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Children's production 'Roll of Thunder' doesn't shy away from America's history of racism

Stepping Stone Theatre

Stepping Stone Theatre

Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was published in 1976, a novel for young adults during an era when educators were embracing the idea that children's books could and should tackle life's serious realities. Books like Roll of Thunder — and The Outsiders, and Bridge to Terabithia — could help kids understand, and grow.

In 1992, the Seattle Children's Theatre premiered Ed Shockley's stage adaptation, which evinces the same faith in its young audiences. Set in Depression-era Mississippi, the play centers on a family of African-American children whose parents are raising them with pride and courage even as they're forced to acknowledge the deadly danger of doing anything that might risk their white neighbors' ire.

It's a complex story of people who are striving to do right in an impossible situation, and a new SteppingStone Theatre production directed by Kory LaQuess Pullam ensures that every member of the audience appreciates the stakes. As the play opens, opposing crowds of black and white actors stalk forward to confront each other, chanting, "This is my world! My world! My world!"

At a Thursday morning performance attended predominantly by schoolchildren, the show often had an electric effect on its audience. The kids gasped with shock when they heard racial epithets, cheered when characters supportively hugged each other, and laughed at the pratfalls of the high-energy boy called Little Man (Chuck Logan).

The young characters are played by young actors, with Inayah El-Amin starring as the resolute Cassie and Eponine Diatta playing her adventurous sister Stacey. Charla Marie Bailey and Kennie Cotton are tender but steely as their parents, with Livy Oftedahl holding her nose high in the air as Lillian Jean, the white girl who exploits Cassie.

With a lot of action happening offstage, some of the plot developments might be lost on young viewers, particularly since much of the expository dialogue speeds by in unfamiliar accents. Even so, the essential tension is clear, and Thursday morning's audience audibly appreciated the foreboding significance of Papa reaching for his gun.

The plotline that jumps off the stage most vividly is the rivalry between Cassie and Lillian Jean. Joshua Stallings's lighting keys in so that we fully appreciate the abasement of Cassie having to grovel before her abusive peer, and when the former girl finally engineers her revenge, El-Amin throws herself into the confrontation with a fierce energy. It's a cathartic moment, but with an uneasy tension: We know this story is far from over.

Given the undisguised race-baiting now polluting the public sphere's highest levels, the necessity to confront our nation's ugly history has taken on a renewed urgency. That underlies and animates this powerful production of a story first told in America's 200th anniversary year. The character Mama, a schoolteacher who loses her job for teaching the truth about black participation in the Civil War, might have heard rolling thunder behind those booming bicentennial fireworks.

That thunder portends rain — which may douse fires, but it can't heal wounds.

IF YOU GO:

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
SteppingStone Theatre
Through March 3
Find tickets
here