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"Bud, Not Buddy" - Wheelock Family Theatre (review)

The novel Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis, is one that I (and many, many other educators) have taught to their middle school students ever since the book was published in 1999. It is the recipient of a slew of awards, including the Newbury Medal and The Coretta Scott King Prize.

I have also done theatre most of my life, including directing many productions for a pre-teen cast.

Therefore, I count myself qualified to comment on the latest production at the usually esteemed Wheelock Family Theatre, and their subpar staging of this funny, beautiful, and, dare I say it, important novel.

I refer to my middle school theatre credentials here because watching this professional production felt exactly like something I'd see staged at your average junior high. And if a cast of kids did do it, I certainly wouldn't be badmouthing it, as I'm about to do. But this is a prestigious theatre company comprised of many Equity-affiliated actors and crew members, so I expected much, much more.

Talking about kids is as good a place as any to start, because the main character, Bud Caldwell, is eleven-years old. It's the height of The Great Depression, and Bud has been living in an orphanage since his mother died five years prior. It is, therefore, a strange choice that the cast is made up entirely of adults. Some, like Anderson Stinson III, who plays Bud, can almost pass for a kid (a large one, but his wiry frame and high voice works), but more often than not, even with the cartoonish acting (or, perhaps, because of it), the huge age discrepancy is more than something you can just ignore for poetic license. As though readjusting your brain for this quirk in casting isn't enough, actors bounce back and forth between characters, sometimes in a Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion with consecutive lines. In the first scene, the actress who plays the woman in charge of the orphanage switches to Bud's mother, and all by just removing a pair of glasses. Add to that, the same actors will also narrate (in third person) what characters are doing, while also speaking in first person dialogue. So you'll have something like, "I went to to the living room," followed by what that character says in the living room. Even with a slightly abstract set, the exposition is frankly insulting to its audiences. It's as though the creative team thought that it would simplify things (perhaps most for the young kids), but I can assure you, as a teacher for 15 years, they do not need this pandering. Even a light change or sound effect that is used to signal a pivot doesn't help (and is either dropped, changed, or ignored by Act 2 anyway). Children are much smarter than most people think, and, in fact, all the additional "help" the script is trying to give them only ends up making it more head-scratching and uninteresting, even if you've read the book a dozen times, like me.

All of these flaws can be attributed to two root causes: the directing and the adaptation.

As for the latter, the script is nothing if not lazy. It's as though the playwright, Reginald Andre Jackson, simply took the book, pasted it into a word processor, and added character names before each line. The premise of characters both narrating and interacting can be an interesting one (in the latest theatrical version of To Kill a Mockingbird, an adult Scout does just that) but it serves no purpose here, except, it seems, to cram in every last word from Curtis' text (even though two of the book's best scenes have been curiously excised). There's nothing wrong with a narrator or even an adult Bud taking on the role, but the simple charm of the story is lost by trying to have each character do it all.

This all comes as a shock knowing that the play's director, Dawn M. Simmons, has a wonderful list of credits. Yet here, she has directed her actors to barrel through the script like Bud hightailing it from the orphanage. (It doesn't help the microphones sound terrible, too.) There's nary a dramatic pause in the whole thing, and likewise, not much range in how the actors deliver their lines. Stinson's performance as Bud, though energetic, is always at a fever pitch, and the result is that the most tender and heartfelt moments are zoomed by and hold no weight because everything is presented at the same breakneck pacing. In fact, I would go so far to say that Simmons does not understand the story, not really; the themes of race are grossly negligent in how they are glossed over. In the book's most tense scene, Bud is hitchhiking late at night through mid-Michigan when he is picked up by the affable Lefty Lewis. As they drive off, Lefty anxiously tells Bud about why they could get in trouble for being out so late at night if a cop saw them; moments later, they are pulled over, and the police officer is not played by the cast's only white actor, but by a woman of color. The danger, and thus, drama, of which Lewis spoke is totally negated in this moment, for while I admire color-blind casting, there are times, especially when dealing with themes of race, that it is vital to the story to cast roles fittingly.

No, this story was not understood, really, by anyone involved in this production, it seems. Later, in what should be a heartbreaking final scene, Bud's reaction to a character's trauma is borderline cruel; the delivery comes across as though crying from losing someone close to you makes you a fool. What's further foolish is that a story that heavily involves a jazz band has no music in it whatsoever, apart from a few moments of canned songs. Bud, somehow, is the only person on stage with an actual instrument, while the rest improvise with a crutch, a cane, a broom, etc. The lead vocalist even lip-synchs as she scat sings; I'm no professional singer, but I bet you could have found someone who could do a passable, live job.

Like Lefty Lewis tells Bud, you don't want to be a black man in Owosso, Michigan at 2 in the morning. Similarly, you don't want to be a person in the audience of Bud, Not Buddy, because you won't be happy with what you get as a result.

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