Chicago – Chicago Children’s Theatre is happy to announce it has received a $10,000 NEA Art Works grant to support the company’s upcoming world premiere adaptation of The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. This marks CCT’s sixth NEA grant in support of creating a new production for young audiences that “meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts.”
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is a civil rights era family drama based on the groundbreaking, Newbery Award-winning young adult novel by Christopher Paul Curtis about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. The production, currently in rehearsals, boasts a script adapted by internationally respected playwright Cheryl L. West, is directed by highly acclaimed Chicago director and actor Wardell Julius Clark, features original music composed by Paris Ray Dozier, and boasts an A-list cast of professional theater artists both on stage and behind-the-scenes.
Past productions created or presented by Chicago Children’s Theatre with NEA support include:
The Houdini Box, Chicago Children’s Theatre’s 2012 world premiere musical adventure based on the book by award-winning children’s author Brian Selznick, featuring puppets by Chicago master puppeteer Blair Thomas, received two NEA Art Works development grants.
CCT’s 2012 world premiere Red Kite by the Sea was a multisensory live theater experience developed specifically for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). NEA’s support of Red Kite by the Sea helped fund free tickets for audience members in financial need. In sum, 260 children on the autism spectrum had the opportunity to participate in Red Kite by the Sea, thanks in part to the NEA.
A 2016 NEA Art Works grant supported CCT’s presentation of Thodos Dance Chicago’s A Light in the Dark: The Stories of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, co-choreographed by Ann Reinking and Melissa Thodos. Thanks in part to NEA support, CCT was able to offer touch tours for the visually impaired, and autism-friendly performances tailored to the specific needs of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Already this season, a NEA Art Works grant also supported the world premiere of X Marks the Spot, a multi-sensory theater experience created by Chicago Children’s Theatre Co-Founder and Artistic Director Jacqueline Russell that fully integrated patrons who are blind or visually-impaired, while giving audience members with sight the opportunity to tune into their other senses.
“Thanks to the continued support of the National Endowment of the Arts, more than 26,000 Chicago-area kids have been exposed to exciting new works of professional theater that have steadfastly treated children as the sophisticated audiences that they are,” said Russell. “Since ticket sales only account for 30 percent of our annual operating budget, Chicago Children’s Theatre is happy to share how sincerely grateful we are for such strong and sustained financial support from this vitally important federal agency.”
“NEA-supported projects such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 at Chicago Children’s Theatre are good examples of how the arts build stronger and more vibrant communities, improve well-being, prepare our children to succeed, and increase the quality of our lives,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “At the National Endowment for the Arts, we believe that all people should have access to the joy, opportunities and connections the arts bring.”
This latest grant for The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was just one in a total of $25 million in grants of the NEA’s first major funding announcement for fiscal year 2018. For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news.
More about The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963
Since Chicago Children’s Theatre’s founding, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 has been the #1 new play request from one of the company’s most important audiences – Chicago teachers. The company’s all-new production of Curtis’s Newbery-winning book debuts March 30-April 18, 2019 at Chicago Children’s Theatre, 100 S. Racine in the city’s West Loop neighborhood. Public performances are Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Exception: No shows Easter Sunday, April 21. Single tickets are $25-$41. Visit chicagochildrenstheatre.org or call Chicago Children’s Theatre Guest Services, (312) 374-8835, for single tickets, subscriptions, information on school performances and group rates.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 is appropriate for children 9 years old and up, and compelling to adults. Press are invited to opening weekend performances, Saturday or Sunday, March 30 or 31 at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m.
Meet the Watsons, an African-American family of five, who live in Flint, Michigan. When oldest son Byron starts getting into trouble, it’s decided he needs to be sent to Birmingham, Alabama to live with his grandma to get set straight. So the whole family – Mama, Daddy, Byron, Kenny and Joetta – sets out on a cross-country journey in the family car, the “Brown Bomber.” When they make it to Birmingham, they find more than they bargained for – a city simmering with tension during the height of the civil rights movement. This powerful story reminds us that during times of crisis, hope reveals itself in the forms of family, friendships, learning, growing and evolving.
Chicago Children’s Theatre, The Station, is located at 100 S. Racine Ave. in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. The Station is minutes from I-90, I-290, downtown and Ashland Avenue. Free onsite parking is available on the south side of the building, enter from Racine Ave. Nearby street parking is typically available on weekends, or look for the Impark parking lot, 1301 W. Madison St.
Access Weekend for The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 is Saturday and Sunday, April 13 and 14. ASL interpretation will be provided Saturday, April 11 at 11 a.m. Open captioning will be provided at the 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. performances on Saturday, April 13. On Sunday, April 14, the 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. performances will be sensory-friendly. A quiet room and family restroom will be available.
Behind the scenes of The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963
“I am so happy to bring The Watson’s Go to Birmingham – 1963 to CCT. A novel I read as a kid in 6th grade in Birmingham, it is thrilling to be able to bring home to Chicago,” said director Wardell Julius Clark, who grew up in Fairfield, Alabama, just outside Birmingham, and has personal ties with families affected by the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. “The story deals with family, love, joy and childhood PTSD when innocence is broken. The reality of the America we continue to live in to this day. It is a deeply personal story, with my mother being longtime friends of the McNair family. I am so excited to share this story with Chicago audiences.”
Clark has earned uniform critical acclaim for his bold stagings of The Shipment for Red Tape Theatre, Insurrection: Holding History for Stage Left and Surely Goodness and Mercy for Redtwist. He was also associate director for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and assistant director for Gem of the Ocean and Satchmo at the Waldorf at Court. Before arriving at Chicago Children’s Theatre, Clark will helm Dutch Masters for Jackalope Theatre. As an actor, he has performed on many Chicago stages including Windy City Playhouse, Victory Gardens, Court and Congo Square. He is a TimeLine Theatre company member and a teaching artist with its Living History program. Clark is also an associate artist with the Black Lives, Black Words theater collective.
Christopher Paul Curtis (author) was born and reared in Flint, Michigan. After high school graduation, he worked on the assembly line of the Fisher Body Plant/Flint Plant No. 1 and graduated from the Flint branch of the University of Michigan. His debut book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, was one of the most highly acclaimed first novels for young readers in recent years, receiving a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor book citation in 1996. It was also adapted into a TV movie that premiered on the Hallmark Channel in 2013. His novel Bud, Not Buddy, winner of the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award in 2000, was presented on stage in 2013 by Chicago Children’s Theatre. In 2014, Chicago Children’s Theatre followed up with a highly successful world premiere musical based on Curtis’s novel Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money. His other books include Bucking the Sarge, Elijah of Buxton (Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction), Mr. Chickee’s Messy Mission, The Mighty Miss Malone, The Madman of Piney Woods,
and his newest release, The Journey of Little Charlie. Curtis currently lives in Detroit, Michigan and in his free time still enjoys reading, playing basketball and collecting music. For more, visit nobodybutcurtis.com.
Cheryl L. West (adaptor) wrote the adaptation for Last Stop On Market Street, Chicago Children’s Theatre’s 2018 world premiere musical based on Matt de la Peña’s Newbery-winning, Caldecott-honored children’s book. She is the librettist for Play On! (which ran on Broadway and at Seattle Rep) and the author of plays including Birdie Blue, Rejoice!, Holiday Heart, Puddin ‘n’ Pete, Jar the Floor and Before It Hits Home. The latter earned West several awards including the 1992 Helen Hayes/Charles McArthur Award for outstanding new play and the Susan Smith Blackburn prize, an international award given to a woman who has written a work of outstanding quality. Her plays for young audiences include Akeelah & the Bee, adapted from the popular 2006 film, along with Mwindo, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Addy: American Girl Story and Pullman Porter Blues. She is a recipient of the National Endowment Playwriting Award and the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Best Playwright Award. Her plays have been produced in England, New York and in numerous regional theatres including Goodman, Northlight, Arena Stage, Old Globe, Seattle Rep, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Bay Street Theatre Festival, Syracuse Stage, Cleveland Play House, South Coast Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Manhattan Theater Club, and Off-Broadway’s Second Stage. West adapted Holiday Heart for Showtime/MGM and Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions, which earned her a GLADD nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for Alfre Woodard. She has worked in TV and film projects at Paramount, MTV Films, Showtime, TNT, HBO and CBS. She was the Webby nominated writer for the web series, Diary of a Single Mom in collaboration with Robert Townsend’s V Studios.
Paris Ray Dozier (composer) first collaborated in 2018 with Chicago Children’s Theatre as co-composer with his father, Motown legend Lamont Dozier, on the original score for Last Stop on Market Street. Earlier this season, Dozier also created music and sound for CCT’s world premiere of X Marks the Spot, an interactive “X-tra Sensory” production created by Chicago Children’s Artistic Director Jacqueline Russell, inspired by her work with children with low vision.
The Watsons creative team includes Arnel Sancianco, set designer; Sydney Thomas, associate set designer; Jason Lynch, lighting designer; Izumi Inaba, costume designer; Kevin O’Donnell, sound designer; Mealah Heidenreich, props designer; and Smooch Medina, projections designer. The cast includes Bear Bellinger (Daddy), Sharriese Hamilton (Mama), Ian Paul Custer (Buphead), Stephen Allen Jr. (Byron) and Deanna Reed-Foster (Grandma Sands), with young performers Nelson Simmons and Jeremiah Ruwe rotating performances as Kenny, and Lyric Sims and Jillian-Giselle sharing the role of Joetta. Elizabeth Dauterman is production stage manager. Assistant stage manager is Barry Branford.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was co-commissioned by Seattle Children’s Theatre in Seattle, WA (Courtney Sale, Artistic Director), Chicago Children’s Theatre in Chicago, IL, (Jacqueline Russell, Artistic Director) and the LAUNCH PAD at University of California, Santa Barbara – Department of Theater and Dance in Santa Barbara, CA in 2017 (Risa Brainin, Artistic Director).
About Chicago Children’s Theatre
Chicago Children’s Theatre has transformed the former 12 th District Police Station, located in the heart of Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood at 100 S. Racine Avenue, into its first permanent home. The new Chicago Children’s Theatre, The Station, celebrated its grand opening in January 2017, and now serves as a beautiful, mixed-use performing arts, education and community engagement facility that welcomes all Chicago families. Since its launch in 2005, CCT has cemented its reputation as the city’s largest professional theater company devoted exclusively to children and young families.
The company evolved out of Chicago’s need for high-quality, professional children’s programming to match the caliber and significance of powerhouses such as Steppenwolf, Goodman and Lookingglass. In 2017, Chicago Children’s Theatre became the first theater for young audiences in the nation to win a National Theatre Award from the American Theatre Wing, creators of the Tony Awards. Chicago Children’s Theatre has built its national reputation due to its focus on new work, producing 19 world premieres in the last 12 years including The Selfish Giant, The Hundred Dresses, Jackie and Me, Dot and Ziggy, The Houdini Box, The Elephant and The Whale (in association with Redmoon), Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money, Leo Lionni’s Frederick, Wonderland, Alice’s Rock & Roll Adventure, A Snowy Day with Beatrix Potter, Jabari Dreams of Freedom, Moonshot: A Race to Space, The Year I Didn’t Go To School: A Homemade Circus, My Wonderful Birthday Suit!, An Epic Tale of Scale, Last Stop on Market Street, X Marks the Spot and The World Inside Me (with New York’s Spellbound Theatre). These enjoyed successful inaugural runs in Chicago, many followed by productions at theaters across the U.S.
In addition to presenting live shows in The Station’s intimate 149-seat Pritzker Family Studio Theatre, Chicago Children’s Theatre continues to grow its education and community programs, which are unique in Chicago for emphasizing student authorship, youth empowerment and community leadership. CCT now offers year-round education programming at The Station for ages 0 to 13, including the city’s most diverse roster of classes, specialized workshops, winter and spring break camps, and a full slate of summer camp experiences. Visit chicagochildrenstheatre.org/education, email [email protected], or call CCT’s Guest Services, (312) 374-8835, to register your child for one class or many. CCT has always showcased high profile and award-winning talent, inventive production values and compelling stories that challenge, educate and entertain. CCT also honors a strong commitment to low-income families and children with special needs. In partnership with Chicago Public Schools, the company offers free tickets to more than 5,000 Chicago-area low-income students each season.
Chicago Children’s Theatre is led by Co-Founders, Artistic Director Jacqueline Russell and Board Chair Todd Leland, with Board President Eric Neveux. The company is supported by a dynamic Board of Directors comprised of dedicated individuals from the fields of entertainment, philanthropy and business. Chicago Children’s Theatre’s season is sponsored in part by Goldman Sachs Gives and ComEd. For more, visit chicagochildrenstheatre.org.