Not an easy road for family in IRT drama

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a story many can relate to: A family takes a road-trip to another state to visit a grandparent, in part to give the teenage son a chance, away from neighborhood distractions, to think about where his life is going. Little sister tattles when one brother pokes another. Younger brother has his favorite song played over and over and over. So, it’s a family comedy, right?

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963” (based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis, adapted by Cheryl L. West) adds a more serious context: an African-American family’s journey into the Jim Crow South.

At the Indiana Repertory Theatre through March 1 (effectively throughout Black History Month), parents Daniel and Wilona (Bryant Bentley and Tiffany Gilliam) travel with misbehaving teen Byron (Brian Wilson), five-year-old daughter Joey (Dalia Yoder), and nine-year-old Kenny (Xavier Adams) — through whose eyes we see the story — from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, and the home of Grandma Sands (Milicent Wright). 

Though the family is fictional, the world they live in was all too real, and not that long ago. The Watsons carry the Green Book, a reference of places safe for black travelers to stop. They dare not go to just any gas station or motel — like a white family — and the idea of just driving until you are tired is foolhardy and dangerous, as the Watsons discover. Even the police, who should be there to protect them, are potential predators. At Grandma’s house they are safe, but they know venturing out at all carries risk. Still, nothing has prepared them for when one of the most tragic incidents of the Civil Rights Era rocks the family to its core.

Bentley plays a dad who is likeable and practical, and a little stubborn; for him, family is everything. Gilliam’s Wilona clings to her better memories of the Alabama she grew up in, her one blind spot for a mom otherwise prudent and cautious. The three youths excellently act “their age,” the boys showing some growth as the events affect them. Yoder’s Joey stays perpetually innocent, always charmingly standing up for whichever sibling is in trouble at the moment. Wright, a familiar face on IRT stages, is a welcome presence, effortlessly commanding. The cast also includes Grayson Molin in two starkly contrasting roles — as Buphead, Byron’s white best friend; and later as an unfriendly native Alabamian. 

Directed by Mikael Burke, with excellent visual effects by Reuben Lucas, the play is a study of contrasts, especially between the familial humor of the road trip and the moments of horror. Current events add the irony that Flint, a struggling, literally toxic place now, was in the ‘60s a thriving city and comforting home base for the Watsons. But they return there changed, and Kenny nearly broken. Find out how, why — and experience the terror of the “Wool-Pooh.”

“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” in one movie-length act on the IRT Upperstage, 140 W. Washington (near Circle Centre) in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com

ATI tells important ‘Story’

By Wendy Carson

“This is a story about two rabbits.”

Seven innocuous words that begin not only a beautifully illustrated children’s book, but also a major political ballyhoo about race and censorship.

“Alabama Story,” a play by Kenneth Jones making its Indiana premiere with Actors Theatre of Indiana, is based on a true story of one simple book that sparked a major racial controversy due to its depiction of a white bunny marrying a black bunny. 

The setting is 1959 and even though George Wallace (“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”), has yet to be voted in as Governor, he is the leading political voice of Alabama. Racism is a fact of everyday life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement are just starting to stir. Rosa Parks had recently sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still a local pastor. 

Enter Emily Wheelrock Reed (Cynthia Collins), the state librarian, and her diligent assistant, Thomas Franklin (Samuel L. Wick). Franklin brings the initial hubbub over “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to her attention, but Reed dismisses it until Senator E.W. Higgins (Don Farrell) starts pressuring her to remove the book from the library system. 

We also see the story of two children who grew up together. Lily Whitefield (Maeghan Looney), the daughter of a cotton plantation owner and Joshua Moore (Cameron Stuart Bass), the son of one of the Whitfields’ servants, descended from their slaves. They meet up again as adults, in exchanges that echo the book, but overshadowed by painful events of their past.

Overseeing all of this is the book’s author and illustrator himself, Garth Williams (Paul Tavianini). He takes on all of the supporting roles as well as giving his personal insight to the drama. Williams reiterates that he only chose the black and white colors for the rabbits due to his love of Oriental artworks which draw on those two colors for balance. He never meant for his tale to become what many believed to be a subversive indoctrination of their children into believing that interracial marriage was normal.

Bass’s performance shows that even though Franklin is living a better life himself, he never forgets the trauma and struggles he went through and his people are still enduring. Looney does a commendable job of showing the naiveté of the privileged class during these changing times.

Collins shows the strong, stalwart woman that Reed was, holding her own and never wavering no matter what came her way. Wick is endearing as Franklin, a free-thinking young man who was raised to be prejudiced but refuses to succumb to the hatred.

Tavianini brings a “Mr. Rogers” -type warmth to Williams, who also wrote and illustrated numerous other children’s books (including books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and E.B. White), none of which sparked any controversy.

However, the standout performance is by Farrell. He oozes all of the slick sliminess of a typical Southern politician. His soft-spoken words hold a thousand brutal attacks within, the demure and friendly smile hiding the fangs that are ready to strike you down with their poisonous barbs. He does such a great job embodying the character, you will likely want to punch him (but please don’t). 

ATI chose this play to be their first foray into serious drama and they have done an excellent job of it, under the direction of Jane Unger. This show is important to give you context as to this country’s history and what our future could be again should we glorify the past instead of learning from it.

Performances run through Nov. 17 in The Studio Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get information and tickets at atistage.org or thecenterpresents.org.