As an adult, just watching I Have a Dream at Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn inspired me (and I hope, my kids) to dream big. Honestly, I had reservations about taking my elementary school-age boys to see the show. How do you take such important themes of history as emancipation, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement, and make them interesting to young children? Not only did I come out of the theatre with a much greater appreciation of events that happened just before I was born, but my kids were enthralled too. It was probably helpful that our kids (ranging in age from seven to eleven) had recently studied Martin (I mean Michael – if you don’t understand that, you will after seeing the play) Luther King Jr. near his birthday, but even without that, children seven and up would be able to feel the emotion and struggles of the characters and see for themselves the injustice of the story.
Directed by Foster Solomon, the cast did an amazing job of weaving the important details of King’s life through the use of both character portrayal and narration. The hour-long play went by quickly as five skilled actors, all of whom you’ll recognize from their other works in RVA, brought the story of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to life. I found myself emotionally connecting to the characters and their struggles for equal rights. Of course, it’s hard to imagine being treated so unfairly because of your skin color, but it’s important to examine the issue with our kids. Seeing I Have a Dream offers a unique opportunity to do this. Mike Brown, portraying Martin Luther King Jr., nailed every aspect of this big role, and he had me in tears during King’s iconic speech. Jessi Johnson, who we remembered from her stellar performance as Maggie Walker last year, seamlessly switched from Coretta Scott King to King’s mother, teacher, and even Rosa Parks (who apparently was willing to sit in the back of the bus – just not stand. I learned that, too!). Jim Bynum supplied most of the handful of laughs in the play, as the, at times, animated father of King, among his other roles.
Also showing great acting range were Adrian Grantz and Lucas Hall who took on all the white roles, from a neighborhood grocer, to a bus driver, to the infamous Bull Connor (commissioner of public safety for Birmingham, Alabama), and George Wallace, the governor of Alabama.
I loved the way the actors and the story, written by Bruce Craig Miller, connected with the younger audience through King’s childhood experiences and the role children played in the Civil Rights movement. And thank goodness since I didn’t exactly prep them for what type of play we were going to see. These four boys are used to seeing wildly entertaining plays on the Virginia Rep stages. I only had to say, “We’re seeing a play at Willow Lawn tonight!” to get them excited. I invited a few other friends along, who replied, “Thanks, but I don’t think my kids would be into it.” I know now what my response should have been: “Who cares!?”
Okay, not exactly that, but my point is, the set-up of the stage at Willow Lawn is called thrust seating, which means the seats are on three sides of the stage, allowing for a ridiculously up-close and personal view of the actors. Sure, the plays with singing and dancing are tops in my kids’ books, but any chance to see a live performance from this vantage point is worth the trip. As it turned out, four rambunctious boys who normally can’t sit still for more than two seconds, sat next to each other, silent and attentive, for an hour, riveted by the history these five actors shared with them. My hope is that the story of Martin Luther King Jr. inspires my own children to make a difference in this world, have faith, be creative, work hard, treat everyone with respect, and dream big.
I Have a Dream continues at Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn through February 14. For showtimes and tickets, visit Virginia Rep today.