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At Nashville Children's Theatre, a Michigan family faces one of the civil rights era's ugliest events

A Near-Date With Destiny

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No matter how well-intentioned, a play that examines the past must stand first as drama and second as a history lesson. The Nashville Children's Theatre's first effort of 2012, The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, succeeds as both. While presenting material of undeniable historic importance, this absorbing production delivers an incisive, satisfying and ultimately moving portrayal of an African-American family's emotional dynamics amid the turmoil — and tragedy — of the civil rights movement. 

The Watsons are a blue-collar family of five living in Flint, Mich., in 1963. Dad works, Mom is steadfast and child-centered, and their three kids are in varying stages of youthful development. That includes the eldest, Byron (Shawn Whitsell), a confused teenager and a constant challenge to keep in line. By contrast, middle son Kenny (Jessica Kuende) excels in school, while the youngest, daughter Joetta (Nikkita Staggs), is a respectful kindergartner.  

Initially, the Watsons' story touches upon the equality struggle of black Americans only when Kenny recites some pertinent lines from Langston Hughes. That changes radically, however, when the family makes the long trip to Birmingham, Ala., where they hope relatives can straighten Byron out.

Through timing and misfortune, the trip sets them on a collision course with one of the ugliest events of the era: the infamous bombing at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, which killed four young girls and injured nearly two dozen others. In their close encounter with history and heartbreak, and the harsh racial realities of the time, the family renews their bonds, and the shaken children learn to trust in each other.   

In adapting Christopher Paul Curtis' novel, with an ear for natural, realistic dialogue, Reginald Andre Jackson effectively conveys the Watsons' financial and domestic troubles. Yet he also gets across the love and concern that radiate from mother Wilona and father Daniel, portrayed with sensitivity and conviction by Aleta Myles and David Chattam. Director Scot Copeland elicits strong performances from his entire ensemble of eight, which also includes Tony Morton and Jacqueline Springfield, plus Patrick James, who shines in the unusual role of the Wool Puh, a symbolic dancing figure that comes to have critical meaning for the Watson sons.     

Any discussion of the show's notable technical aspects must begin with Colin Peterson's engrossing multimedia assortment of archival slides, photos and documentary footage. These establish an active sense of history in their images of freedom marches, key Alabama locales and persons (from civil rights leaders to Klansmen) and media reports surrounding the shocking bombing. This material complements the NCT lobby display, which touches on related civil rights events and stirs pre-show and intermission discussion. 

Michael Sanders' scenic design incorporates an old car, cleverly stripped down so we can observe the action inside as the Watsons travel south. The incidental music score features a salient blend of Motown plus other artists of the era, such as Ray Charles. The tunes definitely help establish and maintain the show's time frame. 

Rare for NCT, this production is in two acts. It's worth every moment.


Demanding diva

In early 2003, veteran actor and sometime director Dan McGeachy staged Terrence McNally's Master Class for Circle Players. His production generally succeeded in its portrayal of opera singer Maria Callas' brief but colorful fling as a conservatory teacher at Juilliard in the 1970s. In mounting the play anew for ACT I, McGeachy embraces a challenge that brings gratifying results. 

"I like directing plays a second time around," McGeachy says. "When you have a totally new cast, the piece takes on a new shape. You see things differently." 

Certainly Master Class depends on lively performances — foremost from its leading lady. Patricia Rulon is Callas, and as a striking brunette herself, able to project Callas' steely disposition, artistic arrogance and take-no-prisoners attitude toward both music and life, she's strongly cast. Rulon's stern taskmaster is entertaining in many ways — self-absorbed divas can have their charm, and by definition they know how to work a stage — yet inevitably she's a terror to her three pupils, young singers daring to submit to a superstar's unfiltered opinions.  

The students offer charming performances, in supporting but demanding roles that require belting out operatic excerpts and arias. First up is Emily Apuzzo, Rulon's daughter and a Belmont University-trained singer who's also a regular in the chorus at Nashville Opera. Following her into Callas' lion's den are more experienced performers, L.T. Kirk and Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, both of whom have been seen often in local musicals. Each earns the audience's compassion.

John Todd is the quietly dutiful piano accompanist, and he plays the classical selections flawlessly, while Patrick Goedicke garners some surprising laughs as a Juilliard functionary who fetches items for the churlish, demanding diva — and isn't fazed one bit by her rather, um, callous attitude toward the hired help.   

Master Class continues through Jan. 28 at the Darkhorse Theater.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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