Something Happened in Our Town a play written by Cheryl L. West, based on the Children’s book Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story of Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, PhD, ABPP, Marietta Collins, PhD, and Ann Hazzard, PhD, ABPP, makes it a world premiere at Children’s Theatre Company. An effective introduction to young audiences that the theatre can be more than just entertainment. For many this will be their first exposure to a play that addresses real social issues with an eye towards acknowledging the different perspectives from which households view the world. West’s play presents a difficult real world problem for which there is no easy answer. Doing so in a way that simplifies it for a young audience without ignoring it’s complexities. It addresses the difficulting in explaining these issues to children while giving us a starting point with which to do just that. In that accomplishment as well, it’s presentation Something Happened in Our Town is brilliant.
Focusing on two families who live next door to each other, one black and one white. Josh and Emma are best friends but come from very different households. Josh lives with his mother a writer, father the principal of the local high school, and older brother Malcolm. Emma lives with her single mother who runs a beauty salon. Emma’s family also includes her uncle Manny who is an important and present person in her life, he is also a police officer. Emma is the type of kid who marches to the beat of her own drum. The type that grows up to be a very interesting person, but can have a hard time in the early years. She wants to have friends but lacks the ability to read the room, often tries too hard, and is ridiculed by the other kids for it. Josh instinctively knows how to avoid drawing unwelcome attention to himself. Emma is white and Josh is black, they are best friends and do not seem to really attach significance to their skin color. That personality trait which informs their characters interactions provides us insight into the characters themselves, also mirrors the inequities that exist in our society. The story moves from the concerns of the two young friends regarding getting along in school to much more serious matters. News breaks of a black man shot and killed by a white police officer. We see the ways in which the different households react to this news. The character makeup gives us a lot of different ways of processing the news. We see interactions between the husband and wife, Malcolm and his parents, Uncle Manny and the two neighbor boys, Manny and his sister, Manny and Josh and Malcolm’s parents, and the two mothers. We also see the world through the microcosm of the schoolyard through Emma, Josh, and their classmates. We are given a lot of examples of behavior and character types but it doesn’t feel contrived. Instead, it feels like there are many seeds being planted that we as the audience can go back to later on the drive home. The beauty of the piece is that it gives parents a way to begin talking about these difficult realities with their kids. It also gives kids a way to empathize with other people’s situations in a way that is organic through characters they can recognize or identify with.
De’Anthony Jackson as Josh and Lola Ronning as Emma lead the cast and they hold their own with a strong cast of more seasoned performers. Jackson is appearing in his first professional production and you can see that there are going to be great things in his future. He already exhibits a natural stage presence and a knack for finding the humor in a straight man line. Ronning, I’d seen and was impressed with last fall in the CTC production of Annie. Here again she showcases her talent for seeming at home on stage. Selling the offbeat out of sync nature of Emma and her obliviousness to why she is an outsider, she doesn’t play that, she embodies it. Calvin Zimmerman as Malcolm gives a strong performance as well, showing us the angry and outraged young man without overplaying it. He finds a way to play that making it feel real without going to a level of reality that would not feel appropriate in a production geared towards children age 7+. The adult performers that made the largest impression were Rajane Katurah as Josh’s Mom and Dean Holt as Uncle Manny.
The Scenic Designs by Junghyun Georgia Lee reflect the color pallets and background of the picture storybook source material, while the foreground set pieces provide enough realism to help us bridge the storybook and the in-person experiences. The moving sets that glide in and out from the wings help director Timothy Douglas swiftly change locations keeping the action flowing beautifully from scene to scene. Douglas makes some interesting choices with the help of lighting designer Alan C. Edwards to highlight some nonverbal beats at the end of scenes. Little moments to give a second to focus and reflect on a character and their reactions. This gave the young audience a moment to notice a character, to maybe highlight for just a couple of seconds that there is something to think about what just happened in a scene beyond just plot. It’s important for a theatre like CTC to train young audiences on how to experience theatre and Something Happened in Our Town is full of those moments. Douglas, West, and their collaborators are actively exposing young people to theater that can be entertaining while also giving us things to think about. They are trying to teach them at the same time how to be an active viewer, rather than just letting the entertainment wash over them.
I highly encourage parents and grandparents of all economic and racial backgrounds to take their wee ones age 7+ to Something Happened in Our Town. With the Looming Teachers strike this might give families a chance to do some learning while they are out of school. There is a lot for young ones and the older folks to take in and process and can lead to some rewarding and enlightening conversations for all. the play runs through March 27th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://childrenstheatre.org/
Don’t miss a single review from The Stages of MN, on your computer from the home page on the right enter your email address and click subscribe, on your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page. Also Follow me on Facebook, search @thestagesofmn and click follow and on Instagram thestagesonmn.