You know a book’s a classic if you’re not the target age, race or social background, but you gobble it down in one sitting. I read “Bud, Not Buddy” that way a few years back and knew why it won the 2000 Newbery Medal for children’s fiction.
Christopher Paul Curtis set the book in the 1930s, when a motherless black kid in Flint, Mich., searches for his long-lost dad amid jazz musicians. The plucky 10-year-old finds both more and less than he expects on his journey from naive runaway to future jazzman, and his adventures – so unlike mine, yet so relatable to a white middle-aged guy from a conventional family – held me fast.
Reginald André Jackson adapted the book to a play aimed roughly at children around Bud’s age, though the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production would entertain folks of many ages. At 90 minutes without intermission, it filled the attention spans of a young audience Wednesday morning at ImaginOn without overwhelming them.
Director Jerrell L. Henderson sets us in motion from the opening seconds, as cast members beat out rhythms on the wooden elements of Tom Burch’s mobile, instantly changeable set. Henderson maintains a fluid pace right up to the curtain call: Actors change identities as they pop on and off, set pieces shift, and Bud (Devin Clark) constantly relocates himself on the stage. The physical behavior aligns with his emotional state: He’s in flux, constantly adapting to an adult world which seems to have no place for him.
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Bud has one anchor after running away from an orphanage and an unsuitable foster home: A flyer for a band fronted by bass player Herman E. Calloway (Ron McClelland). His mother preserved many such posters, so Bud’s convinced Calloway must be the father he never knew. He sets off to meet Calloway and finds an extended family in the old man’s relaxed, good-natured bandmates.
Jackson tucks a good many observations about race and class into the search. Bud lands briefly in a Hooverville, one of many shanty towns occupied by poor people at the end of Herbert Hoover’s presidency. He learns from the musicians that the white member of the band “owns” the club where they play, though everyone knows he’s a front; blacks can’t own property, so he signed in place of Calloway.
Yet Bud’s journey remains paramount. Jackson sends the youngster to some dark places, and Henderson includes comic elements to keep the audience from feeling too depressed. Bullies never become too sadistic; angry cops are played as slight exaggerations to lessen their sting; Calloway, always described as mean, seems easily convertible to kindness.
Clark makes a boyishly appealing guide through this world, combining a kind of innocent cunning and a strong conscience. He’s bolstered by two maternal figures, his remembered mother (Nicole Watts) and a band singer (Tracie Frank, whose attractive voice we hear in a song). It will take a small musical village to raise this child, and we know we’re leaving him in good hands.
‘Bud, Not Buddy’
When: Through April 9 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Also a sensory-friendly performance March 25 at 11 a.m. The April 8 performance will be ASL sign-interpreted.
Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
Running time: 90 minutes.