I don’t normally review a lot of children’s theatre; there’s something a little bit odd about me talking about children performing on the same blog where I talk about sleeping with an oil worker to become a “Williston 10.” As I’m writing this, I sort of expect Chris Hanson to come into my living room with a pitcher of lemonade, toting an island counter behind him. But recently I attended the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre’s annual kid’s production…or should I say productions. The ticket featured two shows, School House Rock Live!, co-directed by Jane Syverson and Mare Thompson, and Old School: Vaudeville, 1936, a tribute to the historical vaudeville shows conceptualized by GGFCT Executive Director Kathy Coudle-King and co-directed by Coudle-King and Amy Driscoll.
As an avid kid’s TV watcher of the early 1980s, I seem to have missed out on School House Rock altogether. I wasn’t born yet when it was brand new, and I was a bit too old when it started to enjoy it’s first semi-ironic revivals in the early 90s; it’s possible that it was playing during my childhood, but not on the limited stations we tuned into up in Bowbells. My first introduction to any part of the show actually came from the 1995 movie Reality Bites. In the opening post-graduation scene, the cast sing “Conjunction Junction” while Winona Rider’s character, a budding documentary filmmaker, records. Later, Rider sings part of “I’m Just A Bill” before she and Ethan Hawke have the grungiest, most quintessentially 90s love scene ever – nothing but greasy hair and pale skin, as far as the eye can see. I adored that movie, seeing myself as the tail end of Generation X, but the nostalgia evoked by those two scenes was completely lost on me.
The Fire Hall productions for the annual kids’ shows rely heavily on nostalgia, both shows harkening back to a “simpler” time where a budding educator and the myriad voices in his head could sing catchy tunes to help him prepare for his first day on the job, and audiences would pack vaudeville houses to see a veritable buffet of entertaining acts. As an adult (or maybe just as the type of adult I’ve become), it was impossible not to watch this show with a pleasant mix of bemusement, shock, and dark hilarity. There are moments in the show that are purely entertaining for the youngsters but hold the seeds of real conversation-starters for the older crowd about what stories we tell to our children.
Let’s start with School House Rock Live! This show was designed to be light-hearted educational fun, reminding beginning readers and writers to unpack their adjectives and that those persons, places, and things they’ve been describing are all nouns. The math section is pretty innocuous, highlighting three as a “magic” number; “Do the Circulation” touches on science in a way that undoubtedly was meant to encourage the new types of physical education programs that were being launched at the time. The social studies section, however, gets a little trickier. “The Great American Melting Pot” is an upbeat multi-culti celebration that is supposed to paint a rosy picture of different cultures coming together to create a diverse country. It’s a nice sentiment, but in our current world filled with 24-hour coverage of white police officers shooting unarmed black men in places like Ferguson, white supremacists attempting to take over small North Dakota towns, and an increasingly contentious debate about immigration, the piece falls a little flat, no matter how adorable the obviously white little girl stirring her cauldron dressed as the Statue of Liberty might be.
Things go further south – or perhaps I should say west – in the song “Elbow Room.” The song talks about the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion, saying “And so in 1803 the Louisiana Territory was sold to us without a fuss, and gave us lots of elbow room.” I think some Native peoples might have something to say about that “without a fuss” part, except they can’t because they’ve mostly died of smallpox. Which we gave them. There is a small allusion to these troubles in the lines, “There were plenty of fights to win land rights” but this is quickly followed up with “but the West was meant to be. It was Manifest Destiny!” (Seriously. This happened. I’m including the video below for you to hear the whole song.
Ahh, Manifest Destiny: the belief that our westward expansion was destined and inevitable, steamrolling over any indigenous people that might get in the way of our pursuit of land and resources. Listening to children celebrate the outdated idea of a melting pot society is adorable-bordering-on-poor-taste, but this song delves much deeper into socially irresponsible territory, especially in a community like Grand Forks that has a long and ugly history of poor relations with Native American communities. This song could very easily have been edited out without affecting the loose storyline the show presents.
Luckily after this culturally insensitive misstep, the show gets back on track with catchy kids’ tunes without the historical baggage, presenting “Interplanet Janet,” a spacewoman whose travels educate the audience about the solar system. For those of us who grew up believing in the planetary status of Pluto, it’s nice to see our old friend included in Janet’s itinerary.
The second show in the lineup, Old School: Vaudeville, 1936, also uses a sort of nostalgia as its selling point, calling up the days before the “talkies” took over the cultural landscape and vaudeville houses were packed with audiences clamoring for varied entertainment. Vaudeville shows featured a series of unrelated acts all grouped together under a common billing, and featured singers, dancers, and commedians alongside more traditional theatrical performances. The fare could also get a bit racy, featuring not only cross-dressing acts and the culturally-insensitive practice of blackface but burlesque performers as well, making the vaudeville setting an interesting and ironic choice for a children’s show.
The children in this show performed a variety of songs and dances, with magic tricks and a two-person dancing horse accompanying some G-rated horse jokes. Two children rode unicycles quite expertly, making me think they must be one-wheeled-vehicle enthusiasts in their offstage life as well. As with the previous show, things got a little dicey in terms of cultural sensitivity when a very white child sang “Swanee,” though I probably should have been prepared for something like this when I heard the ever-entertaining accompanist, Karen Braaten, teasing out a rendition of “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread” on the Fire Hall’s piano pre-show. This is, after all, the same theatre that brought us the almost all-white production of Mulan as last year’s kids’ show. But again, despite this brief moment of questionable taste, Old School was an entertaining piece of children’s theatre, and featured just as much quality as the “name brand” headliner show.
I haven’t called out any of the actors by name because, well, as noted above there are probably some very good statutory reasons why individuals under the age of 18 shouldn’t be visiting my website, but they were all delightful and clearly had a good time. I think it’s wonderful that the Fire Hall does so many things to encourage children to develop a love of and be involved with community theatre. What I think would be interesting for me, as an audience member (and, it should be noted, a non-parent), would be to open up a broader conversation about the role of theatre and perhaps the arts more generally in a well-rounded and vibrant education and what messages are we giving to children with the materials we select.
There is a great scene from the tv show Strangers With Candy where Jerri Blank, Amy Sedaris’ middle aged ex-con turned high schooler persona, auditions for the school production of Raisin In The Sun. In a hilarious misuse of “colorblind casting,” all of the roles are given to white children (whose names, not coincidentally, are White, Snow, Blank, etc.) and all of the black students are told they will be playing trees. This is a completely unrealistic situation the show develops…except that maybe it isn’t. After all, when I was first getting to know local actress Maura Ferguson, she was starring in an all white production of The Wiz right here in Grand Forks. Let that sink in for a moment. The Summer Performing Arts program put on an all-white production of the all-black version of The Wizard of Oz. That’s the kind of head-scratching moment that I think deserves further discussion.
I’m not a fan of censorship in almost any circumstance; I cringe whenever I hear that a school has banned a book like Tom Sawyer because of questionable material. But disagreeing with censorship and believing that works with questionable or difficult moments should be read without any sort of context are two very different things. Twain’s text is a classic of American literature, but in addition to the plot and characters and other literary concerns, students should also be asked to consider the cultural moment in which it was produced and how the use of language is indicative of a specific historical moment. To read it without such context is perhaps more problematic that just leaving it out of the curriculum altogether.
The same level of thoughtfulness should accompany the performance, by adults or children, of culturally complex theatrical texts. I was fascinated watching that all-white production of The Wiz, but I wanted more: a discussion of what it means to have a bunch of white kids “easin’ on down the road,” or why the creators of the show felt the need to reinterpret an American classic from a uniquely black perspective. Context.
It’s easy to dismiss all of this as an overly academic mind trying to find some sort of angle to approach the review of a children’s show (especially since this particular mind is known to carry a general distaste for children!). That’s definitely part of it. But I also care a great deal about theatre, and what messages we send by the works we produce and how we produce them within the larger community. I think we need to have conversations about these works, about how we make the choices we make and how we find our boundaries for what we will or will not put on stage. It’s not just about upsetting the status quo (though the status quo definitely needs to be upset on a regular basis) but about making some much needed elbow room for new ideas and perspectives within our local arts community.
Tags: burlesque, Children's Theater, Children's Theatre, Conjunction Junction, Ethan Hawke, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, I'm Just a Bill, Interplanet Janet, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jeanine Garofolo, Miss Jaye, Mulan, Reality Bites, School House Rocks, Schoolhouse Rocks, Shortnin' Bread, SPA, Summer Performing Arts, Swanee, The Wiz, The Wizard of Oz, Vaudeville, Winone Rider, World of Champagne