BUD, NOT BUDDY Gets Live Jazz Support

BUD, NOT BUDDY Gets Live Jazz Support

Bud, Not Buddy is adapted from the children's book by Christopher Paul Curtis which won the Newberry Medal in 2000. It tells the story of a ten-year-old African-American boy who flees a foster home in Flint, Michigan, to go in search of his father. The book has been adapted for the stage previously, but this new adaptation, by Kirsten Greenidge, was developed jointly with jazz musician Terence Blanchard. (Blanchard, you'll recall, composed the score for the boxing opera Champion that premiered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis five years ago.) This jazz adaptation of Bud, Not Buddy was presented in a concert version at the Kennedy Center last year. Metro Theater is the first to give it a fully staged production. It's done in collaboration with Jazz St. Louis, so here this story is backed by some good live jazz.

Young Bud never knew his father, and his mother died when he was six. He has lived in an orphanage and in foster homes. It's been a pretty rough life. After being placed with particularly mean foster parents--and being beaten up by his bully foster-brother--Bud runs away. He's bright, he's a nice polite boy, but he's tough and he's taught himself never to cry. Among his meager possessions are a photo of his mother as a girl, a few small stones with the names of cities on them-and an old flyer for a famous jazz band. Because his mother had treasured these things Bud is convinced that the leader of the band, Herman Calloway, is his father. He goes on a quest to find him.

But it's the middle of the Depression. Bud faces a world of hunger, bread-lines, and "Hoovervilles"--not to mention an encounter with wasps or the imagined vampires that seem to haunt him.

The set at the Grandel is very simple: a big band (thirteen musicians) sits in front of a backdrop showing a box-car. A couple levels of platform in front offer various playing spaces.

The leading role is played by Myke Andrews. No, he's not ten years old; he's a recent graduate of Webster Conservatory. But he is so boyish and bright and endearing that he totally convinces us.

Bud's quest for his father leads him--and us--from Flint to Grand Rapids--home base for the Calloway band. On his journey Bud meets danger and fear, but also he meets kind strangers who help him along his way. When he gets to Grand Rapids he walks into a band rehearsal and presents himself as the leader's son. The musicians receive him warmly, but Calloway himself is distant and denies he's the boy's father.

The members of the band all have pretty cool names: Doug the Thug, Dirty Deed, Doo Bug, Steady Eddie and Mr. Jimmy. They tease Bud, but they accept him into the group and give him a band name--"Sleepy La Bone". Miss Thomas, the singer, glows with welcoming love for the boy. In the end they all become Bud's family. In a lovely final twist Calloway, their leader, accepts him too. All the long-lost children in those many old romantic dramas were recognized by some shared memento--a split locket or some such; in Bud, Not Buddy the mementos that Calloway recognizes are Bud's collection of stones and the picture of his mother.

The members of the Calloway band, and many other roles, are played by FeliceSkye Hutchinson, Nicholas Kryah, Don McClendon, Carl Overly, Jr., Reginald Pierre, Antony Terrell and Chris Ware. All do really fine work--some, the best I've seen them do. Kudos to director Julia Flood (who is also Artistic Director of the company.)

It's a lovely, well-told story about perseverance and courage and, especially, about the importance of family--that place where you can go and cry if you must. Bud learns many life lessons on his quest. And this play offers those lessons to children--especially to black children who may find themselves sharing with Bud the problems of poverty, loneliness, even hunger. It also offers a look at the Depression Era, with its labor strife and violence and the special problems one faced if one was black.

But there are some difficulties with this production. The script is mostly narration; it's in Bud's voice but the lines are often distributed among all the members of the cast. This is occasionally confusing. Another confusion arises from several flash-back moments: with no technical hint to indicate a time shift only a keen mind can be sure just where on the time-line we are.

Music Director Phil Dunlap and the real-life big band provide some very good jazz, but I was surprised to see that the faces in the band were overwhelmingly white. This is St. Louis and I know there are a heckuva lot of fine black jazz musicians in town. Bud, Not Buddy is a play with a message for all children--but most especially for black boys. Shouldn't the on-stage band be at least mostly black? (Admittedly in the story Herman Calloway always had one white member of his band--but that was for logistical and business reasons.)

And as to the size of the real band: in the story only six band members are named. Now I'm a product of the big-band era and I love that style of jazz. But I think a smaller combo would be more effective in this rather intimate tale. Wouldn't it be nice if the real band corresponded to the fictional band? (And you just can't put thirteen distinct characters on stage.)

Does Bud, Not Buddy want to introduce kids to live jazz? Or does it want to tell Christopher Curtis's story? Can it do both? And does it want to travel this show? A big band answers that question with a quick "No". A show with a small combo might travel. (And of course a show with recorded jazz would travel so easily!)

And one final note--the curtain speech. The Artistic Director greeted us, made the usual request to silence electronics and then took the opportunity (with a captive audience) to give a speech presenting one of the company's "Conductor of Change" awards. Altogether the curtain speech took over five minutes! This would be intolerable enough for an adult audience, but it is cruelly inconsiderate when the seats are filled with two hundred or so children eagerly anticipating a story. Awards are all well and good, but a curtain speech is not the place for them. This speech was a tedious waste of time for all those kids.

Please, please! Spare us these curtain speeches!

With Bud, Not Buddy Metro Theater has once again bravely taken on a grand challenge. They've done this before, as in their Earth Songs fourteen years ago. Now, as then, I have to say that their magic still lies in small and simple productions.

Bud, Not Buddy plays at the Grandel through February 25.

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From This Author Steve Callahan

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