Many adults would say that there’s nothing harder than talking about race — except perhaps, talking to kids about race. America’s promise has always rested on the shoulders of the next generation, and many parents are struggling with how to best prepare the youngest to grapple with the worst of the world’s ills.
Enter: “A Kid’s Play about Racism.”
Director Khalia Davis says, “We name it immediately — the play and the book have the word racism right there in the title; we are not sugarcoating it. We are not putting it under the umbrella of the Civil Rights Movement — though those stories are important and necessary — but we are saying, today in 2020, this is what it looks like.”
Streaming for free Aug. 1-2 on Broadway On Demand, Chicago’s Children’s Theatre joins an impressive national collaboration of 37 Theaters for Young Audiences across the U.S. to present the play. Jacqueline Russell, co-founder and artistic director of Chicago Children’s Theatre says: “As a producing partner, Chicago Children’s Theatre is thrilled to share this important and exciting new production this weekend with all children everywhere.”
The production is a theatrical adaptation of the book “A Kids Book About Racism,” written by Jelani Memory as an entry in his popular “A Kids Book About…” series, which tackles large issues often considered above the interest level of younger audiences. The book was originally written as a story for his kids, to help explain his experiences as a biracial dad.
This unique production was created using theatrical techniques on an online platform, creating a unique theater/film hybrid. The cast includes Davied Morales, Angel Adedokun, Moses Goods, Rapheal Hamilton, Isaiah Harris, Jessenia Ingram and Regan Sims.
In adapting the play, Davis used Memory’s text as a jumping-off point. She reached out to Memory for his OK to recast the adult Jelani from the book as a child for the play.
“In the play version, young Jelani is trying to make the idea of racism easy and simple because he thinks that kids don’t want anything complicated, and he uses his emotions to help guide the conversation,” Davis said, explaining how she chose to expand the world of the story.
“But what he soon learns through the course of the show is that racism is not simple; it is complicated and messy, and his feelings have their own responses to it, which in turn get complicated and messy.” The production introduces the information in many different ways, visually, musically, and through color, because children receive information in many different ways.
Davis started out her career as an actor and her passion for children’s entertainment led her to finding an artistic home at the Bay Area Children’s Theater. She became a mainstay at the institution, working as a teaching artist, leading school tours and performing on the weekends. Nina Meehan, the company’s executive artistic director, asked if Davis would like to begin doing creative work from the other side of the table, as a director.
Even after Davis moved off to New York, Meehan continued to mentor and offer work to Davis, inviting her to split her time between coasts, returning to the Bay Area to direct one show every year. So when Davis saw that the Bay Area Children’s Theater had shared a BLM statement, she reached out to her friend and mentor, to find out if the theater would follow through in its commitment.
A week later, Meehan called Davis about the book and said, “I think it needs to be made into a show,” followed by “and I am a white Jewish woman and this is not my story to tell, so I am going to make you the artistic lead on this project. Let me know what you need.”
Davis was floored. “That was something that I had never heard anybody say,” she said.
Talking about race is often a fraught proposition, for adults and children. But being able to have fruitful discussions opens pathways to changing the world. Davis muses, “I think parents struggle because it is so difficult to accept the fact that there are dark things about what has made our nation what it is. It is really difficult to tell your child, there are people who are bad in this world.”
Helping to ease the conversation, Alliance Theater in Atlanta, and Seattle Children’s theater, who are lead producers with Bay Area Children’s Theater, have provided educational supplemental materials on the website (akidsplayabout.org under the Education tab) that are made for both teachers and parents, and include activities that can be done in the classroom or in the home. Producing partner theaters such as Chicago Children’s Theater will also provide local community engagement opportunities around the production.
“We also want to celebrate our differences,” says Davis. “There’s a beautiful line in Memory’s book that says, “Being different is good, being different is a thousand times good.”
Sheri Flanders is a local freelance writer.