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‘The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963’

Family Road Trip into Civil Rights Storm

<em>The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963</em> by Cheryl L. West
David Bazemore

Who doesn’t love a good road trip? There’s something irresistible about getting in the car, cranking up the radio, and heading out onto the open road. Yet as American as this age-old urge to get out of town may be, there’s always the danger that in hurtling toward an unknown adventure in this country, one may wind up driving straight into history. That’s exactly what happens in The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, the new play by Cheryl L. West that’s on this weekend at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater. Five family members from Michigan, including a 10-year-old boy named Kenny, set out for Alabama in the summer of 1963 and wind up in the middle of the Birmingham campaign, the highest-profile nonviolent direct-action protest of the civil rights movement.

For Risa Brainin, the director of The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 and the founding artistic director of UCSB’s influential new play development program Launch Pad, this production represents an unprecedented level of national collaboration. After its fully staged workshop production here February 14-24, the play will get another run with a different creative team at the Chicago Children’s Theatre in March, after which the UCSB version will be remounted by the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 2020.

Paris Ray Dozier, the son of legendary songwriter Lamont Dozier, has composed three period-style pop songs for the car radio in the show, and a team of top designers has come together to create the costumes, lighting, projections, and set. UCSB BFA acting students will play all the roles, and the entire production is not only appropriate for all ages but also geared to appeal to children. However, Brainin added, the great strength of West’s writing is “the way it speaks to adults” without ever losing its focus on younger viewers. In addition to the performances, the university will hold a symposium on Friday, February 15, titled Timely Intersections: Black History on the Stage and Page. For tickets and information, visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu.

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