Rowin M. Breaux, Anjelica McMillan, Chip Sherman, Kaila Towers and Nicholas Japaul Bernard in SCT’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963.” Credit: Angela Sterling
Can learning about racism be fun? Well, kinda. If you’re looking for more ways to educate your kids on our nation’s troubling history (and let’s be real, you should be) and have fun while doing it, you need to see Seattle Children’s Theatre’s latest show, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963.” The play is on stage now and runs through May 22, 2022.
Based on the award-winning children’s novel by Christopher Paul Curtis, the play is the story of a Black American family’s road trip from Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama, during the height of the Civil Rights era. Throughout their journey, they encounter significant threats, most devastatingly, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Yet, from brilliant acting and directing to lighting and set design, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” is actually fun and funny. This is in large part due to the lovable and loving Watsons, who encounter everything a modern-day family might while they’re on the road: Fighting kids, unexpected bathroom breaks and that one song your kid loves played on repeat for hours, just to keep them quiet on the drive.
And that’s the point: Even fun and light-hearted moments on the road weren’t completely carefree for the Watsons — nor are they for the audience. “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” humanizes the lived experiences of Black people, like the Watsons, living through the Jim Crow era. The story addresses issues like segregation, police brutality, hate groups, protest and the terrorism that defined the period — all through the eyes of a child, the main character, 10-year-old Kenny.
The bottom line
“The Watsons” is fun, yes. But “The Watsons” is also intense. Even in lighter moments, ominous music and imagery was projected on screens on set. It felt unsettling at several points. The purpose, of course, is to convey the constant threat of violence that this average American family, like all Black families, lived under during that time. In this manner, these shameful aspects of our history are presented in age-appropriate ways, as the kids in the audience are invited to grapple with difficult concepts alongside Kenny and his family.
“The Watsons” is a timely and important look into the traumatic impact of anti-Black racism from the perspective of the children experiencing it. At a time when school districts around the nation are erasing Black history to supposedly “protect” kids’ comfort, it’s an important reminder that not all children have been — or currently are — afforded the same comfort, safety and protection in the United States.
Parents should know
Though I more often take my younger kids to SCT shows, for this one I brought my 14-year-old, along with my 11-year-old and a friend. I’m glad I did. I think “The Watsons” is a great show for older kids — and even adults. The girls had many questions and we had a lively discussion on the way home.
“The Watsons” touches on several historical facts from the period that kids might miss. I highly recommend exploring other resources about this era and about the events introduced in the play, either before or after the show, to help kids better understand and engage with its content.
For instance, the character Mama/Wilona Watson (Kaila Towers) has carefully planned the family’s journey by consulting her trusty “Negro Green Book,” a national travel guide many Black families relied on during the Jim Crow era. The book provided information on Black-friendly rest stops, lodging and eateries.
When the family makes an unplanned pitstop in a woodsy area to use the bathroom, the oldest Watson brother, Byron (Rowan Breaux), warns younger brother Kenny that white, hooded monsters — the KKK — could be lurking in the forest.
As they get closer to Birmingham, Kenny (Chip Sherman) notices racist billboards surrounding them along the interstate. He asks Daddy/Daniel Watson (Nicholas Japaul Bernard) to explain terms like “segregation”.
As the rest of the Watson family sleeps, Kenny and his dad are threatened by a white person who stands menacingly outside their car with a club raised at them. The person threatens them by calling Daddy “boy”.
While visiting Birmingham, Kenny takes his younger sister, Joey (Anjelica McMillan), to church. As she’s about to head down to the basement for Sunday school, they’re knocked back by a blast. The church has been bombed. Images of the faces of the real girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing were projected on set. The girls murdered were Denise McNair (age 11), Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carole Robertson (age 14) and Cynthia Wesley (age 14).
Caretakers and educators can consult sources like Brittanica.com, which has excellent resources for kids on the Negro Green Book, the Civil Rights Movement and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. You can also visit the website Kids in Birmingham 1963, which features interviews with over a hundred people who were children living in Birmingham during the events of 1963. For educators, SCT also offers its usual Active Audience Guide.
If you go …
When: “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963” plays through May 22, 2022.
Where: Seattle Children’s Theatre is located at 201 Thomas St., Seattle, on the west side of Seattle Center. This show plays in SCT’s Eve Alvord Theatre.
Tickets: $20–$45; buy tickets online for the best availability. Before the pandemic, SCT introduced pricing tiers. Patrons can select their preferred ticket price, subject to availability. The tiers are premium ($45 adult/$40 child), standard ($35 adult, $30 child) and value ($25 adult, $20 child). Select “value” from the dropdown menu on the ticket page to find cheaper tickets. There are a limited number available for each performance.
Accessibility: SCT offers an ASL-interpreted performance (Saturday, May 21), an audio-described show (Saturday, May 14) and a sensory-friendly show (Sunday, May 15). Wheelchair and companion seating are available; check the theater’s accessibility page.
Age recommendation: SCT recommends this show for ages 8 and older.
Run time: About 70 minutes with no intermission.
Show resources: SCT’s audience guide provides a detailed synopsis of the play, as well as reading recs.
Safety protocols: SCT requires masks for everyone ages 2 and older, as well as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for everyone ages 5 and older. Read more details online.
Also on stage: “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! The Musical!” is playing concurrently in a different theater at Seattle Children's Theatre.