How do you talk to your child about racism in America today?
That is a question many parents have asked themselves in recent years, especially here in Minnesota. And there is no perfect answer. But, after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis began searching for a way to provide a resource to local parents and children.
“This is a tough time for kids in Minnesota,” Children’s Theater artistic director Peter Brosius says. “We felt a huge responsibility because we’re advocates for young people. So how can we be there for young people and how do we give tools to caregivers and teachers and uncles and aunties to have these conversations with kids?”
After reading Something Happened in Our Town—which became one of the country’s most widely banned books in school shortly after the murder of George Floyd—Brosius commissioned celebrated playwright Cheryl West to write a stage adaptation, hoping it could serve as a stepping stone for families to have difficult but important conversations about current events.
“Immediately, I committed to doing the project,” Brosius says, “and we need to do it soon because this is a really important book and this story could be very helpful, and the resources that go along with it could be a real gift to the community.”
Brosius says he immediately thought of West for the project. West, best known for her work on stage productions of FANNIE: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer and Akeelah and the Bee, has a long-standing relationship with the Children’s Theater. She says she isn’t shying away from any controversial topics.
“How do we talk to children about race, difference, inclusion and acceptance of people who are different? It’s not just about a particular incident,” she says. “It’s about how we respond, and what are we teaching our children? How are they learning to respond based on our actions?”
West, who is Black, enthusiastically took on the task of adapting Something Happened in Our Town, aiming to honor the author’s original intentions for the book while fleshing it out into a 90-minute play and adding new characters who would reflect the lives of the children who would see the play.
The book Something Happened in Our Town was written by authors Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, who are faculty members at the Emory University School of Medicine. They wrote the story as a resource for families struggling to talk about police shootings of civilians, based on what the authors have learned in their careers in child psychology.
The stage adaptation follows two best friends, Emma (Lola Ronning), who is white, and Josh (De’Anthony Jackson), who is Black. After school one day, Josh and Emma happen to see a news story about a white police officer shooting an unarmed Black man, leaving them feeling confused and scared.
At Emma’s house, Emma questions her mother about what race and racism mean, if her beloved police officer Uncle Manny is safe, and if she should still feel proud to come from a family of police officers. At Josh’s house, his father and mother struggle to balance protecting Josh’s innocence and teaching him how to stay safe, while his high school-age brother becomes increasingly frustrated with the pattern of police brutality and longs to join the protests downtown.
“No one is monolithic here,” West says. “This is a story about two families. We’re not saying all white families talk this way or all Black families talk this way… However, some of the points of view in it have been expressed by many [families].”
Something Happened in Our Town deals with heavy topics, but the entire Children’s Theatre creative team and cast have created a family-friendly and inclusive show for children aged 7 and up.
The opening night audience was filled with children, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, all hoping for an enjoyable night at the theater that just might spark an important conversation on the car ride home. At its core, this play is about how families communicate and take care of each other, and judging from the laughter and empathetic sighs from the audience, it’s also entertaining for children and their caregivers.
Director Timothy Douglas’ masterful staging juxtaposes the experiences of white and Black families when having hard conversations about race with their children. He does so in a way that doesn’t make one child’s fears, or one parent’s worries, feel more important than the others’. The story and the staging show these families exploring conversations about racism literally side-by-side, without being dismissive of the individual issues both these families are confronting.
On one side of the stage, Emma and her mother are concerned for the safety of their family members, and on the other side, Josh and his parents express similar sentiments about their own safety. For young audience members, this makes it clear that each of these families is experiencing stress and that each parent is caring for the interests of their child, highlighting the similarities between the love families of all colors have for one another, rather than pitting their stories against each other.
When asked if there were any challenges communicating such big ideas in a 90-minute play for children, West replied that she wanted to “present a story with a level of fairness that isn’t indicating any one group of people, but still saying we have a problem here and we need to talk about it.”
Something Happened in Our Town, originally written in 2017, was one of the most widely banned children’s books in the U.S. shortly after George Floyd’s death because of its alleged “anti-police” sentiment. The authors deny that was their intention, but rest assured that if that is one of your concerns about this play, playwright Cheryl West added a police officer character to give voice to that community.
To add to that level of fairness, West also added Uncle Manny (Dean Holt), Emma’s doting uncle who helps support her single mother and has his own share of hopes and fears after the police shooting. Manny’s conversations with Josh’s parents are some of the most tense in the show, but they are a welcome and necessary addition to the original story. Holt arguably has one of this production’s most challenging characters to play, but his down-to-earth portrayal of the complex and ultimately lovable character is a testament to West’s vision for a positive, inclusive performance.
Another important layer added to the play is how Josh looks to his older brother Malcolm, a passionate supporter of the Black community as Malcolm balks at his parents’ perceived inaction in the face of injustice. Malcolm is Josh’s hero, his brave big brother who always strives to include him and take him seriously. Child audience members will recognize the sibling dynamic, and parents can see a representation of how children of different ages talk to each other about what they hear in the news.
One highlight of the show is Josh’s mother and father, respectively played by Rajané Katurah and Kevin D. West, who embody the hopes and fears of many parents. Josh’s brother, Malcolm, recalls how their parents strove to educate them on Black history and teach them to be proud of who they are and what they believe in. Katurah and West’s characters are funny, smart, and devoted parents who handle some of the most tense and emotionally raw scenes in the play, showcasing their incredible acting talents.
The youngest cast members, who play Josh and Emma’s classmates, also show off their acting chops in this production. They are tiny but mighty show-stealers, each with their own takes on the news based on their identities and parents, illustrating just how engaged young kids are in the world. These elementary schoolers deliver West’s witty one-liners with zest, ensuring that the show isn’t too bogged down by its heavy subject matter and easily keeping the attention of both kids and grown-ups in the audience.
West says that one of her intentions with the show was to accurately represent friends and families, and that includes inside jokes and easy air of familiarity with one another. Secret handshakes, sibling jibes, and references to a life shared together add to the relatability of Josh and Emma’s families.
“There’s still joy in it,” West says. “As in any family, there’s a sense of humor and levity… And hopefully people see this and think ‘That’s just like my family,’ and have it be recognizable.”
In a talkback after opening night, the authors of the Something Happened in Our Town book pointed out that children, as any parent knows, are curious and perceptive observers of the world around them. West and the rest of the play’s team hope that families will leave the show thinking about such questions as: What values do you want to make clear to your children? How do you talk about the role of police in your community? How do you talk about systemic or institutional racism to a young child?
The Children’s Theater team provides several learning tools, not only through this show. “We knew that we could attempt to provide a space of conversation and discussion and healing. It’s hard to be a parent. No one trains you or gives you tools to have these conversations,” Brosius says. “So here’s not only a story that shows parents working to have these conversations and working to have these conversations, but also in the study guide and online, you can find a whole set of additional tools.”
Something Happened in Our Town gives credit to children and their quest to understand the world around them. They listen to you, their teachers, their friends, and the news, even when you think they might not be paying attention. So they’ve probably been thinking about race and racism in some way already. For families that are searching for support in those conversations, Something Happened in Our Town is an excellent starting point.
For more information, find educational resources for children and families in the Audience Resources section of the Children’s Theatre website.
Something Happened in Our Town
Feb. 27-March 27
Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis