The Watsons Go To Birmingham –1963 at Flint Youth Theatre
FLINT, Mich. – Flint Youth Theatre is always responsive to its community, and selects works that are relevant and timely to current events and what’s top of mind in their city.
It’s why The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 seems like such a good fit. It’s Black History month and this is an African-American story. What’s more, it is one that begins in Flint, Michigan and is based on a book written by a Flint native.
Written in 1995, Christopher Paul Curtis created a historical fiction novel for young adults that tells the story of the Watsons, a family living in Flint that takes a trip to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, a time when there is plenty of civil unrest. Marches in favor of the desegregation of schools are taking place and the Ku Klux Klan responds by bombing an African American church and killing four young girls.
Played without an intermission, most of the play focuses on the time spent in Flint. There are three children in the Watson family and the eldest, Byron, played by David Guster is a confirmed juvenile delinquent, constantly in trouble at home and school.
Guster plays the part extremely well. He finds a balance between showing his rough, bullying side while still revealing that he is a young man hurting and struggling with sensitivities. He makes Byron likable even amid his struggles.
The narrator is his younger brother, 10-year-old Kenny, who looks up to his brother and yet rejects his violent nature and misbehaviors. Played by Edward Marion, this young man is given a challenging role in that he must explain to the audience what is going on while still acting out his part. It is a role with distinct vocal challenges difficult for a young actor to meet. His is also a role that is demanding physically and Marion does a good job of meeting those demands.
Darshae Hubbard brings a stillness and wisdom to the part of the youngest member of the family, Joetta, who in the book is five years old but is played slightly older in the play. She is the “good girl” of the family and Hubbard plays that well. She is well centered in this role and able to bring higher energy to the role when the action demands it. She is the glue in this family.
Director Brittany Reed has some of the biggest challenges of the creative team, however, as the script is problematic. This adaptation of Curtis’ work often can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a historical narrative, or magical realism? There is a lot more mysticism in this adaptation than I remember being emphasized in the book.
Reed tackles this indecision by letting each scene play out the way the playwright Reginald Andre Jackson created them. She stages elaborate dances with the ensembles and intricate choreography that provide representational actions to play out the more mystical moments. She also does well at blocking the crowd scenes at the school and provides clever touches such as the way the family moves with the vintage vehicle that is frequently rolled out on the stage.
Jackson’s script spends too much time in Flint. He needs to establish Byron’s delinquency and why the family makes the trip, but he belabors the point and includes unnecessary scenes that merely drag things out. Then, there is little time left for the scenes in Birmingham and an exploration of how the family, especially Byron, undergoes change.
It also makes for difficult theater when the mother, Wilona, plans to burn her son’s hands as a punishment for playing with matches. Today we would consider that abusive, and there is little framing that makes this action acceptable in the play.
Madelyn Porter’s Grandma Sands rescues most of the Birmingham scenes. It is her character and her interaction with Byron that provide some thematic satisfaction to the play. She turns Byron’s actions into a metaphor, but does so in a way that provides a real lesson, and an understanding of his character and what future directions he might take. It also helps that Porter brings so much life to the role. She connects well with everyone on stage, and brings the most vocal strength to the cast.
Tim McMath’s scenic design manages to create a set that can move between locations easily. The centerpiece is surely the car that the family drives to Birmingham, one that is wheeled out from a pocket in the stage when it is needed. The front half of the car is a real car and then benches are built onto it with open-air seating to provide excellent sight lines.
While the story has great potential for Flint Youth Theatre, ultimately Jackson’s script is too convoluted, drawn-out and muddied. It lacks focus in its storytelling as it ambles from one style to the next and never follows through on a single story line in a way that would make it meaningful to audiences—young or old.