Theater Spotlight: Bud, Not Buddy

Rob Levine

at the Children's Theatre Company through February 16

Reginald André Jackson's adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis's book positively bristles with narrative strength and restless, wandering energy. It tells the story of Bud (Nathan Barlow), a Depression-era ragamuffin biding his time in an orphanage following the death of his mother. After a harrowing night spent with a cruel foster family (Namir Smallwood plays the would-be foster brother with happy malice, the first of a series of well-drawn sadists he depicts throughout the night), Bud takes to the road with a single worn photo of his mother and a flyer advertising a jazz musician Bud dreams is his real father. Bud spends a poignant night in Hooverville, where the displaced poor gather to exercise their own barebones moral code (and where Bud meets a fleeting love interest in the sweet Traci Allen). The next morning, all the able-bodied assemble to hop a train, in a great strobe-fueled physical-action sequence, and after Bud misses his freight he ends up alone on the American highway. The action doesn't flag, though, and soon enough Bud ends up finding jazzman Herman E. Calloway (Shawn Hamilton), who promptly and strenuously denies paternity of the boy. Here the show turns on a great ensemble, with Herman's band taking Bud in, along with the motherly Miss Thomas (Regina Williams), and the waters get deeper. Hamilton turns in a bruised and world-weary performance as the cranky bass thumper, all unapologetic hard edges until Bud's true parentage is discovered and the old sourpuss unveils a world of hurt beneath his rocky facade. Under Marion McClinton's direction, this show manages to walk a balance between Barlow's sunny charm and the real, wrenching story that percolates under the surface. We tend to love a good picaresque, but it is daring and daunting to depict a young person wandering the world in search of a sense of home. Bud finds what he's looking for by the end (no great surprise), but the emotional tone matches the fun that came before with a genuine heaviness and weight that drives home the feeling of desperation at the heart of childhood fear. If only every journey was as vivid and well drawn.

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