Producing theatre for children is a tricky thing to get right. Playing for easy, obvious laughs is a sure-fire way to get and keep your audience on board, but that’s not always easy to achieve or the right choice creatively – particularly when you have as serious a subject matter as this.
It is to the credit of this company, then, that they succeed in pulling off an entertaining and well-crafted play for youngsters. Using the simple device of a time-travel/dream sequence, 10 year old Raheem travels back from modern-day South London to the bedroom of Yolanda King, Martin Luther’s daughter, on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963. Here, he learns first-hand about Dr King and his activities, the history of which his mother has been preaching to him for years.
Although it’s true that the majority of the audience response comes from a grown man acting a 10 year old boy, talking about the X Factor and playing his latest games console, their attention is held during the more substantial exchanges of dialogue, and I heard young voices around me asking questions of their parents: “Is this true?” “Did that really happen?”
Indeed, the whole piece does feel like not much more than an elaborate school lesson, as we are whisked through a potted history of the establishing of the slave trade, Abraham Lincoln, the abolition of slavery, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. Rounded off towards the end with some moral head nodding and feel-good ‘I’ve learnt my lesson’ dialogue, it does feel slightly lacking in substance.
There are just two cast members, and they each get to play child and adult. Amelia Donkor is excellent as Yolanda King and the modern-day mother Teresa. Troy Glasgow’s boy Raheem is funny, enthusiastic and seemingly well-observed. His Martin Luther perhaps lacks gravitas and authority at the beginning of the play – although right at the end, assisted by a booming, reverbing microphone and the sound effect of a huge cheering crowd, his delivery of part of the I Have A Dream speech is genuinely moving and quite enthralling.
Ultimately, this is a simple piece – but perhaps that is its strength and all the more to its credit. The direction, by Jonathan Lloyd, is well handled and assured, and the lighting and design team deserve mention too. And if a play like this prompts young questions about such an important subject then it can certainly consider itself a success.
(originally posted 23 October 2011)