The picture book, “Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress,” by writer Christine Baldacchino and illustrator Isabelle Malenfant, tells the simple story of a young boy who follows his own imagination and heart.
He likes to play with the dress-up box at school, and always picks the tangerine-colored one that swishes when it moves. The color of it reminds him of his mother’s hair, and also of a tiger and the sun.
The story is really about staying true to one’s spirit, but because we live in the midst of our culture wars, the book’s been singled out by anti-LGBTQ activists for promoting “gender confusion,” whatever that means. The book has been put under review at school libraries in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, and was challenged in Homer, Alaska.
In Minnesota, the book is getting a theatrical adaptation at the Children’s Theatre Company — co-commissioned by CTC with the Chicago Children’s Theatre, and The Rose Theater, where it will also tour. This week is the world premiere.
Heidi Stillman, artistic director of the highly visual Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, directs the production, working with playwright Juliany Taveras.
Based in Harlem, and originally from Brooklyn, Taveras’ parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic, and was the first among their siblings to be born in the U.S.
Taveras is also currently in the midst of an adaptation for an Irish production company called Cartoon Saloon of an animated feature called “Julian,” based on the picture book “Julián is a Mermaid.” That’s about a boy who wants to become a mermaid and participate in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.
Here’s an interview with the playwright about the Morris Micklewhite adaptation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sheila Regan: When you are doing an adaptation, what’s your process, especially when dealing with children’s material?
Juliany Taveras: With a children’s book, it’s much more visual. There’s less words to work with, and more of these really often beautiful visuals. “Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress” has got some awesome illustrations in a unique style that I resonated with.
When I start with adapting, I’m finding that the core is of the story that I want to honor and preserve. What are the parts of it that I’m going to be translating to a different medium? How can I capture what I’m receiving from the book in dialogue, in staging, and try to allow my imagination to do that translation work?
I’ve been through several drafts of Morris Micklewhite — it’s a journey. I love that about playwriting — the collaborative aspects. I kind of get my introvert solo writing time, but I’m also in conversation with the theater, and later on the director. Being able to really shape the story with that collaborative support is something I really enjoy.
SR: Have you worked with Heidi Stillman before this project?
JT: No, it was my first time meeting Heidi. So we met in April. Because we actually did two workshops of the script in the spring, before gearing up for the rehearsal and production process. We just hit it off right away. We had really exciting conversations at the beginning about kind of our shared vision.
SR: Can you describe your conversations with Peter Brosius (artistic director of CTC)?
JT: He tells this great story of walking into a bookstore and asking the folks there for their favorite children’s books at the moment. That’s how he came across the book. I’m so glad that he resonated with it and was able to bring me into the fold, because it’s been a really awesome experience.
SR: What is it about this book that you are hoping to bring to life?
JT: I think what I was drawn to was this idea of a young kid who’s just really excited and imaginative. This is a kid who loves going to school. He loves doing all the activities at school. He loves the things that I loved as a kid — stories, and imagining yourself in stories. He’s like, there are elephants in space in my world.
What I love about children is that there’s less censoring or doubt around creativity and imagination. As an adult, we get all mired down by the facts and the reality and obviously that’s important sometimes. But I think there’s also a value to the way that children, especially when they’re supported in it, are so creative and fantastical.
In the book, he’s so drawn to this tangerine dress, in part because the color is beautiful, and it reminds him of his mom’s hair and of tigers. He’s making all these really beautiful sensory connections to this thing, rather than looking at it being something for girls. He’s not even thinking about all these other social realities that we impose onto something like clothing. He’s just like, Oh, I love how it sounds. I love how it feels. I love the colors.
It reminds me of these other things that I love. And I think that’s just very wholesome. It’s so straightforward and pure.
SR: This book, like many these days, particularly ones that deal with LGBTQ content and content around race, has been challenged in recent years around the country. Has that been something that you’ve talked about with the team?
JT: Yeah, it’s definitely something that’s come up with the adults on the creative team, and also with our student actors. I think between adults, we’re thinking about the importance of having our own courage to support and uplift a story like this, especially when it’s being repressed and banned and censored elsewhere, and what it means to be able to be in solidarity with a story that’s really just about a kid expressing themselves having a good time, in a way that’s not hurting anyone. It’s been really beautiful to also get into that with the student actors during the workshops, and in the rehearsal process, because they’re living that reality. They’re in elementary school right now. I love getting to hear from them. They’re very generous with sharing their experiences and their thoughts. We’ve had some really great conversations with them that have made me very hopeful. And also very sad that this is still something that they’re dealing with, where I was hoping it would be a little more different than my childhood.
That makes it all the more valuable and important, at least for me, to support a story like this. I think that’s the beautiful thing about theater and about art making — you can have all these different entry points, or perspectives that help people connect across different experiences. The story is that Morris is not causing anyone any harm. He’s vibing.
Morris is vibing. And people have taken issue with that. And then powerfully he is able to, with a little bit of love and support from his mom, and his imagination, he’s able to be courageous.
“Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress” has preview performances Thursday, Oct. 12, and Friday, Oct. 1,3 at 7 p.m.. Saturday’s opening night is sold out, and then it performs Sunday, Oct. 15, at 5 p.m. The show runs through Nov. 19 ($15-$72). More information here.