Last month, I was invited to a press preview of Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical. It is the Atlantic for Kids fall musical that is playing at the Atlantic Theater Company in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. My sons are outgrowing children’s theater but I bribed Sean (10) to go with me because the book playwright happened to be a friend from our church, Melvin Tunstall III. I knew that Melvin was a super talented performer. (In addition to seeing him perform at church, he was also in one of my favorite Broadway shows, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.)
It turned out that Melvin is also an amazing playwright. Even though Sean was on the older end of the kid age spectrum, he really enjoyed it. The other young kids in attendance seemed to be really engaged also. The bright set, expressive acting and interactive portions of the musical helped Polkadots to share age-appropriate lessons on bullying, embracing differences and the power of friendship.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical was inspired by Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine. The Little Rock Nine was a group of 9 African-American students who desegregated the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. In 1960, Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana. Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical follows 8-year-old Lily Polkadot who is the first Polkadot in an all Square school. The musical tackles difficult topics (like gaining acceptance from peers, bullying, and segregation) in a manner that kept the kids interested and engaged. The words and song made it just seem silly for people not to like one another over something as insignificant as skin color (or in this case, design). There is a point in the play when Lily’s one friend asks his sister (Lily’s main bully) why she doesn’t like Lily and she had no answer beyond the physical difference. It was nothing about Lily’s character – what she said or did. Rather, it was just because her skin was different.
Unfortunately, these issues have not been left in the past. I’ll admit that I cried during the “Sticks and Stones” song. A wave of memories just flooded over me. Ironically, I never had to deal with any race-related school issues even though I grew up in the south (Virginia). Rather, my sons whom I am raising in NYC have had to deal with this issue. I remembered the first time my son came home sad because a little girl shared her treats with everyone else in the class except him simply because he was brown. “We’re all the same on the inside, right?” I remember him asking. That was in Kindergarten or first grade. Words do hurt but it is my husband Reggie’s and my job to speak the truth to our sons and build up their confidence despite the words and actions of others.
One of the good points that the musical highlighted is that often bullying is due to fear on the part of the bully. I do agree that fear and/or jealousy is often the root. Third through fifth grade, when testing and academic competition became more prevalent, was the worst for my sons. More than one kid called my kids the “n” word and one told him that he didn’t belong at school during Black History Month. It’s still not easy being “the only one” (or one of just a few). I often tell my kids, “You can show people better than you can tell them. Keep doing and being your best!” So far, so good. Both Michael and Sean are at the top of their classes academically and (equally important to us) get great commentary on their character from the people in their lives.
The last thing that I really appreciated about the musical was the theme that friendships brings hope for change. I am so grateful for the friends from all ethnicities and backgrounds that my kids have had over the years. It guards their hearts against lumping the people who have discriminated against them into one category. Without a doubt, there are kind and mean, loving and hateful people from every group that makes up our society.
In a world constantly marred by division, these boys give me hope. They are different – Black, White, Asian, Muslim, Jewish (and as my kid would say of himself, “from a Christian family because I’m not old enough to make that decision”) BUT they all enjoyed hanging out and having fun together – eating at Shake Shack and watching a silly movie – on the last day of school. #changeandbecomelikechildren
In any event, I highly recommend Polkadots for ages 5 and up. The actors, singing, and choreography are all excellent and the musical is actually a lighthearted approach to issues that are still relevant today. Be sure to catch it this weekend before it’s over!
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20 Street between 8 and 9 Avenues
Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30am through October 8
[Single tickets to Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical are $15 for kids (ages 10 and under) and $20 for adults. Group tickets are also available. Tickets are $10 for kids and $15 for adults for all Atlantic Season Passport holders.]
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