Traditional ideas about theater for young audiences can get stuck in a library full of mischievous animals and recycled fairy tales. But the Coterie Theatre - named by Time magazine as one of the top five theaters for young audiences in the United States - strives to be more adventurous, as in its new show for elementary school students that discusses jazz, the Depression, and racism.
Since the 1920s, the John Newbery Medal has been bestowed upon outstanding contributions to literature for children. Among the honorees: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beverly Cleary, and in 2000, Christopher Paul Curtis for his book Bud, Not Buddy, which has been adapted for the stage by Reginald Andre Jackson where it can currently be seen at the Coterie.
Director Scot Copeland puts Bud, Not Buddy in the tradition of familiar stories told by young characters.
"(Charles) Dickens is credited with having done the first-person narrative with a first-person child protagonist as the narrator," Copeland says. "And of course that’s been used ever since, from Dickens’ own work to To Kill a Mockingbird.
"But the thing I love about Bud, Not Buddy that’s unusual is that it’s a child protagonist telling this story - a kid acknowledges up front he’s a liar. This kid is not telling the truth; he’s embellishing it. Sometimes he makes it funnier, sometimes he’s making it nicer perhaps than it actually was."
One suspects that the play's title character stretches his own truth because it's so painful. Bud is a parentless 10-year-old during the Depression who runs away from an orphanage in Grand Rapids, Michigan on a hunt to find his biological father. It was first staged at Nashville Children's Theatre, where Scot Copeland is the artistic director. He says he was drawn to Bud, Not Buddy because of its novel take on an African-American character.
"If you were to look around twenty years ago, there were plays we did to try and address the African-American experience but generally more often than not they would be about Sojourner Truth or Jackie Robinson or Harriet Tubman," Copeland says.
"For a long time I was, 'Where are the plays for the young audiences about the African-American experience that would be more history with a small h – where we’d see plays about people who happen to be African-Americans, living in America in whatever time period they’re in', and this was one of the first ones I found that did that."
At one point on Bud's journey, he meets an older African-American who warns him about the prevailing climate for people of their race. Played by Brad Shaw, he offers up some sound advice.
"You don’t know how lucky you are that I came through here," Shaw says in character. "Some of these folks around here used to have a sign hanging along here that said, and I’m gonna clean up the language – it said, 'To our Negro friends who are passing through, kindly don’t let the sun set on your rear end in Owosso.'"
Playing Bud is Aaron Branch, a senior at Bishop Miege High School, who returns to the Coterie where he first appeared in a professional production. He says the play's depiction of racism during the Depression isn't too heavy-handed for it target audience of elementary school-aged children.
"I think it's great that theater, especially the Coterie, tackles those issues because I really think its important for kids to know that actually happened," Branch says. "That there was a time when people of certain races weren't liked by other races. And I think it's great because the Coterie especially teaches the younger generation how not to act, if that makes sense - how you shouldn't treat other people."
Branch is asked what he think kids between six and teen might know about the Depression.
"I think it's great for this kind of play because they can see it was a very rough time," he says. "And it's good theater can be that medium for kids to not just see a story but learn historical events that happened in our history."
Staying true to the period - and a good fit for Kansas City - Bud eventually finds support among the Dusky Devastators, a roadhouse jazz band.
Bud, Not Buddy runs through May 19, 2013 at the Coterie Theatre, located on the first level of Crown Center shops, 2450 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. (816) 474-6552