book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, was published. The story, told by middle child Kenny Watson, follows the Watson’s journey from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama.

The story begins with Kenny lying behind the couch. He recounts the events leading up to the family’s road trip as he grapples with the aftermath of what he’s been through.

The book is a historical-fiction novel based in part on Curtis’s own family and the race relations of the 1960s, which reached a boiling point and eventually led to the Civil Rights Movement.

First Stage will perform “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” at the Todd Wehr Theater, 121 E. State St., from Friday, January 21 to Sunday, February 13. The piece is based on Curtis’ book and adapted by Cheryl L. West.

Jeff Frank is the artistic director of First Stage and one of the co-directors of the play, along with Brandite Reed, an actor, playwright and director from Milwaukee. Reed works at Black Arts MKE and is affiliated with First Stage’s Education Academy.

The production company chose this piece partly because it’s the book’s 25th anniversary, Frank said, but mostly because it’s a story about family and growing up, complete with sibling dynamics, rebellion, parents in love and more.

“There’s a lot of love and laughter in this book set in a turbulent time in our country,” he said. “It’s so rich and beautiful and complex.”

During one of the most gripping chapters of the novel, Curtis details the story of the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed. Kenny searches for his younger sister, Joetta, who attended Sunday school at the church. Joetta is found safe and sound, but Kenny is reeling from what he’s seen.

Reed, who is also the understudy of Cynthia Cobb (Grandma Sands) and Krystal Drake (Mama), noted that the book takes on a historical moment in time and by integrating the art of theater it becomes a teaching moment.

Because the story is told from Kenny’s perspective, the reader, and in this case the audience, sees only fragments of what happened that year. The story is a collection of Kenny’s kaleidoscopes of memories, Frank said, and they’re fragmented.

That’s why Frank and Reed asked the actors to face 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 image is a sofa.

“These actors have a way of drawing 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 that 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 noted. The story emphasizes the importance of family and how they help each other cope with the internal and external challenges.

At some point, Grandma Sands realizes that no matter how tangled your roots are, they still provide support.

For Reed, it is a pleasure to see a real representation 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 the spectators will leave the piece with something to think about.

“I hope they all bring something,” she said. “If it’s a family or a group, they all have discussion papers. 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 pay what you choice performance of the show will take place on Friday, January 28. Tickets for pay what you choose performances are available on a first come, first served basis. Customers are encouraged to arrive early or pre-order by calling 414-267-2961.

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