by Martin Brady
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.