Kind­ness Project was re­ac­tion to adult fights, bul­ly­ing

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN Arts Cor­re­spon­dent

You thought noth­ing good came out of the back­bit­ing, bul­ly­ing and bel­liger­ence of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign? Chil­dren’s Theatre of Char­lotte begs to dif­fer – in a kindly way, of course.

Its lead­ers re­al­ized a creep armed only with crank­i­ness and a com­puter could spread ug­li­ness across the coun­try in an in­stant. Yet it takes a vil­lage to raise a smile, in­still­ing last­ing val­ues that pre­vent kids from be­com­ing ma­li­cious oafs.

So artis­tic di­rec­tor Adam Burke and manag­ing di­rec­tor Linda Reynolds cre­ated The Kind­ness Project, a se­ries of three world pre­mieres over two sea­sons (and maybe more down the road) that re­mind young au­di­ences this virtue has to be learned, like any other.

“We were dis­mayed, com­ing into that elec­tion, by the way adults talked to each other, es­pe­cially on so­cial me­dia,” says Burke. “Linda had found a list of the top chil­dren’s books about kind­ness. We reached out far and wide to staff mem­bers, our friends at the ( pub­lic li­brary) and other places for sug­ges­tions. In the end, we picked three books from that orig­i­nal list.”

They hired Glo­ria Bond Clu­nie to adapt “Last Stop on Mar­ket Street,” which runs Nov. 2-18 at Imag­inOn. Ni­cole B. Ad­kins will trans­form “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” for a run May 29-June 9, and Christo­pher Parks will ren­der “The In­vis­i­ble Boy” for a spot in the 20192020 sea­son. (Parks is also di­rect­ing “Mar­ket Street.”)

As Reynolds notes, these plays serve the whole younger span of CTC au­di­ences: An­i­mal pup­pets in “Amos McGee,” char­ac­ters who help their ail­ing zookeeper, will ap­peal to kids ages 2 to 5. The other plays might speak to any el­e­men­tary school­ers.

You may be won­der­ing what the big deal is. Doesn’t Chil­dren’s Theatre en­cour­age toler- ance, open-mind­ed­ness, re­spect, and racial and gen­der in­clu­siv­ity with ev­ery pro­duc­tion? But there’s a dif­fer­ence.

“Kind­ness is an ac­tive virtue,” says Burke. “My col­leagues talk about em­pa­thy and sym­pa­thy,

help­ing kids grow up to be high-func­tion­ing mem­bers of so­ci­ety. But there had to be a mo­ment in these plays when a char­ac­ter acts to help some­one.”

Reynolds and Burke had no tem­plate for this idea; they don’t know of other theaters for young adults that have tried it. So they raised money, hired writ­ers and turned them loose with the pro­viso that kind­ness be stressed, though not in a preachy way that sent au­di­ences out with reaf­firm­ing pats on their heads. The first play went through work­shops with test au­di­ences, as will the next two.

That suited Clu­nie, who took on a pic­ture book by Matt de la Peña and Chris­tian Robin­son that won the New­bery Medal and Calde­cott Honor, the best-known awards in chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture.

The Chicago-based play­wright has also writ­ten for adults and wanted to make this show sub­tly imag­i­na­tive for more than just young­sters. (Grownups need kind­ness re­minders too, right?)

The story fol­lows C.J., who leaves church one day with his Nana and gets on a bus. He doesn’t know why they can’t ride in a car – he sees a friend do­ing that – or why they need to visit a rougher part of town. Along the way, he meets peo­ple who first seem odd or in­tim­i­dat­ing – a lady car­ry­ing a jar of but­ter­flies, a gruff tat­tooed man – but who turn out to be per­son­able.

“It’s a jour­ney that teaches him to look for in­ner beauty, not beau­ti­ful ex­te­ri­ors,” Clu­nie says. “He also learns to un­der­stand peo­ple from an­other per­spec­tive, to see the world through their eyes. With all the ac­ri­mony in Amer­ica now, that’s some­thing chil­dren need (to learn).”

The one-hour script has fan­tasy el­e­ments: A pic- ture of a dragon on the side of a ve­hi­cle in­spires a flight of fancy, and a song se­quence puts C.J. metaphor­i­cally in­side the singer’s head.

But Clu­nie and Parks made the story mostly re­al­is­tic to get their point across. They also agreed C.J. should be a cu­ri­ous kid will­ing to learn, not a brat granted an epiphany about bad be­hav­ior. As Reynolds says, “These sto­ries show what you should be do­ing, not what you shouldn’t.”

Parks, who wrote and directed a CTC pro­duc­tion of “Jour­ney to Oz” that has toured Amer­ica for three years, will book­end The Kind­ness Project next sea­son with “The In­vis­i­ble Boy,” a mu­si­cal he’s work- ing up with com­pos­ing part­ner Josh To­tora. That story also deals with or­di­nary kids gen­tly trans­formed by an ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence.

“An in­tro­verted boy comes to a new school, and in all the ex­cite­ment of daily life, no­body takes the trou­ble to get to know him,” says Parks. “Fi­nally, one class­mate does. Josh and I have been care­ful not to make the new boy an ex­cep­tional stu­dent or a foot­ball star, some­body you’d have to ad­mire. He’s just a kid worth know­ing, if you take the trou­ble.

“When some­one’s re­ally in­tro­verted, it takes work for other peo­ple to slow down and bring him into the dis­cus­sion. Kind­ness is an on­go­ing thing: You make time ev­ery day to ac­knowl­edge that ev­ery­one has some­thing to say.”

Does this seem rudi­men­tary? All four in­ter­vie­wees agree it is. But as Clu­nie ob­serves, “Maybe chil­dren don’t hear about kind­ness in their homes or schools, or they’re so busy they don’t stop to think about it.”

CTC must now de­cide how to spread the word be­yond the play­house.

The com­pany has cre­ated a page on its web­site to ex­plain the project, is col­lect­ing sto­ries and pho­tos that de­pict acts of kind­ness on an­other page, and is giv­ing free pur­ple “kind­ness bracelets” to any­one who asks via email at info@ctchar­lotte.org. (Burke says CTC has sup­plied an en­tire school with bracelets.)

Other theaters have be­gun to ask about the plays and the project it­self. “Amos McGee” will pre­miere in May at One Theatre World, the fes­ti­val held ev­ery two years by Theatre for Young Adults/ USA. CTC will present it at Al­liance Theatre in At­lanta, then bring it home to Imag­inOn.

“We’ve talked about ex­tend­ing this se­ries in­def­i­nitely,” says Burke. “You can tell a lot of sto­ries about a lot of char­ac­ters with this theme, and the need for kind­ness will never go away.”

This story is part of an Ob­server un­der­writ­ing project with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­mons@char­lot­teob­server.com

Gui­tar Man (Jeremy De­car­los, right) plays his song on the dragon bus dur­ing re­hearsal of the “Last Stop on Mar­ket Street,” which opens at Imag­inOn Nov. 2.

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­mons@char­lot­teob­server.com

Nana (Corlis Hayes, cen­ter) and other cast mem­bers re­hearse the "Last Stop on Mar­ket Street."

Mum­ford the Dragon (Ron Lee McGill, left), who is happy to blow soap bub­bles in­stead of flames, gets some help from Mag­i­cal Min­ion (Al­li­son Rhine­hardt).

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