The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, while a fictional story, is set on the edge of an actual act of horrific violence, The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in September of 1963.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was organized in 1873, the first black church in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, which had been founded just two years before. The current structure, built in 1911, was designed by a black architect and built by a black contractor. As one of the primary black institutions in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church has hosted prominent visitors throughout its history. W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, and Ralph Bunche all spoke at the church during the first part of the 20th century. During the 1950s and 1960s, the church was a center for Civil Rights activism.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, white terrorists, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted a bomb at the church, set to explode as people gathered for Sunday worship. The explosion blew large holes in the church’s walls, destroyed the rear steps to the church, and blew a passing motorist out of his car. Several other cars parked near the site of the blast were destroyed, and windows of properties located more than two blocks from the church were also damaged. All but one of the church’s stained-glass windows were destroyed in the explosion.
Dozens of people were seriously injured in the blast, and four girls were killed: Denise McNair, age 11; Carole Robertson, age 14; Addie Mae Collins, age 14; and Cynthia Wesley, age 14.
Across the country, people were outraged by the loss of these young lives. Today, many historians contend that the church bombing was among the pivotal events that helped the nation to focus on the need to protect the rights of all its citizens, leading to passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Although four suspects were identified by the FBI within nine months of the bombing, there were no trials or convictions in the case until 1977, 2001, and 2002. A fourth suspect died of cancer in 1994 without ever coming to trial.
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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