A while back we attended a production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. In the lobby, we overheard staff talking to parents who were bringing half a dozen grammar school age children to the show, “You know, this is a… serious play”. What he really wanted to say was, “Are you really wanting to bring kids to a play about sex, politics, and death?”. More recently, we attended Arena Stage’s two holiday shows, Oliver! and Akeelah and the Bee, both of which would be considered Kid-Friendly shows by the number of children in both audiences. What constitutes Kid-Friendly theatre?
Oliver! is a show I have heard about for years, usually from productions at children’s theatres (e.g. either companies which produce shows specifically for younger audiences, or which involved young actors). I have never read Charles Dicken’s book, Oliver Twist, from the mid-nineteenth century, or seen Lionel Bart’s adaptation for stage from the 1960’s.
The basic story-line is orphan-work-house boy is sold to a mortician, but then runs away to find companionship on the streets of London, before being discovered by his grandfather who expresses his love by reinstating him into his family.
I believe Dickens was making social commentary about British orphanages, work-houses, childbirth death rate (the suggestion is the Oliver’s mother died in childbirth of a bastard baby), poverty and wealth, etc. Bart seems to be patting us on the back for having changed most of these horrors by promoting education of children rather than child labor, adoption and foster care homes rather than orphanages, women’s health and birth control rather than childbirth mortality, with some heart-warming songs. A hundred years of progress makes Oliver! adorable rather than shocking.
Akeelah and the Bee is Cheryl L West’s stage adaption of a hit movie of the same title. Akeelah lives in the Southside of Chicago, where she and her family duck when bullets burst outside their row house. Her father died a year ago, when he came in the cross-fire of gangs. Akeelah loves words, but wants the approval of her friends as much as winning a spelling bee. Her mother works extra shifts at the hospital. Her brother is looking for work and promises to check in at the school to apply to get his GED. The principal of the school sees Akeelah’s potential, and introduces her to a professor, who wants to coach her for regional, state, and national level spelling bees. This is all-too-current, both in its social context (inner-city children) and our belief in social mobility through education.
Two apparently Kid-Friendly shows. I dreaded Oliver! and adored Akeelah and the Bee. Why? Both had excellent children performing their roles. Oliver! has tunes to hum. Akeelah and the Bee had well crafted scenes, in-depth understanding of middle-school children, and optimism. Both portrayed harsh realities that our children face in life. The difference was the director’s choice in how to present these plays.
Molly Smith directed Oliver! and stated that she wanted to bring the play into the 21st century. Many of the scenes in Oliver! do not have an equivalent in the 21st century without major text changes (e.g. we do not have work-houses). Furthermore, to accentuate the horrid world in which children live, Ms. Smith turned light-hearted context scenes into shocking abuses of adult power. When Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney should be coyly flirting, they are doing the bump-and-grind. The undertaker and his family look like something out of The Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show. This is just distraction. Worse yet, when Oliver become Part-of-the-Family of homeless children, he meets The Artful Dodger and Fagin, who are running drugs. There is nothing tuneful about this world.
In directing Akeelah and the Bee, Charles Randolph-Wright does not sanitize inner-city schools or streets. But, he also does not beat us over the head with them. The theme is not the threats that children live amongst, but how children can be children and can be guided to thrive in adversity. One technique that Randolph-Wright uses is to place the actors into the audience during scenes of various spelling bees. Thus, Akeelah’s brother comes to one bee, bringing his infant child in the car seat to sit in the front row. When the baby starts to cry, we all have to deal with the distraction. Later, Akeelah’s mother and neighbors attend another spelling bee, this time sitting near the front on either side of the theatre. Again, we are watching what is going on with the stage as well as among the family watching what is going on. To accentuate this, as this spelling bee would be televised, Randolph-Wright has a video crew on stage, and we get to watch the commentator discuss the events which we are watching.
Though Ms. Smith may have wanted us to better identify with a contemporary Oliver! by bringing it into contemporary London, I spent most of the show hoping that the three little girls behind me could not see over or around my head. Her approach distanced me from empathizing with the plight of run-away children. Randolph-Wright in contrast gave me opportunities to cheer the children along and consider how I might influence a child to use her or his talents. As to those children attending Anthony and Cleopatra, they seemed to skim over the rolling around on the Persian rug scenes and really enjoy the sword fights.