Saturday, December 16, 2017

Representation matters, especially to children. The opportunity to sit in a theatre following a central character who shares your hair texture and skin color does something to a child’s spirit. I’ve witnessed it first hand with Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, a new musical I conceived that thrust me into the TYA community. Since 2015, the show has blossomed like a butterfly around the country, not only inspiring children that our differences are to be celebrated, but demonstrating that diverse audiences will appear when they see themselves reflected on stage.

Polkadots was inspired by a YouTube interview I found of Phylicia Rashad discussing her childhood as a curious Black girl in the divided Jim Crow South. One day her curiosity overshadowed the rules and she tasted water from a “White Only” water fountain, only to discover the water was the same. Cue light bulb. Her story highlighted the simplicity and honesty of children, and given America’s long history with race relations, I thought the TYA field was the best way to tackle this subject matter. For indeed it is the children behind us that have the best chance at redefining our nation.

I was further inspired by Civil Rights pioneers Ruby Bridges and The Little Rock 9, which led me to write a treatment. I handed that treatment to two of my talented friends Melvin Tunstall III (book) and Greg Borowsky (co-composer) to help bring this kernel of an idea to life, and it instantly popped. Cue the birth of Lily Polkadot, a optimistic 8 year old girl, who is the first of her kind integrated into a school of all Squares.

Atlantic Theater Company POLKADOTS Cast

Six months later we were flabbergasted at the standing ovations at our first and only industry readings. Something beyond us had clicked, and in 2016 we found ourselves at Carnegie Mellon University and Ivoryton Playhouse with developmental productions. Applause and laughter are natural responses when you write something people can connect with, but we were astonished with the social conversations that arose after the curtain came down.

In a talkback at CMU, a 20 year student said, ” I didn’t expect this to move me, this breaks down racism to be so simple and stupid.” After a school performance at Ivoryton Playhouse a young Black girl approached our Lily Polkadot, Tyla Collier, and asked: ” Is that a wig? Does your hair look like mine underneath there?” To which Tyla replied: ” Yes, it does.” That story was a pivotal realization that changed my entire perception of what the theatre can do. Polkadots has revealed to me the wide open spaces in the TYA field to uplift children, and specifically children who look like me.

"That story was a pivotal realization that changed my entire perception of what the theatre can do. Polkadots has revealed to me the wide open spaces in the TYA field to uplift children, and specifically children who look like me."

Cameisha Cotton (As Lily Polkadot) with a Junior Lily Polkadot Jenny Wiley Theatre Regional Tour

As someone who got into the theatre late, seriously training for the first time at 17 at The Hartt School, it’s become truly apparent what “minority” feels like. From the lip of the stage when I’ve looked out at audiences, on any show I’ve done, it’s typically  90%+ white people at every performance. In my later years as I’ve added writing to my slate, I seriously wonder, why?! It’s not that theatre doesn’t appeal to all backgrounds, but do people of color feel visible on the stages around the country? I scratch my head trying to find the elaborate list of composers of color who have graced the Broadway stage in the past 10 years, and it’s really short. Polkadots has been a motivational shock towards my personal movement to change these figures.

Since those two initial productions Polkadots signed a distribution deal with Sony’s Masterworks Broadway, a licensing deal with Broadway Licensing and was produced by NYC’s Atlantic Theater Company in September of 2017. Our world premiere album was released in September 2016 and  features cast members from Glee, Hamilton and Once on This Island. Additionally licensed productions of the show are popping up all around the country including a major production at The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati in February 2018.

I attribute the quick success of the show to its positive message but more importantly to its representation. On a recent trip to Orlando Rep’s production of Polkadots, at the talkback a patron said: ” I didn’t know this story, but it’s refreshing to see a multicultural cast with a Black girl as the lead.” Parents want to take their children to a show that not only entertains or educates but empowers. Shouldn’t the theatre be the space to reflect the everyday diversity of young people in the audience? Don’t we have an opportunity to hold up a mirror to them that proclaims, “ The world is waiting for you. All of you.”

I believe there’s a ton of little girls and boys of color who are awaiting that TYA school trip to a show that makes them want to go home and reenact playing the lead. I plan on writing as many as I can, to inspire as many as I can. For if ALL children see themselves reflected, they’ll walk a little taller, and perhaps our theatre audiences, actors, directors and writers, will become a bit more polka-dotted.

POLKADOTS at Orlando Rep

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