reviewed by Vickie Cornelius Phipps

Based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis and masterfully adapted by African American playwright Cheryl L. West, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 follows the Watson family driving to the Deep South from Flint, Michigan during the 1960s. The story explores the prejudice encountered by black people traveling in Jim Crow America through the eyes of the three children, while also highlighting the power of family and community.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is the second play in IRT’s INclusion Series, which celebrates diverse storytelling. Directed by Mikael Burke, this relevant and moving family drama runs February 1 – March 1 on the IRT Upper stage with an approximate run time of 1 hour and 10 minutes and no intermission. It is a civil rights era family drama that contains mild onstage violence, strobe, haze, loud noises, images of the Ku Klux Klan, and a dramatization of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

from left, Xavier Adams (Kenny) and Brian Wilson (Byron) in a scene from IRT’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963”

A first-person account narrated by 4th grader Kenny Watson, brilliantly played by Xavier Adams, opens the play – showing how traumatized this young man is by the recent 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. His brother Byron, hostile and defiant, disrupts the family nucleus. Brian Wilson grabs the role of the typical rebellious teenager challenging family values. Byron has been skipping school, lighting fires in the bathroom, and bullying his brother. But when he comes home with flat-ironed hair, that’s the last straw. His parents decide it’s time for him to stay with the notoriously strict Grandma Sands, (Milicent Wright) in Birmingham, Alabama. With The Negro Motorist Green Book in hand as their guide, they pack the whole family in the car and head south. Wright is a refreshing site as her character takes control with tough love. Dalila Yoder, as the little sister, Joey, is my standout pick as she portrays a natural sass and cuteness. Bryant Bentley, as Daddy, is tender as he works to maintain peace between mother and children. Mama, portrayed by Tiffany Gilliam, plays the heavy hand. She is the matriarch you don’t want to mess with. I enjoyed Gilliam in this role, but her vocal projection seemed rather unnatural to me. Choosing more variety in tone and volume might make some of her punch lines work better.

from left, Tiffany Gilliam (Mama), Xavier Adams (Kenny) and Bryant Bentley (Daddy) in a scene from IRT’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963”

Grayson Molin plays two roles and shows skill in distinguishing the characters of Buphead, Byron’s juvenile delinquent friend from Michigan, and the intimidating redneck southerner the family meets in their travels.

from left, Tiffany Gilliam (Mama) and Milicent Wright (Grandma Sands) in a scene from IRT’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963”

Director Mikael Burke’s creativity makes this show a prize winner. Maximizing set pieces and use of the rotating floor serve to capture both the exasperations and the joys of the long family excursion. Using projected images, highlighting the visual scenery, takes the audience to the wide-open road. The scars of those horrific images of the KKK, rioters, and bombings remind us of the ugliness in American history. Scenic & Projection Designer Reuben Lucas, Costume Designer Alexis Carrie, Lighting Designer Tom Horan, Dramaturg Richard J Roberts, also deserve recognitions. I want to thank all for bringing this piece to life.

from left, Dalila Yoder (Joey) and Tiffany Gilliam (Mama) in a scene from IRT’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963”

There’s a scene early in the show in which Daddy talks to his sons about fear. There comes a time, he tells Byron and Kenny, when you must “stare fear in the face and see what it has to teach you.” That’s exactly what The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 allows audience members of all ages to see, whether they’re grade schoolers, like Kenny, or battle-tested seniors, like Grandma Sands.

The INclusion Series features work by female playwrights on the Native American, African American, and Chinese American experience. The full series consists of And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of TearsThe Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 and The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin. For tickets 317-635-5252 or visit: IRTLIVE.COM. – Photos

  • – photos by Zach Rosing
  • – artwork by Kyle Ragsdale