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Tough lessons in CTC's play about community destruction

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Sam Bardwell and Traci Allen in the Childrens Theater production of "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy."
Image courtesy CTC (Photo: Dan Norman)

A century-old story of discrimination is the basis for a world premiere production opening Friday in Minneapolis. 

"Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy" is the Children's Theatre Company's adaption of the real-life events of a forbidden friendship during the social segregation of 1912. 

It's a dark tale. But it's one the theater company believes should be shared - especially with school children. 

Actress Traci Allen was a bit wary when she first heard of Minnesota's Children's Theatre Company.

"I'm thinking of puppets and, 'Hello, boys and girls,'" Allen pantomimed before a recent rehearsal.

Her preconceived notion didn't last long. Today, she is the lead in the CTC's "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy." The children's play wrestles with various adult themes, from economic turmoil to mortality.

Twenty-six-year-old Allen plays 13-year-old Lizzie. When afternoon rehearsal begins, she's mourning the death of her grandfather in a song. 

Lizzie
Traci Allen as Lizzie in "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy" at the Childrens Theater in Minneapolis
Image courtesy CTC (Photo Joan Buccina)

The story chronicles the forbidden friendship between Lizzie, who is black, and Turner Buckminster, who is white. It highlights the challenges they face in socially segregated 1912. 

"Is there transition music there?" asks CTC artist director Peter Brosius, who directs the play.

The production is based on a Newbery Award-winning book, which in turn is based on the real-life history of Phippsburg, Maine. When the small coastal town was hit by an economic downtown, community leaders looked to the nearby island of Malaga to solve their financial woes.

"The idea," said Brosius, "Was that the population that was on Malaga, which was a black and mixed-race population, should be removed from that island and that both the coastline and Malaga be turned into a resort.  What happened, in fact, was the island was evacuated, people's homes were moved." 

Lizzie Bright
Traci Allen as Lizzie Bright, in the Childrens Theater Company production of "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy."
Image courtesy CTC (Photo by Dan Norman)

Developers erased every trace of the past. Brosius channels the grief of the displaced residents into the show's scenes.

"He's not dying of natural causes; he's dying of a broken heart," Brosius reminds Allen about her character's grandfather. "He's dying because his land is being stolen and his people are being driven away."

The events showcased in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy may be dramatic. But they're certainly not unique.

Locally, St. Paul offers a similar example. 

In the 1960s, construction crews flattened the ethnically diverse Rondo community to make way for interstate 94. Wrecking balls went in, residents got pushed out. 

Similar scenarios still play out across the country.

"You have gentrification everywhere," said Allen during a break.  "You can no longer live here because we have plans, ha, regardless of 'yes I know your grandmother lived here, yes I know your great grandmother lived here but we want condos.' "  

The way Allen sees it, complex issues like discrimination and gentrification should be addressed in a public forum. And, for her, that's on the stage. 

During rehearsal, Allen spins barefoot across the floor. Her character Lizzie would never be bound by shoes. 

She pauses when Brosius said he wants to look at that section of the play.

As opening night approaches, director Peter Brosius still makes changes. But through all the rewrites, he has maintained a deep respect for his audience. He anticipates seats filled with children, all learning to make their own way in the world. 

"We spend a lot of time underestimating children, their intelligence and the reality that they live in," he said.  "Life is filled with complication. And for kids, they have to face that every day — Do I stand up here? Do I say something here? Do I speak up here? Put that in the context of stories that are real looks at ethical behavior and what an ethical life means.  I think plays like this are their allies as they try to negotiate a very complicated world that they live in."

And, after seeing difficult subjects tackled on stage, Brosius said, kids will be better prepared to handle tough situations in their real lives.