Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Lonnie is an African American boy living in an African American community in Brooklyn. It is not only what he remembers of his life's journey thus far–peering far back to happier, earlier years, then through the haze of wounds suffered the past few years–but also, how he remembers. Lonnie processes life through the filter of poetry, finding meaning not only in the narrative sense of words, but in the way they play off one another to describe feelings that reach beyond words alone. This is so much a part of how he negotiates the world that he has taken to carrying a notebook with him.
Early on, Lonnie's insightful father recognizes Lonnie's nature, and counsels him not to back off from his gifts, but to embrace them. One of the gifts in Lonnie's life is his nuclear family–his dependable dad, his upbeat mother, and his younger (by several years) sister Lili, whom he adores, while she exudes far more self-confidence than her big brother. These are the good memories, clouds that refract the sunlight into comforting shades that warm his spirit. When tragedy strikes, causing Lonnie and Lili to be separated from their parents and one another, those clouds turn into thunderheads. Lonnie does not fester into an angry, aggressive adolescent, but rather withdraws into his own world, searching for the words that can make sense of what has befallen him and enable him to express this to others.
When we first meet Lonnie he has three things going for him: his stalwart foster mother, Ms. Edna–finally, after terrible experience in a group home for unwanted boys; his friend Enrique, an extrovert who bonds with the sullen Lonnie over a sense of each having a dark secret they are unable to exorcise; and his teacher, Ms. Marcus, who relentlessly pushes her students to discover and express themselves through words, especially through poetry. Ms. Marcus validates Lonnie's means of expression, yet he remains blocked, searching for the right words to blast through loss and alienation.
Not much happens in Locomotion, odd for a play whose title suggests arduous movement. It is more about discovery than action. Over its 75 minutes we learn what has put Lonnie in such a forlorn state, and the beauty of his loving family that has been ripped apart. He is stalled, with no locomotion in his life; then we see the right combination of resources help him refuel and begin to restart the engine that will be his life. We don't know where the engine will go, but rejoice that it is one again on track and gaining steam.
The set designed by Maruti Evans, lighting designed by Marcus Dilliard, and projections designed by Kathy Maxwell function so totally well with one another, it is hard to imagine them being the work of three different minds. The backdrop is an abstracted series of shapes, with cutouts for windows and doors. Adaptable furnishings (a bed becomes a kitchen table, etc.) and brilliant projections turn these spaces into the kitchen of Lonnie's childhood home, Ms. Marcus' classroom, the schoolyard, the house in which Lili was placed early on with a family unwilling to take boys, a park, the rooms in Ms. Edna's well-ordered apartment, and the roof of that apartment building on which Lonnie seeks solace in poetry and solitude. The stage floor and wall panels are covered with blank, lined writing paper, Lonnie's life enveloped by his need to express himself on the page. His poems are projected onto those pages, though never neatly within the lines, his voice not fitting into narrow academic structure. The play is also greatly enhanced by Danielle Preston's apt costumes and the mix of sound and music created and curated by Queen Drea and Peter Morrow.
These components are deftly melded by director Talvin Wilkes, who moves the actors in and out of scenes that travel back and forth in time with clarity. However, I found the choice to have other cast members rearrange props and furnishings to prepare for the next scene, in plain sight of the audience, distracting from the scene still underway. Both the text and performances are consistently compelling enough to abate those distractions, and the positive side of that coin is the avoidance of "dead" time for scene transitions. Still, I'd have preferred if those distractions were avoided.
Three young actors play the younger characters, each creating remarkably vivid portraits of those individuals. Most central to the entire play is Junie Edwards who, as Lonnie, beautifully conveys the brooding that often accompanies the arrival of adolescence, but for Lonnie is deeply accentuated by a maelstrom of unsettled feelings. Edwards touchingly captures Lonnie's devotion to his sister and determination to do what he must to maintain his bond with the sole remaining member of his family. The program notes that this is Edwards' first lead role ever, and they succeed in it like a seasoned pro.
As Lili, Mollie Allen persuasively portrays an adorable child, brimming with confidence, perhaps egged on by all who doted on her during her young years, but Allen also reveals the deep loss Lili has absorbed. Ellis Dossavi gives a winning performance as Enrique, the friend on whom Lonnie depends for a peer connection, and whose bravado masks his inability to find meaning in school–until he does, under his teacher's tutelage, a moment that explodes with joy, both for Enrique and for the audience.
Two actors take on all the adult roles. Charla Marie Bailey expertly creates three distinct characters. She is strict but full-hearted as Ms. Edna, the foster mother who finds ways to break through Lonnie's self-imposed isolation. As Ms. Marcus, she embodies the patience and insight one dreams for all teachers to possess, and convincingly conveys the power locked within words, finding treasure in Langston Hughes and rap lyrics alike. As Lonnie and Lili's mother, who is a less crystallized presence in the play, Bailey convinces as an assuredly loving and effective parent.
Darrick Mosley makes a great showing as Lonnie's father, a steady presence who is comfortable expressing his love for his children and confidence in the people they will become. In a small role, Mosley is effective as a foster care counsellor, and in an even smaller role, is Ms. Edna's grown son who returns from military service. In that tiny role, Mosley expresses a devotion that brings a joy to Lonnie he has not known for a long time, opening a window that has long been stuck for him. It is a beautiful moment as written and as performed.
Woodson wrote Locomotion as a novel in verse in 2003, with a middle-grades target audience. Her adaption of the book for the stage, a co-commission from The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and The Orlando Repertory Theatre, was first mounted at the Kennedy Center's during their 2009-2010 season. Not a breath in the play feels anything less than completely pertinent in 2023, for its target audience as well as for adults who are concerned about drawing out the inner lives of youth, or perhaps even delving into their own inner lives, finding a voice to express feelings and ideas that do not fit into conventional language.
The play is recommended for ages 9 and up, and I would take that caution to heart. Lonnie deals with some darkly troubling circumstances, which may be upsetting to younger children. However, I would also stress that the "ages 9 and up" extends easily into adults, with or without children. This is a play with dramatic merit, in a production with artistic excellence, and the fact that it is being staged at Children's Theatre Company need not keep adults unaccompanied by a youngster away.
Locomotion runs through March 5, 2023, at Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $25.00 - $74.00. $10.00 discounts are available for children (17 and under), seniors (62 and above) and military personnel. For tickets and information, please call 612-874-0400 or visit childrenstheatre.org. Recommended for ages 9 and up. l
Written and adapted for the stage by: Jacqueline Woodson; Director: Talvin Wilkes; Choreographer: Jess Pretty; Scenic designer: Maruti Evans; Costume Design: Danielle Preston; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design and Composer: Queen Dre and Peter Morro; Projection Design: Kathy Maxwell; Assistant Lighting Designer: Ellie Simonett; Stage Manager: Chris Schweiger ; Assistant Stage Manager: Cortney Gilliam; Student Acting Coach: Amanda Espinoza.
Cast: Mollie Allen (Lili), Charla Marie Bailey (Mama/Ms. Edna/Ms. Marcus), Ellis Dossavi (Enrique), Junie Edwards (Lonnie), (Dadd/Agency Man/Ms. Edna's Son).