The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through February 25
The Watsons of Flint, Michigan are an African-American family of five: dad Daniel (Marcus Clark-Oliver), mom Wiloma (Tiffany Coty), sons Byron (Javen Marquise Smith) and Kenny (Ken Ivey), and daughter Joetta (Victoria Elizabeth Newman). Byron is the family bad boy and the despair of his parents. Kenny is a bit of a panty-waist, but although he’s perpetually bullied by Byron and his rowdy friends, he emerges as the hero and narrator of the piece nonetheless. Joetta is still young enough to play with dolls.
Byron is hostile and defiant, and when he applies chemical straighteners to his Afro (strictly forbidden) with disastrous results, his parents decide to take him to stay with notoriously strict Grandma Sands (Sonia Jackson) in Birmingham, Alabama. They pack the whole family in the car and head south.
Grandma Sands, who bangs her walking stick a la Nanny McPhee, is indeed an imposing figure. She is a believer in tough love, and able to teach life lessons to a chastened Byron. And he redeems himself a bit by rescuing Kenny from a swimming accident when the latter becomes caught in a whirlpool. In Birmingham, the kids also encounter racism, including whites-only waiting rooms and drinking fountains. And the lessons are brought home for them dramatically when four little black girls are killed in the now infamous Sunday school bombing of a black church.
The title of the play — which is adapted by Reginald Andre Jackson from the novel by Christopher Paul Curtis — might suggest a hard-core diatribe about racism, but fortunately it takes a gentler approach. The first act is largely a domestic comedy that deals with such issues as bullying, petty juvenile delinquency, and unintended racism: for example. Joetta is presented with a white doll which, as she says, does not look like her. It’s only in Act 2 that blatant racism comes into sharp focus.
The piece contains some rich material, and it is well-acted, particularly by Smith and Ivy. But it also has some serious problems. Jackson’s dramaturgy, which breaks the action into myriad small scenes, is a bit unsophisticated. This technique works well in movies, but in a stage play it tends to break the flow unless the director can beget a certain smoothness that links the scenes together. Director Bernadette Speakes works well with her actors, but she is unable to prevent the action from lurching from scene to scene. And it doesn’t help that Matt Richter’s distracting lighting design confuses things. Switching from full, white light for group scenes to a blue hue for Kenny’s narration becomes obtrusive and self-defeating, weakening the narrative sequences rather than strengthening them. This is unfortunate as it makes the play seem less coherent than it is.
The performances are mostly fine. Two fantastical dance sequences in Act II, choreographed by Shari Washington Rhone, provide vivid interludes and show off the acrobatic skills of the actors, particularly the energetic Ivy. The uncredited black and white set is little more than a framework for the action.
The Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m. (323) 960-1055 or https://www.plays411.com/thewatsons. Running time: 90 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.