Groundbreaking Black children’s book finally reaches the stage

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Imagine writing and illustrating a simple picture book that still leaves significant marks on society’s literary landscape 50 years later. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, written in 1962 and awarded the Caldecott Medal the following year for most distinguished picture book, has finally stepped up on stage with this first production of a theatrical performance in a world premiere by Stages Theatre Company (STC) of Hopkins, Minnesota. 


Keats (d. 1983) wrote his groundbreaking book about a little boy named Peter who goes out to explore the first snow of the season. According to the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, established by Keats himself in 1964, it was the first time a Black character took center stage in a children’s book in the United States.


The foundation, which since Keats’ death has promoted humanitarian works of art and literary merit, held on tightly to the creative licensing of this prize-winning story – until now.


STC “approached the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation for the rights to adapt the book,” said Sandy Boren-Barrett, artistic director at STC. For many years the foundation declined to consent to a screenplay, “but because they [knew] how groundbreaking it would be, they went ahead and agreed,” explained Boren-Barrett.


She doesn’t know the reason for the foundation’s initial reluctance, but she is “very grateful to have been given the right to [produce the play]… It is truly an honor and privilege,” said the director.


STC hired Mark Rosenwinkel to write the script and Michael Mahler to compose the musical score. Boren-Barrett praised this team in both their execution of the adaptation as well as their joint efforts working with STC.


“The creation process and the collaborative process of the rehearsal” have been phenomenal, said Boren-Barrett. Upon receiving the script, Boren-Barrett said that the original creative team gave STC carte blanche to do what was needed to make the play come to life.


“Some plays come ready, and some come ready to be workshopped and brought to life,” said Boren-Barrett. The Snowy Day was ripe for input from STC. Not only did veteran Boren-Barrett contribute her expertise to the development of the play, but also the three adult actors in the cast provided additional input.


The ability to be immersed in the culture of childhood and recreate that experience on stage was readily shared by the 20 youth actors in the cast.


Because the book is so spare of words and the pictures border on minimalist, the play begins before the book, as written by Keats, does.


It opens on the day prior to the fabled snowstorm in the story. Boren-Barrett confirmed, “The liberty that we took with this story is that we started the day before the book began. We left so much open to the creative process” that some of the details of the scenes were developed by the director and the cast.


One scene in particular created a memorable experience for both director and actor. Peter, played by Jalen Groves, 10, and a fourth-grade student at FAIR School in Crystal, worked with Boren-Barrett late one evening to create the snow scene.


“I asked him, ‘What do you like to do in the snow?'” said Boren-Barrett. Together they played on the stage, imagining the various activities as Groves described them.


Integral to the story by Keats is the race of the main character, Peter. Because this book broke down the racial demographics in children’s literature, Boren-Barrett believed strongly that only a Black child could play the role of Peter. “I would have even considered an African American female, but fortunately we had a very talented male actor audition,” said Boren-Barrett. 


This play marks Groves’ debut on stage. In several scenes he appears asleep, regarding which Groves proclaims, “Sleeping is my art.” The audience reacts positively to Groves: “The kids are very excited to see Jalen. They really resonate with him,” said Boren-Barrett.


In fact, following each show, the cast lines up in the auditorium’s foyer. Once the children reach Groves in the line-up, they disperse, forgetting to shake hands with any remaining cast members.


Playing Peter’s mother is Channing Jones, production and education associate at STC and also a teacher of theater at FAIR School. The performances take quite a bite out of Jones’ teaching schedule, but other teachers at the school step in to cover her classes.


“Stages has a great relationship with FAIR,” said Jones. This relationship is described further at STC’s website. Stages Theatre Company is the resident theater company for FAIR School and provides classroom instruction, artistic residencies, main stage play production and interdisciplinary resources.


The decision by STC to take on a story with this level of impact pleases Jones. “I think it’s really great that we were able to take a story like this,” she said. Perhaps of even more import, though, is the fact of producing theater for children in the first place.


“I think a lot of times it’s the first play that [young children viewers] have ever seen,” Jones said. Experiencing that difference between live theater and TV [hopefully] makes them want to see more and maybe participate.”


The play opened on January 15, the actual date of Martin Luther King’s birthday. It closes on Valentine’s Day, February 14. An additional performance has been scheduled at the request of the youth actors in the play.


In an effort to offer aid to the people of Haiti, a performance will be given on Monday, February 8, 7 pm, all proceeds from which will benefit Haiti. All tickets are $10 for that performance.


Stages Theatre Company is located at 1111 Mainstreet, Hopkins, MN 55343. Their website is www.stagestheatre.org. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling their box office at 952-979-1111.


Susan Budig welcomes reader responses to tomandsusan@juno.com.