The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 is a gem of a play and Milwaukee is fortunate to have it!
So, first we meet the Watsons, a loving couple with three children. The prototypical early 1960s Midwest American Family…except that they are Black. And that is the crucial key that makes this drama significant. No, they aren’t the Cleavers but at the family level we see that their goals, dreams, challenges, and struggles are exactly the same as every other American family. But they also have to somehow manage the added stress of racism in America. Stress and trials that an aged white man like myself thinks he understands but doesn’t actually comprehend until shown…and shown very effectively in he Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963.
The Watson’s live in Flint Michigan and have a typical rebellious 13 year old son, Byron, and the youngest daughter, Joey, who doesn’t yet understand all of the nuances of language and often takes things as literal. And Kenny, the nine year old on the cusp of 10, whose story is being told here…whose perspective is adult to a point but he gets lost in his ability to feel the emotions swirling around him.
But as Mama and Daddy Watson grow more concerned about Byron’s casual school attendance and lying to meet his buddies rather than study, the decision is made that he should spend the summer with his maternal grandmother in Birmingham Alabama. So Mama makes elaborate plans for a safe trip from Flint to Birmingham…a family adventure. And an adventure it proves to be…as Mama packs lunches and blankets and pillows for a three day trip…and Daddy has a surprise…a record player for 45s has been installed in the car…and a selection of each family member’s favorite record is included. The resulting family interplay will elicit a number of comical moments and an interesting view into family dynamics and the individual personalities!
But now the story gets more interesting as the customary environment of 1960s Michigan gives way to the realities of the 1963 South. And the children start to encounter signs and symbols that aren’t familiar to them and that aren’t common artifacts of their lives in Flint. It is at this point that the realities of racism explain themselves to Kenny Watson and to the rest of us.
Well, all of Mama’s best laid plans go to waste when Daddy drives straight through to Birmingham. The why and wherefore and the dynamics behind that you need to experience as you watch this play.
But when we meet Grandma Sands, you have to wonder how this excited and loving old lady is expected to straighten out Byron! She is so full of life and giving toward her family and particularly her grandchildren. But that happy is balanced by a number of events that I won’t elaborate on because I don’t want to spoil the story. But Byron pulls through and shows that he is ready to be an adult and that he does value family despite his actions as a typical 13 year old. And Kenny bears witness to a number of truths…this is 1963 in Birmingham Alabama after all and we are in the middle of the Civil Rights era.
My hat’s off to Sherrick Robinson who play’s Daddy. He is able to express his love and appreciation of his wife through his actions and glances. And although he talks a tough game and is concerned, he finds it hard to discipline a misbehaving Byron despite knowing that he needs to. And he clearly demonstrates the issues around racism while simultaneously trying to shield Kenny from it yet trying to prepare him for it. Mr. Robinson moves through those various different positions to perfection.
And Zephaniah Singh Ponder as Kenny was also incredible in moving from a fearful youngster to a brave young man as he struggled with things he didn’t understand and things he triumphed over but couldn’t quite assimilate. I was glad to see a presentation with his crew in performance.
And Mama! Played by Krystal Drake also exhibited her love for her husband plus show us her concern and nurturing nature for her children. And of course her clear organizational skills in preparing the trip to Birmingham!
And kudos to the set designer and stage managers who transformed the Todd Wehr stage from a Flint living room to a family sedan to a swimming hole in Birmingham with minimum props and clever use of paint and lighting.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 is based on a book by Christopher Paul Curtis which was adapted by Cheryl L. West. Co-directors are Brandite Reed and Jeff Frank and original music by Paris Ray Dozier.
There are two casts. Each includes the same adults actors in the adult roles, but depending on when you attend the children’s roles may be different. Here is the play guide with additional information include casts listings and actor bios!
And go a bit early so that you can enjoy some great 1960s R&B music while you wait for the curtain!
The play runs through February 13, 2022 and information on times and tickets are here! There are COVID safety policies in force so check the link ^^ for current information. And although First Stage features theater for young people (this play is recommended for those 8 and older), this play is pertinent for everyone…and you need to see it.