Creating a show that appeals to both children and adults can be a bit of a tricky feat. You have to incorporate enough action, color, and vibrancy to appeal to young people while sustaining a level of sophistication and thematic complexity that draws the adult contingent in. Theater Alliance’s entry into the catalog of family-friendly plays, “Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks” adapted from the book by Jason Reynolds by El Chelito and Raymond O. Caldwell, gets it right. In fact, their adaption proves that with a talented creative team behind it, family-friendly theatre can be as hard-hitting and provocative as any production.
…their adaption proves that with a talented creative team behind it, family-friendly theatre can be as hard-hitting and provocative as any production.
“Look Both Ways” is a kaleidoscopic “day-in-the-life” of a group of junior high students. Once that dismissal bell rings, the kids from Marlow Hill embark upon a wild, meaningfully comical, and also poignant series of journeys that speak to some of the most relevant issues that young people face today. It is easy to understand why Reynolds’ (a DC area native) book was a finalist for the National Book Award. The piece is not about what is stopping these kids or the obstacles that threaten to derail their journeys, it’s about how they harness their own evolving power and voices to figure out a way around their problems. As the play repeatedly puts forth, it is about how these kids are going to one day change the world.
Episodic in structure, the play jumps from vignette to vignette with clever threads weaving the pieces together. Some might say Caldwell as writer and director leaves a trail of fun-to-decode breadcrumbs for his audience to follow. For instance, one such episode involves the Lo-Cuts, a group of kids who are intent on finding spare change and subsequently turning their found coins into cash. The various adventures, dialogue and people they meet along the way are the breadcrumbs that lead us to the critical “why”—why are they trying to get together enough cash to meet the ice cream truck on time? The answer is definitely going to surprise you—it may even make you cry.
As this is geared toward younger audiences, the emotional stakes are high and more exaggerated than they might otherwise be, and this is a very good thing. The laughter, tears, smiles and heartbreaks become characters in and of themselves. When Ty gets bullied thus placing homophobia in a middle school-tinted spotlight, the emotions are raw and right there. Young audience members will definitely get the point. The feelings here don’t hide behind psychological nuance or too-clever wordplay as can sometimes happen in adult-driven shows. Feelings and the emotional confusion that are part and parcel of being 13 or 14 are the play’s primary drivers.
For their part, the ensemble cast takes these feelings and runs with them. It is difficult to single out any one actor as they are all seemingly at the top of their game in this one. The cast, consisting of Savina Barini, Charles Franklin IV, Ixchel Hernandez, Tre’mon Mills, Kalen Robinson, and John Sygar, are perfectly in sync (and in step) throughout the show. They dance together, sing together, beatbox together, and engage in the type of conversations that really explore the inner workings of the pre-teen mind. The actors give this show the kind of force and depth that make a production memorable for years to come.
It is perhaps through Caldwell’s direction that takes “Look Both Ways” to a place where kids can really get into it and adults can keenly appreciate the experience of what this group of characters is going through. So much so that you forget that these are adult actors channeling the voices and behaviors of middle school students. The production is as much centered on their movements and the fluidity of the lines they create between one another as it is on the dialogue. Caldwell seems at home in this world, and, true to Reynolds’ work, he really does make it come alive.
When putting on a show that will engage adults and enthrall kids, it also has to be about the lights, sound and set. Look Both Ways delivers on all fronts. Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s fun and somewhat surrealist set starts with a school bus possessing the capacity to morph into any number of locales, magically so—thanks also in large part to Kelly Colburn and Dylan Uremovich’s projection/digital media design. While Alberto Segarra (lighting) and Brandon Cook (sound) put on a display that is bound to captivate anyone of any age. Theater Alliance’s collaboration with Reynolds results in a brilliant play that is both intellectually stimulating and emotionally penetrating, and that is, without question, for the kid in everyone.
Running time: One hour and 15 minutes with no intermission.
“Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks” presented by Theater Alliance (in a co-production with the Kennedy Center) runs through September 17, 2023 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl SE, Washington, DC 20020. For more info or to buy tickets click here.