The Work Begins with Empathy: “A Kids Play About Racism”

Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre with the Gottabees 
Lead Producers Bay Area Children’s Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Seattle Children’s Theatre
Adapted & Directed by Kahlia Davis
Lyrics by Davied Morales
Music by Justin Ellington
Based on the book by Jelani Memory
More information at akidsplayabout.org

Streamed through August 7 on Broadway On Demand
Wheelock Family Theatre
Boston, MA 02215
Wheelock on Facebook
The Gottabees on Facebook

Critique by Kitty Drexel

BROADWAY ON DEMAND — The Wheelock Family Theatre and the Gottabees collaborated with 41 Theaters for Young Audiences across the United States to present the world premiere, online theatrical experience of A Kids Play About Racism.

The Zoom play based on the children’s book A Kids Book About Racism by Jelani Memory explains what racism is on a level that kids of all ages can understand and appreciate. A Kids Play About Racism is intended for ages 5+ but has a lot to offer adults too. It simplifies abstract concepts like white supremacy, microaggressions, Black culture, and emotional labor into digestible nuggets of truth. All viewers will be able to take away something valuable – even if it’s remembering that dismantling racism is strenuous; it’s okay to take a short rest before getting back to work. 

In the play, Jelani (Davied Morales) shows us how to identify racism and tells us how hurtful racism is. He tells us that racism “isn’t supposed to be dramatic but it is real.” We learn what he means because we experience racism with him. Jelani and his anthropomorphized emotions Delight (Angel Adedokun), Rage (Moses Goods), Love (Rapheal Hamilton), Panic (Isaiah Christopher-Lord Harris), Disgust (Jessenia Ingram), and Grief (Regan Sims) play out racist interactions to teach us why they are harmful. This applies a face to the everyday casual cruelty of racism.  

Jelani tells us that racism “isn’t supposed to be dramatic but it is real.” We learn what he means because we experience racism with him. My fellow white people can’t say they don’t see it when Jelani shows us. 

There are some emotionally complex moments in this Zoom play that might be triggering to some Black folx. We’re with Jelani when strangers call him rude names that sound a lot like slurs; we’re by his side when adults who he should be able to trust are patronizing and unfair; we’re on the wrong side of the screen when Jelani responds to these interactions with despair and confusion. The audience can’t comfort Jelani even though we want to. 

The acting in A Kids Play About Racism is wonderful. The cast fully commits to their characters. They clearly respect the necessity and severity of this play’s message to children. Kids can tell when adults are being disingenuous. These actors mean every word they say. 

 Morales, our narrator and guide to understanding racism, is sweet and sincere as Jelani. The play works because he is one-hundred percent devoted to his role without artifice. He has a strong, expressive voice that he uses to paint his words with intention. 

His rapping of the songs “I wanna fit in but can’t because of the color of my skin” and “Black is not a color; it’s a culture” turns them into family-appropriate jams. The rhymes and verses are pithy. The beats are easy to dance to and I did dance along with the video. I went looking for the cast recording on Spotify and was saddened when I couldn’t find it. 

So much of children’s theatre is written by adults who don’t understand that kids are capable of emotional complexity and intellectual depth (it could be because the writers aren’t capable of it). Children take their cues from adults. If the children watching this play are allowed to, they can and will learn nuances of anti-racist behavior. It isn’t too late; adults can learn them too. 

A Kids Play About Racism runs about 30 minutes long. That’s equal to a lunch break or a bedtime story. Nearly anyone in the 5+ range can sit still that long. This joyful, hopeful play is worth every minute spent watching it. The work performed by its artists is worthy of many repeat viewings. 

Jelani Memory’s A Kids Book About Racism is available at your local library. Adults wishing to add to their family’s personal library should request it from their favorite local bookstore. Ours is Porter Square Books

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