Doing the Locomotion with kids’ theater

Tyler Andrew Jones as Lonnie for Oregon Children's Theatre. Photo: Owen Carey

When Miss Edna told Lonnie to straighten out his messy bed, the kid in front of me giggled and nudged his buddy in the ribs.

When poetry-hating Enrique broke into a rap in the middle of English class, the house cheered.

When Ms. Marcus broke the news that all those bruises on Enrique’s body weren’t because somebody’d been using him for a punching bag but because he had sickle cell anemia, it was like the air had just got sucked out of the room.

And when Lonnie finally talked about the fire that explained why he and his sister Lili were living in foster homes, the crowd was still and alert and cradled in a moment that outstayed its time.

You can talk all you want about theater as art, and please do. But art or not, theater is performance. And performance has to click with an audience.

That’s why I like to drop in every now and again on a show for kids. No audience experiences the give-and-take between stage and seats more directly or honestly. If an audience of kids tunes out, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bad show: It might just not be right for kids. But if you’re an actor or director it’s a good idea to pay attention to where the kids zone out, because maybe you’ve got a problem on your hands. And if the kids are with you, they’re gonna let you know. Loudly.

So the other morning I found myself sitting in the back of the Dolores Winningstad Theatre to take in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s lovely current production of Locomotion, Jacqueline Woodson’s stage adaptation of her 2003 kids’ novel, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Most of the house was packed with elementary-age kids (I was surrounded by a lively group from North Portland’s Boise-Eliot School) and it would’ve been tough to find a more responsive audience. Sure, the buzz began before the show did. The kids were on a field trip, downtown to the performing arts center, sprung from class, and that always puts things in a party mood. So the crowd was pumped. But I’ve seen that energy deflate, quickly, when a show isn’t clicking with the kids, and the resulting restlessness can make a theater feel like a wasps-nest that’s just been poked.

Happily the kids stayed with Locomotion, attentively and emotionally, from beginning to end. I haven’t read Woodson’s novel, but her stage script is smart and clear and intricately woven, and at about an hour the show is just the right length, neither padded nor rushed. Maybe the kids had read the book beforehand and knew what was going to happen. They still seemed caught up in the mystery. And because the story was new to me, I had the advantage of waiting for a good plot to unfold – which meant, I guess, that I could watch it like a kid.

Jacqueline Woodson, 2007. David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

Or like an adult, because like so much “young adult” or “children’s” lit, Locomotion just seems like good writing, period. Sure, the main characters are young. So are Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn.

Locomotion the play is apparently quite a bit different from Locomotion the book, which was written in the form of free-verse poems by its hero, 11-year-old Lonnie Collins Motion, nicknamed by his mama Locomotion, after the Little Eva song. Enrique, Lonnie’s school buddy and a major figure in the play, doesn’t exist in the book. Woodson’s stage version hinges on a mystery that plays out slowly as the action jumps back and forth through about three years of events. Something’s happened to change life drastically for Lonnie, his little sister Lili, and their parents, who had been a tight and loving family. “Once we were real,” Lonnie says, several times. He’s not sure what they are now.

OCT’s production, under Lava Alapai’s astute and sensitive direction, brings the story to fruition with theatrical richness and satisfying economy. The story takes place in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section, a center for black culture in New York. Tal Sanders’ tall urban set design cleverly makes space for a variety of spaces, from a classroom to a walkup-apartment kitchen and bedroom to an outdoors basketball court, and gives Lonnie a top-of-the-building perch to look at the stars and work on the poems that he writes down compulsively in the pages of his journal.

Maybe best of all, the audience gets to see some true theatrical sleight-of-hand: the whole story’s performed by just three actors. Tyler Andrew Jones stars as Lonnie, carrying the center of the play with a nice balance of bravado and openness. Jarrel Newsome plays all the other male characters – high-spirited Enrique, Daddy, the Agency Man – and Andrea White plays all of the female characters: Mama, Lili, the teacher Miss Edna, and Ms. Marcus, the strict but loving older woman who takes Lonnie in as a foster kid. Newsome and White switch from character to character sometimes in a matter of seconds, and with entertaining adeptness. This production never talks down to the kids in the audience, and it sticks to high professional standards.

Locomotion is partly about the powerful possibilities of art in people’s lives. “Writing makes me remember,” Lonnie says. “Like somebody pushed the rewind button.” And it’s partly about the way that families shift and change as life changes, and how even people who aren’t blood relatives can become family. It’s a play that recognizes – as most kids do – that bad things can happen, and dealing with them is never easy, but it can be done.

Watching the show, I thought of a few things.

First, I thought, what a lucky group of kids to have someone like Ms. Marcus as a teacher, someone whose whole purpose is to open their eyes to their own possibilities and help them learn to think and act for themselves. And I wondered how well she’d be able to do that in the current statistics-obsessed environment of American public education, which seems to have slipped back into the bleakly utilitarian mindset of Mr. Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times: just the test scores, ma’am. And that made me think of the general poverty of arts and music programs in our schools, and the resulting waste of human potential – a crime against the country’s future. Companies like Oregon Children’s Theatre admirably help fill the gap. But it’s a little bit like the Dutch boy jamming his finger into the hole in the dike.

Second, I thought, how terrific to see a theater audience in Portland with a healthy racial blend of faces, not just the mostly white faces you usually see unless you’re someplace like Miracle Theatre, which specializes in Latino plays. It was great to see African-American kids watching a story about African-American characters, and it underscored the importance of the goals of the city’s emerging plan to set diversity requirements for arts and cultural groups that get public funding and tax breaks, as D.K. Row reported recently in The Oregonian. As complex as implementing a new city policy might be, and as much as one size doesn’t fit all organizations, it’s the direction we should be headed. It’s not a matter of “doing something for” nonwhite audiences. It’s recognizing that people of a wide variety of racial and cultural identities are the city.

Third, I thought about Monday night’s candidate forum on arts issues, and the report that Arts Watch’s Barry Johnson gave on it, with his assertion that diversity partly means getting cultural events out into the neighborhoods, where people actually live and spend their time. I believe that’s true, and necessary if Portland wants to thrive as a city. I also think it’s important for all kids, and kids of color especially, to be able to come downtown for something special like a good show at the performing arts center or a visit to the art museum. All kids need to know that Portland is their city, downtown is their downtown, and they have as much right as anyone to its cultural advantages. Until we truly believe the city belongs to all of us, it won’t.

Maybe that’s a lot of weight to put on Lonnie Collins Motion’s shoulders. But the kid’s got possibilities.

*

NOTE: Locomotion continues at the Dolores Winningstad Theatre of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts through March 18, with weekday performances for school groups and weekend performances for general audiences. Schedule and ticket information here.

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