After his parents die in a fire, a young boy named Lonnie, the protagonist in “Locomotion,” a Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) production based on a book by Jacqueline Woodson, sometimes goes to the department store. He goes there so that he can smell the honeysuckle aroma that reminds him of his mother.
The story is about Lonnie’s journey, and how he discovers poetry as a tool for his own resilience as much is taken away from him and he’s forced to navigate the foster care system.
Talvin Wilks, who directs CTC’s production that opens this week, loved the idea of using poetry as a way to tell the story. “I love the lyrical aspects of it,” Wilks says.
Wilks loves the simplicity of Woodson’s vocabulary in the original book, and the way, through the character’s speech, it achieves a profound type of storytelling. That aspect resonates in the play version, he says. “Jacqueline has wonderfully preserved the lyrical aspect of the original source text,” Wilks says. “She’s kept the idea of writing poetry for expression as a way this young man is trying to understand the things that have happened to him and his sister, and what he is struggling through.”
In the play, Lonnie, who is played by Junie Edwards in the new production, works on a single poem over the course of the play. Lonnie’s creative journey becomes a source of dramatic tension in itself. “I think it’s quite wonderful to have a young black protagonist who is 11 years olds, navigating the world, and having profound thoughts about family and how to remain connected to family and his hopes for the future,” Wilks says. “ To be able to see how he navigates through the foster care system and exists inside of the world trying to hold on to family when he’s lost parents, is a wonderful and profound experience.”
“Locomotion,” the play, premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2010, and gets its regional premiere with CTC’s production. The local production made a change with the casting from Woodson’s original script, which only requires three actors— one actor playing Lonnie, and all of the other roles played by two older adults.
“I really wanted the young characters to be played by young actors,” Wilks says. “So we made a request to her to see if we could expand the ensemble from from three to five. There’s a wonderful peer to peer relationship between Lonnie and his best friend Enrique [played by Ellis Dossavi], and I wanted that to be age-specific.”
Wilks also wanted to use a young actor, Mollie Allen, to play Lonnie’s sister. Woodson, Wilks says, enthusiastically approved the idea.
A professor at the University of Minnesota himself, Wilks takes the approach of remaining honest and straightforward, even when presenting a topic like foster care for young audiences. “Young people are very capable of understanding trauma,” he says.
Wilks sought to engage the young cast in discussion around the play’s themes, including the issue of foster care in America. ”In order to approach the material, you take it very seriously, you present it directly, and you have lots of discussions about the impact and the story,” Wilks says.
Michael Winn, CTC’s associate artistic director, and director of equity and community partnerships, says that the topic of foster care in America speaks to broader issues of inequality in the U.S. “We are in America, and there’s systemic racism in all of our policies and all of our practices,” Winn says.
Black youth and Native American youth are disproportionately represented in the foster care system, and according to one study, between 31 and 46 percent of youth who age out of foster care become homeless by the time they are 26.
According to Winn, government agencies are doing their due diligence to be advocates as a whole, and yet more work needs to be done. “It’s really about weeding out all of the things that makes it unfair for, you know, brown and black kids in the foster care system,” Winn says.
In his work, Winn Spoke to Mark Gordon, a lawyer who is on the board of Foster Advocates, an organization that works to promote change in the foster care system, especially in regard to prevention, and making sure young people stay within their family when possible.
Gordon outlines prevention as a key goal for change advocates. That could mean money for housing, transportation, or mental health services either for a parent or for a grandparent or other family member. “One of the challenges is that what is sometimes termed neglect can also just be poverty,” Gordon says.
In “Locomotion,” Lonnie’s foster parent is portrayed as a caring adult, an empty nester who is missing her adult son. The story illuminates one boy’s experiences after severe trauma and his journey to find peace through his relationships and through self-expression.
Locomotion runs Tuesday, Jan. 24 through Sunday, Mar. 5 at the Children’s Theatre Company ($15 to $74). More information here.