Theater review of 'Locomotion' at the Kennedy Center Family Theater

CLASS ACT: From left, Nickolas Vaughan, G. Alverez Reid and Fatima Quander in the play adapted by Jacqueline Woodson from her award-winning book at the Kennedy Center.
CLASS ACT: From left, Nickolas Vaughan, G. Alverez Reid and Fatima Quander in the play adapted by Jacqueline Woodson from her award-winning book at the Kennedy Center. (Carol Pratt)
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By Celia Wren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010

Like the set's jet-black New York City skyline, looming behind candy-colored, graffiti-textured rooms and streets, a strain of somberness runs through "Locomotion," the moving and extraordinarily well-acted children's production at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Nimbly adapted by Jacqueline Woodson from her award-winning book of the same name, this world premiere -- artfully staged by Jennifer L. Nelson -- tells how a thoughtful, creative, 11-year-old boy named Lonnie finds himself in foster care after his parents die in a fire.

That's a seriously sobering plotline for a play that's recommended for viewers age 9 and up -- and the hero's orphan status isn't the show's only austere motif. Lonnie (the poignantly expressive Nickolas Vaughan) and Lili (Fatima Quander), the young sister he adores, wind up in different foster homes: Her new family doesn't want a boy, so Lonnie lands with a brisk, bossy woman named Miss Edna (Quander). Then his endearingly rascally best friend Enrique (G. Alverez Reid) develops sickle cell anemia. (Also potentially upsetting, though very brief, is a character's reminiscence of seeing a dog hit by a car.)

Despite this unflinching vision of reality, the now-lively, now-lyrical "Locomotion" -- commissioned by the Kennedy Center and Florida's Orlando Repertory Theatre -- ultimately sounds a hopeful note. The play chronicles Lonnie's foray into writing poetry, which proves therapeutic and artistically satisfying. Moreover, a good deal of humor flows from the show's panoply of eccentric and witty characters -- roles brilliantly juggled by Quander and Reid, with the aid of simple costume changes. (You can barely spot the same actress in Miss Edna and in the babyish, raspberry-blowing, pink-ribboned Lili.)

Enrique's amusing antics include cheerfully weaseling out of just about any homework assignment -- except when he turns a Langston Hughes poem into a rap song. And in pensive but upbeat flashbacks woven into the play's time-traveling format, Lonnie's father and mother (Reid and Quander) lovingly tease each other and their children. "Do I have to wash my face?" young Lonnie asks when his dad wakes him up early one morning to watch a Brooklyn dawn. "Nah," the father scoffs. "All that stuff happens after sunrise."

Director Nelson keeps the tale's emotional colors gracefully shifting, and she connects scenes with fluid segues -- like the way a chuckle of Miss Edna's mingles with, and then cedes to, a warm laugh by Lonnie's father. The effect is never disorienting, thanks to Allen Lee Hughes's resonant lighting design, which helps distinguish flashbacks and reveries from the main narrative.

Meanwhile, sound designer and composer Chas Marsh's urban soundscape evokes the restless rhythms of New York. It's a city where, "Locomotion" implies, Lonnie is slowly but surely finding healing for his pain.

Wren is a freelance writer.


adapted by Jacqueline Woodson from her book "Locomotion." Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson; scenic design, Hannah Crowell; costume design, Diana Khoury; theme to "Locomotion," Toshi Reagon; properties artisan, Dreama J. Greaves; dramaturge, Faedra Chatard Carpenter. About 75 minutes. Through Oct. 31 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324 or visit

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