THEATER | Two strong plays about kids facing supreme challenges: Youth Performance Company’s “MEAN” and SteppingStone Theatre’s “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963”


Two youth performances that have similar themes—tolerance, anger/hatred, ignorance, peacemaking, and the resilience of young people—are currently happening simultaneously here in the Twin Cities.

MEAN, staged by The Youth Performance Company in Minneapolis, is written by Rita Cannon, with music and lyrics and Kahlil Queen. Live musicians (Mary Cay Stone, Matt Belz, and Eric Domke) accompany the actors—which is simply darn cool, and gives a dynamic feeling to the entire production. The choreography is strong, the voices clear (although sometimes too quiet), the acting well rehearsed, and the stories believable, relevant, and poignant. The play was written about current experiences that young people have in grade and high school (and within their families).

mean, presented at howard conn fine arts center through february 27. for tickets ($12 adults, $10 children) and information, see four little girls: birmingham 1963, presented at steppingstone theatre through february 27. for tickets ($14 adults, $10 children) and information, see

Lining the stage are the names and ages of kids who have died as a result of documented bullying via suicide or physical abuse. Other props include monitors that blink on throughout the performance and run news clips telling real stories. Lockers are used not only as props, but weapons. Yes, school is a battlefield for some kids. (As I write this, reports are coming in regarding two Minnesota high school basketball players who have been charged as adults with fifth-degree assult after an alleged hazing incident.)

A cast of 28 young people create a half-musical, half-drama story around mean, angry, stupid people and how they hurt others by bullying. The stories told include mean and taunting behavior toward those who are of a different religion, sexual preference, size and general look. There’s also a mother/daughter scene that illustrates how adults subtly sabotage a young person’s self-esteem with well-meaning (really?) yet derogatory comments.

The theater was packed the day I went. A group from Clara Barton Open School was in attendance. They were a splendid audience, engaged throughout and full of thoughtful comments on the way out. I didn’t interview any of them, it was just reassuring to listen and hear that they understood the message: being mean hurts everyone, and goes both ways. It hurts to be bullied, and it doesn’t feel very good being a bully either. Typically, someone has to teach you to be mean, so make your own conclusion: someone hasn’t been treating the bully very well, either. Almost everyone has a bullying example to share, and everyone needs to be able to talk about it.

As an adult who has quite a number of young people in my life, it’s a hideous and frightful thought that any child I know would go through these experiences. I know, of course, that they have. I have—and still do, as bullies don’t necessarily grow out of it.

Another true story, more biographically portrayed, is Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963. Although the reason why this story was written is horrifying (the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama), the girls’ too-short lives were gifts to the world, and it’s important to hear their individual stories. SteppingStone Theatre, another youth performance showcase, stages a poignant, authentic and artful presentation written by Christina Ham.

Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Addie Mae Collins (played respectively by Cearah Hamilton, Yazmin Lafleur-Donaby, Essence Stiggers, and Amani Ward) were killed in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, AL. They were girlfriends who played together, did their hair together, moaned about chores together, and dreamed together. They had charming personalities, loving families, and they were engaged in their community. That’s why they were in the church that day. It was the annual Youth Day celebration and they were gleeful participants.

Their lives are joyfully illustrated with telling dialogue, spirited acting, and simple, clear scenes. We get to know each young lady as an individual. We meet their families, their pastor, their teachers, and their neighbors (all played by other young actors). The performance cleverly juxtaposes the lives of these girls with short acts illustrating what kids on the “other side of town” (read: white kids) are doing. Although the black kids are technically doing the same things as the white kids: hanging out with friends, going to church, being told what to do by their parents, playing with dolls, and getting ice cream with their dads, it’s clear that the children’s physical realities are quite different: blatant racism and segregation has ensured that. (You can hear the adult influence in the statement of the young white kids.)

The set changes are punctuated with video showing a variety of important civil rights moments: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, George Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” anti-segregation marches, and horrifying fire hose sprayings. The cast engages the audience by teaching and explaining history throughout the play with spirited essays. As an audience member, you hear, via poignant dialog, the pain and frustration of the black father who can’t stop for an ice cream soda with his daughter as the nearest soda fountain is “whites only.” You also painfully hear the ignorant jeering of the white kids teasing the black kids as they wait in long lines for the “negroes only” water fountain.

A bright flash illustrates the actual bombing, which is a striking way to get the audience to understand that the world has now changed on this very spot. The four girls, post explosion, explain to the audience what they had in mind for their futures: Carole was headed towards a life in performing arts, Cynthia was a math whiz who could have been a miracle-working scientist, Addie had physical abilities to become a female Jackie Robinson, and Denise was a natural peacekeeper.

It would be appropriate for all over the age of 8 to take in either of these performances. Hopefully, the Twin Cities audience will then take what actions they can to make the future less angry, less full of hate, and brighter for the children, and thus, the Cities’, future.