Locomotion

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.

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