Child’s Play

May 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: A young mouse-child gets a first whiff of her new baby brother, Julius.

On a recent Friday in Minneapolis, youngsters put on their finest to attend “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,” a play based on three books by Kevin Henckes. It’s a fun-filled romp, but it also takes seriously the issues that children face.

ACTRESS [CHILD]: After Julius goes away, do I get my own room back?

ACTRESS [MOTHER]: Not so loud, Lilly.

ACTRESS [CHILD]: After Julius goes away can I talk like a normal person again?

ACTOR [FATHER]: Julius isn’t going anywhere, Lilly. This is where he’ll stay… and stay and stay and stay.

JEFFREY BROWN: That same day, in a nearby rehearsal hall, another play for young people.

ACTRESS 1: Ha! You’re about as African American as George Bush.

JEFFREY BROWN: Called “Snapshot Silhouette,” this brand-new work tackled tough problems within the local community.

ACTRESS 1: Where’s your mother?

ACTRESS 2: Not here. The Congress sure ain’t going to let her kind cross the border.

JEFFREY BROWN: Together, the two plays show the range and ambitions of an institution that last year became the first theater company for children to win the prestigious Tony Award for best regional theater.

National recognition for the children’s Theatre Company here in Minneapolis has come for its efforts to find new and creative ways to reach young people. Sometimes that’s through a fantasy world like this one, where creatures scurry about in the corner of a room. Other times it’s through stories from the very real world, in which children themselves experience conflict and strife.

ACTING TEACHER: Change your facial expressions as slowly as you can.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even as many theater companies struggle, CTC, as its known, seems to be thriving. With an annual budget of $9 million, it offers acting classes to children of all ages and presents six major productions a year, including some that tour through the Midwest. They’re seen by more than 300,000 people. Artistic Director Peter Brosius says the key is doing work that honors children.

PETER BROSIUS: Honoring them, taking them seriously, realizing that they’re not some future being, some future audience, a future artist — but that they’re creatures living immensely in the present, who have stories to tell, have perceptions, have wisdom, have insights that we can learn from. You have this incredible opportunity when you’re making theater for young people that you may be the first theater they see, and so you have both an opportunity and a responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brosius is obsessed with presenting new work, often by contemporary playwrights who’ve never written for children before. He commissioned Kia Corthron, a New Yorker known for her tough and often politically oriented work, to write a play taken straight from local headlines.

KIA CORTHRON: I was really interested, because I’ve never written a children’s play before, what children will be interested in, and particularly children in Minneapolis. So Peter was happy to throw out a bunch of ideas, and one of them was the relationship between African American kids and Somali kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some 35,000 Somali refugees have flocked to Minnesota in recent years, impacting local schools and jobs. Tensions, including fights among teens, have risen with the African American community, which numbers 170,000.


JEFFREY BROWN: Corthron created a drama around two 12-year-old girls, one Somali, the other African American, who are thrown together in the same house. Each with their own painful past, they warily circle one another, their arguments hitting very raw nerves.

ACTRESS 1: I was trying to be nice, stupid. I was trying to get along.

ACTRESS 2: I thought Somalis didn’t know how to get along. “Oh, your great-great- grandfather killed my great- great…” “oh, you stole a chicken from my 14th cousin on my mother’s side. Got to kill you now.” Wah, wah, wah.

ACTRESS 1: Why are Americans so lazy? Free education. You don’t even appreciate free school. You waste it away skipping or not studying — lazy, lazy African American.

KIA CORTHRON: The most important thing was for me to present the truth. I mean, I certainly… I wanted the message ultimately to be reconciliation and peace. But getting through that there is a lot of strife.

MICHAEL JOHN GARCES: Start with “everyone got religion in light of the wars.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Corthron and director Michael John Garces went to great lengths to make the play realistic. Nadifa Osman, a Somali immigrant who works with young people, acted as an advisor, coaching the cast on everything from tying a head scarf to getting the accent right. For Osman, the theater is a new way to reach her community.

NADIFA OSMAN: This is the beginning of the accomplishment of some of my dreams, that I can stand in front of other people and be able to educate them what it’s like being in a different culture. We have our differences. But the message that the play is saying is “let’s put our differences aside.”

ACTOR: She is Zenab and she is from Somalia.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the young actors, certainly, the play hit home.

ROKIA MOALLIM, Actor: My mother is African American and my father is Somalia, so at first there was tension between my family, so this script related to my family a lot actually.

DANIEL CURRY, Actor: I’ve learned you have to be more open-mined and just try to see people eye-to-eye, because people may be different, but there’s a lot of things you can learn from other cultures and different people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Brosius says “Snapshot Silhouette” does exactly what good children’s theater should do.

PETER BROSIUS: You’re making art for a group of people who are living in a world that is complex, you know? They know we’re at war. They know this country is an immigrant nation with challenges and opportunities. They’re living in this world and so, yes, you can ignore that, or you can see the daily reality is filled endlessly with teachable moments — moments where they can be engaged and have an opportunity to wrestle with what’s concerning them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Children’s Theatre Company shows no sign of resting on its laurels. It’s raised $24 million from private sources and state government and has begun an expansion project that soon will add an education wing, more rehearsal space and a 300-seat theater.