Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
Flint residents have most likely read the book by Flint’s own Christopher Paul Curtis. Now Flint Youth Theatre brings the multiple award-winning classic, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, to the Elgood Theater stage in a clever and engaging adaptation by Reginald André Jackson.
The play begins with a clever flashback enactment that finds the family ready to head to Birmingham but then backtracks like a film run in reverse to show the audience just how they arrived at this rather radical decision. After all, it is 1963 and all manner of strife is raging across the nation, much of it racially motivated.
We meet the narrator of the story, young Kenny Watson, played with candor and a comic twinkle by FYT newcomer Edward Marion. He is joined by another newcomer to FYT in Darshae Hubbard who plays his engaging and spunky little sister, Joetta. There is a special life bond between these two that will manifest mysteriously as events unfurl.
An older brother becomes the reason for the trip South. FYT veteran David Guster plays Byron Watson, an easily swayed and slightly delinquent teenager prone to petty theft and skipping school. Guster handles this many-faceted role very nicely; it’s a credit to him that we were on his side even when his choices were dead wrong.
LaTroy Childress and Lea Anne Ford are the parents, Daniel and Wilona Watson. They hold this family together, but as things get testy, Wilona yearns to return to her home in Birmingham. Close to the last straw occurs when Byron persists in lighting matches in the bathroom (he’s conducting imaginary bombing raids on Nazis). Indeed one of the most entertaining scenes finds Wilona trying to make good on a promise to burn Byron “next time” while Kenny and Joetta try to defuse this “bomb”.
Ultimately their only solution is to take Byron South to allow his Grandmother to shape him up. Grandma Sands is impeccable as handled by another newcomer, Madelyn Porter. Her scenes will be the ones most remembered as she gently but firmly takes Byron in hand.
There are also perils in Alabama that threaten to harm the family. Warned away from the whirlpool by Grandma Sands, Kenny naturally wants to investigate it and falls in. The dance interlude that depicts his ensnaring by the vicious “Whirlpooh” is beautiful and even a little scary. Kudos to Emma Davis for the choreography here.
And, of course, when Joetta sets off to church on a Sunday morning, the dramatic irony kicks in as we wait for her to be killed in the coming bomb blast. Her escape is magical, but the inhumanity of the act drives Grandma Sands’ philosophy of non-violent response that much further home.
One or two others deserve some mention. Darius Collins is an appropriate sidekick to the delinquent Byron while in Flint, and Kourt Frame’s perfect portrayal of Larry, the playground bully, just makes ya wanna punch the punk.
In her directing debut with this show, Brittany Reed has managed to move folks around this complicated set with general ease. With multiple scenes to convey, the set has two stories situated at the back of the Elgood stage. The first level serves as a storage spot especially for the family Buick, a half car with working headlights and used to travel south.
Scenic designer Tim McMath provides interior spaces with the second level but also a lot of space mid-stage for the bulk of the action to take place. His design is augmented very nicely with mood and general lighting by Doug Mueller. The “Whirlpooh” scene lighting was nice and eerie.
Sound became important at Saturday’s performance when the opening announcement stopped mid-sentence. Fortunately sound designer Dan Gerics was there to save the day and everything was back on track in a twinkling.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is one you won’t want to miss. It has it all – comedy, pathos, history, excitement and suspense – all wrapped up in a heartwarming family story that will be easy to understand and identify with as well.
The play runs about 100 minutes without intermission and continues through February 26. For more information about times and tickets contact the box office at 810-273-1530 or online at www.theFYT.org