HISTORY BECOMES PERSONAL
BY JANET ALLEN, IRT’S MARGOT LACY ECCLES ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
Many of us who have raised children in the last 20 years will know the source material of this play. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is a piece of youth historical fiction that was published in 1996 and quickly became a staple of junior high reading lists. Its warm heart and deep and often amusing plunge into family dynamics almost keeps us from remembering what the Watsons are headed into. Their car journey from their home in Flint, Michigan, to the Deep South of the early 1960s—the pre–Civil Rights era South, the Jim Crow South—also moves them directly into an historic hotspot of violence. It is in part the surface normalcy of this story—what could be more human and ordinary than taking a cross-country car ride to visit Grandma?—that allows us to see how very un-normal this and many journeys have been and continue to be for African American people in our country.
It is much to the credit of both Christopher Paul Curtis (the novelist) and Cheryl West (the playwright-adaptor) that the play stays focused on a child’s view of the events. Ten-year-old Kenny, the middle child in the Watson family, serves as the play’s lodestar. It is his curiosity and growing fear that move us from the literal geographic journey into an emotional journey of awakening into the real perils of racism. Much of what Kenny observes as the family gets into the South—and he is a keen observer—is at first simply odd to him. It is the perception of his parents’ fears that moves the journey from one of delight to one of deep concern for his and his family’s safety. And of course, as is true in any defining historic moment, the people caught up in it often don’t realize the magnitude of what they are witnessing until long after the fact. This is true for adults, and doubly true for children, whose survival instincts are tied to their parents.
The Watsons do survive—and thrive. When they return to Flint, we see some new-found family cohesion, some maturing in the kids, deep relief from the parents, and a profound awakening of the racial divide in this country—particularly for the audience. What we sometimes forget is that the Civil Rights Movement was not only adults marching, it was not only the heroic acts of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and other icons of the time. It was also children: specifically, four girls in a Birmingham church who were martyred by the Klan in a horrific crime against all humanity. The Watsons’ fictional nearness to this event is what provides the historic backdrop of this story. Their love for one another is what we take away as indelible.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is on the IRT Upperstage now through March 7. Tickets are available at irtlive.com.
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