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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Something Happened in Our Town
Children's Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Once Upon a Winter Night and The Mousetrap

Dean Holt and De'Anthony Jackson
Photo by Glen Stubbe Photography
Children's Theatre Company's world premiere production of Something Happened in Our Town addresses a subject far too often prominent in headlines around the country, the killing of unarmed African-American men by police. The play features two families that are next door neighbors–the Hartleys, who are white, and the Perkins, who are Black–and how each respond when such an incident occurs in their community. Their responses are emotional, to be sure, but not cut and dried. Something Happened in Our Town reveals the complexity and nuance that makes it especially challenging for parents to discuss issues of race, justice and safety with their young children.

The play is based on the picture book by the same name, written by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard, all three PhD psychologists at Emory University in Atlanta. The book was published in 2018, just after the police killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. Since then, world-wide attention to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has made this issue particularly trenchant in the Twin Cities.

Children's Theatre Company commissioned award-winning playwright Cheryl L. West to adapt the book for the stage. In doing so, West–who has successfully adapted such other children's books as Last Stop on Market Street and Akeelah and the Bee for CTC–expanded upon the book to place the upheaval brought about by a police shooting in their community within the context of other issues that burden the lives of children, making for a compelling and believable narrative, directed with clarity and crispness by Timothy Douglas, and acted with conviction by a cast of dynamic young actors along with veteran adults who convey a sense of their commitment to this project.

Emma Hartley and Josh Perkins seem to be about nine years old. Emma is an only child living with her single mother Sue, who tends to be protective of Emma–for example, Emma is not allowed to watch the news on TV. Emma's Uncle Manny, a police officer, does not live with his sister and niece, but is a regular presence in their lives and father figure to Emma. Josh's family–mother Bella, father Calvin, and sixteen-year-old brother Malcom–recently moved next door. Emma, more than other children at her age, maintains an innocence and enthusiasm for life that makes it hard for her to form friendships with the other, more "worldly" kids in her class. She immediately pounces on new neighbor Josh and declares him her best friend. When Josh tells Emma he has never had a friend who looks like her before she replies "You mean because I'm a girl?", oblivious to their racial difference.

At their school we find the usual variety of other students in an urban classroom, represented by Daniel, a white boy and a bully; Sophia, a Black girl who tends to be critical and doesn't hold saying back no matter what she thinks; and Ling, an Asian student with a quiet demeanor. Along with this context, Emma's confusion about her beloved Uncle Manny, after hearing damning things said about police conduct, and Josh's brother Malcom's blunt outcry against the shooting as his parents try to couch the subject more gently with Josh, weigh into the developing plot.

Interactions between the adults depict the difficulty inherent in conversations about race, especially between people of different races, no matter how open-minded they consider themselves. When Sue Hartley approaches Bella Perkins, hoping to smooth things over between Emma and Josh, Sue effuses "I am as sick over this [the police shooting] as you are," to which Bella icily replies "I doubt that." Sue is drawn as a well-meaning liberal who teaches tolerance to her daughter, but her outreach toward Bella at that moment is patently aimed at meeting her own needs. What is needed is recognition that Bella will of course be more upset, knowing that the victim could have been one of her sons, or her husband. This moment, like others in the play, ring true and make Something Happened in Our Town feel tethered to the pulse of our real lives.

Two remarkable young actors play the lead roles. Lola Ronning creates a fully formed impression of a creative, loving child whose innocence is being steadily chipped away by events she is struggling to understand, by a rift that seems to come out of nowhere between herself and her "best friend," and by unchecked bullying from kids at school. De'Anthony Jackson is completely winning as Josh–fair minded, logical, and possessing inner strength that surprises even himself. Added to this pair, Calvin Zimmerman is terrific as teenager Malcom, feeling his oats with a new driver's license in hand and a claim to his own beliefs about how to fight back against racial injustice.

Autumn Ness as Sue Hartley, Dean Holt as Uncle Manny, Rajané Katurah as Bella Perkins, and Kevin D. West as Calvin Perkins all give the polished performances we have to come to expect of those pros. Ness shows us Sue's great efforts to explain the way the world works to her daughter without turning Emma against the world. Holt conveys the frustration felt as a police office cast with the same broad brush as cops who acted out of racist conditioning. Katurah and West reveal the toll it takes on Bella and Calvin, as parents of Black boys, to set boundaries around their involvement in the disturbance, not for lack of grasping the problem or for seething at the inequity, but fear for their children's safety.

The other actors all give winning performances as well, with Zachary Bagnoli scarily convincing as the playground bully, and McKinley Fant endearing as feisty, angry Sophia. The kids all play well off of one another, creating a sense of the reality of the interactions that are a part of life in every American classroom. Julia Isabel Diaz is fine as the children's teacher, but the role fades in the background. There is to be sure a place for teachers in this conversation, but Something Happened in Our Town–the book and the play–are focused on the engagement of parents around these issues.

Costumes, sets, lighting, and sound design all contribute to the high quality of the production. The intentionally mismatched outfits Emma is fond of (designed by Trevor Bowen) are especially notable. Scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee provides a skyline of a large city behind a row of miniaturized pleasant bungalow style homes, effectively indicate the setting. Interior walls drop down efficiently to create the families' living spaces, with an especially apt construction of an elementary classroom having every spot on the wall plastered with instructional tips, words of inspiration, and broad classroom rules: "listening ears, looking eyes, quiet mouths, helping hands and walking feet."

Something Happened in Our Town includes dialogue that reflects views real people hold of the very fraught issue of police killings against Black men, and calls to hold police accountable. Some of the lines can be heard as being anti-police, yet those perspectives need to be given voice, for they exist in the real world. Comfortable or not, what people perceive is their reality must be heard in order to begin conversations that can lead to a semblance of accord. That authenticity is one of the play's strengths. Lines that are presented as absolutes early in the play, such as "police don't like Black men," are moderated later on based on the course of events that follow.

Of course, Something Happened in Our Town has the luxury of zeroing in on two well-functioning families and allows us to see the potential for making progress on these intransigent issues in optimal circumstances. Real life is a lot harder. But one of the purposes of art is to propose better lives to which we may aspire.

CTC offers advice that the play is best for children ages 7 and up. Given the content, that advisement should be taken to heart, though every parent knows best what will work for their own children. The book on which the play is based was published as being for children ages 4 to 8. The reading level may be right for those ages, but I do think that the older age bracket CTC advises is probably more suitable for most.

Something Happened in Our Town is an important play for our times. It can be a springboard for meaningful conversations between parents and their children on the difficult subject of race. By commissioning and producing this play, Children's Theatre Company has done an enormous service to our community.

Something Happened in Our Town runs through March 27, 2022, at Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $15.00 - $63.00. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. For tickets and information, please call 612-874-0400 or visit Something Happened in Our Town is best for children age 7 and up.

Playwright: Cheryl L. West, based on the book by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard. Director: Timothy Douglas; Music Director: Victor Zupanc; Set Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Alan c. Edwards; Composer and Sound Design: Victor Zupanc; Fight and Soccer Coach: Dean Holt; Intimacy Coach: James Grace; Trauma Specialist (Jamil Stamschror-Lott; Stage Manager: Jenny R. Friend; Assistant Director: Domino D'Lorion; Assistant Stage Manager: Courtney Gilliam; Assistant Lighting Designer: Marc Dulac.

Cast: Zachary Bagnoli (Daniel), Julia Isabel Diaz (Ms. Garcia), McKinley Fant (Sophia), Dean Holt (Uncle Manny), De'Anthony Jackson (Josh Perkins), Rajané Katurah (Bella Perkins), Ines Rose Mojica (Ling), Geoffrey Morrison (Omar), Autumn Ness (Sue Hartley), Lola Ronning (Emma Hartley), Kevin D. West (Calvin Perkins), Calvin Zimmerman (Malcom Perkins).