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BWW Review: BUD, NOT BUDDY at The Kennedy Center

If you hear upbeat jazz wafting through the halls of The Kennedy Center this weekend, it may very well be their world premiere commission BUD, NOT BUDDY, a production that is part jazz concert, part radio play, and all quite good.

BUD, NOT BUDDY tells the story of 10-year-old wily orphan Bud (definitely not Buddy) who is searching for his father. He doesn't have much to go on, just a concert flyer, coded rocks, his mother's childhood photo, and a series of rules on fun and successfully lying (keep them small, they're easier to remember). Interwoven in Bud's story are themes of race, the Great Depression, family and honesty, and this is a script that hits all of those things successfully.

Obie Award winner KIRSTEN GREENIDGE has adapted CHRISTOPHER PAUL CURTIS'S Newberry Medal-winning novel for the stage. She cleverly covers a lot of concepts that might be difficult for kids, making them meaningful and resonant through Bud's eyes. Bud makes an ideal narrator - he is energetic, smart, and JUSTIN WEAKS gives a wonderful performance full of expression, humor and childlike adamancy. The kids in the audience stayed enchanted, and adults laughed right along with them. Greenidge's language doesn't simplify anything too much, it just works and tells the story.

Director and veteran actor CLARKE PETERS sets Bud's tale in front of a full jazz band that plays throughout the show and its action. A large railroad archway and signs hang over them, setting the scenes of Flint and Grand Rapids, Michigan where Bud travels. TERENCE BLANCHARD gives a swinging, strong jazz soundtrack that winds through the story, and the actors come out dancing. While the chair and music stand setup initially seems strange and a bit cut off, it becomes part of the staging. The actors never leave, but raising and lowering music stands marks a character's entrance. Each actor has roles, but they also act as background noises and chorus, eventually all becoming Bud's new family unit, Herman Callaway's traveling band.

DC favorites and legendary actors fill the cast, including Tony Award nominee FRANKIE FAISON as Herman Callaway, "Sesame Street" veteran ROSCOE ORMAN, Tony Award nominee CHARLAYNE WOODARD, and Helen Hares Award winner KENYATTA ROGERS. They all look like they're having fun, and their personalities and voices travel far past the shifting wall of music stands. There were occasional moments where someone lost their place, but, like jazz, the beauty is in the variance, the mistakes, and what comes from just making music and art.

There should be more stories like this for young audiences. As Bud travels, he sees a "mission" that feeds the hungry, learns why Callaway's band always needs a white member, and watches all the people "riding the rails" to find unemployment amid a hopeless landscape. In addition, he learns about jazz. He sees the practice that goes into learning an instrument. He experiences the joking comradery of a band. And ultimately, he along with his audience finds home and family despite obstacles.

As Bud continually remembers, when one door closes, another one opens. With any luck, those who see BUD, NOT BUDDY this weekend (and hopefully in future iterations) will leave the theatre doors open and willing to learn more about history, jazz and stories, using the knowledge to open more and more doors in front of them.

BUD, NOT BUDDY runs in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center through Sunday, January 15th. For more information, visit the production page.

Photo credit: Yassine El Mansouri


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