Tackling big issues isn’t easy. And while many avoid dealing with sensitive topics, or even deny they exist, those in the arts often embrace their platform and use their craft to raise awareness. Percy Julian Middle School is doing just that, tackling issues of race this school year through the CAST theater arts program.

Up next in their “Black and White” season is a staging of The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 this weekend. The story deals with turning points in the Civil Rights Movement, including the Children’s March, a protest against segregated schools that still existed in the South despite the Supreme Court ruling of 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that made racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

LeKeya Shearrill, guest director for CAST since 2014 and director of the CAST Jr. program, said this season they are exploring how people either confront racism or fail.

“It’s an opportunity to see where we’ve come from and how those lessons are applicable today,” Shearrill said. “It’s building a sense of community with the kids and they are receiving it well.”

For The Watsons Go to Birmingham, historic images from the Children’s March of 1963 are shown during the show.

Joshua Bonds, a Julian seventh-grader, plays Kenny Watson in the play. He first heard about the Children’s March and the “brutal things no kids should go through,” such as being blasted with fire hoses, in fifth or sixth grade. He believes the way Birmingham is staged will show the audience the real pain and suffering families went through during that historic time.

Eighth-grader Samantha Duwe plays the role of a newscaster in the play. When she looked in her American History textbook, she noticed it didn’t have much on Civil Rights events, focusing more on the good things instead of the bad, which she finds biased.

“We learn from our past mistakes in history class so we can be a better generation in society, but they sometimes keep us from doing that when they don’t talk about things America is ashamed of like the Children’s March or slavery or what we did to the Native Americans,” she said. “It will be eye opening and the audience will gain something from watching our show.”

In December, CAST put on My Vacation in Paris, which told the story of Thomas Jefferson’s house slave, Sally Hemings, and her eye-opening trip with the Jefferson family. According to Shearrill, upon seeing another way to live, Hemings realized she deserved better.

Playing Hemings was eighth-grader Kirsten Plunkett, who said it was a very serious role, but it “was a nice adventure to go along with her, to research her and to understand the changes and struggles she went through.”

“It makes me feel good to express these different problems that are going on in the world, but not just by saying it, by putting emotion, acting and costumes toward it,” Kirsten said. “It is nice to be a part of teaching, not just having a fun play, but it actually meaning something. At first, the audience was shocked. Once they got into the play, they were intrigued.”

Putting the season together is CAST Program Director Bill McGlynn. CAST, which stands for Communication Arts Speech Theater, is open to all Julian students.

“It doesn’t matter — your talent, if you have a disability, what your social status is,” Shearrill said about taking part in the CAST theater program. 

Zachary Polan, a sixth-grader who played Bugs in Bud Not Buddy last month, said everyone feels included and “when we put our show together, we’re proud of what we accomplish.”

With a story like The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Shearrill said the students get more out of the production than just the accomplishment of putting on a show.

“With stories of ordinary kids being heroes, it allows us to walk right into it,” she said. “Young people are catalysts for change. And you actually have the power to do it, too.”

“The Watsons go to Birmingham 1963” will be performed Friday, Feb. 16, and Saturday, Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m. at the Julian Middle School Auditorium. $10; $5, seniors/students. Tickets: jpnose19.wixsite.com/cast-at-pjms. 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., Oak Park.

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