THE FRONT SEAT, BY DIRECTOR MIKAEL BURKE
One day, you’re a kid, and then suddenly you’re not. How did it happen? When did it happen? How do you know when you’ve grown up? Are you grown when you graduate high school? When you get your driver’s license? After your bar mitzvah? When your facial hair starts to grow? When you have the talk? When you’re no longer afraid of the dark? Or, perhaps, when you sit in the front seat of the car with your dad on the family road trip for the first time?
My dad loved road trips. Loved. Them. Every summer we’d go somewhere wild and new and strange, involving being in the car for hours or days. But looking back, one particular trip sticks out to me. I don’t remember where we were going, but the getting there I’ll never forget. I was probably 11 or 12, and I was sitting in the front seat for the first time. My dad and I were talking, and all of a sudden I realized we weren’t just talking about nothing, or one of us talking while the other just half listened. We were having a real conversation, about music and school and “being while black” and pressure and “the man,” and I remember suddenly feeling so mature, so grown up. In a way it felt like a rite of passage. I had transitioned from boy to man through riveting conversation and the sacredness of the front seat.
When I first read this play, it was Kenny’s similar front-seat rite of passage that immediately struck me, and became my touchstone for the whole play. This is a story about growing up. It is a rite of passage in which we see Kenny go from childhood innocence to the beginnings of adolescence and manhood, against a backdrop of monsters—both seen and unseen, imaginary and all too real. The whole weird Watson tribe wants nothing more than to keep one another safe, and in this pursuit, Kenny and his family find themselves in the midst of our country’s most monstrous legacy: racism. And this monster forces Kenny to grow up. He cannot unsee what he’s seen or unlearn what he now knows. But as he moves through his trial by fire, he learns that his family is the sword and shield that allows him to overcome the monsters that haunt him.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 is on stage through March 7, 2020.
Tickets available at irtlive.com.
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