Kennedy Center: Bud, Not Buddy

  • playing at Kennedy Center (Washington, DC)
  • dates: now through January 15, 2017
  • directed by Clarke Peters
  • script by Kirsten Greenidge
  • music by Terence Blanchard
  • Roar Score: 4/5

Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel Bud, Not Buddy first slipped onto my radar in 2012. Yes, the book was published in 1999, and it won both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award in 2000. But it was in 2012 that I saw Curtis speak and read from his book in Chicago at the International Reading Association’s annual conference (now the International Literacy Association).

I was blown away.

So I was incredibly excited to catch the stage adaptation of the book this week at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. With a couple familiar faces in the cast and a full jazz band on stage, the show didn’t disappoint.

All photos courtesy of the Kennedy Center

Set in Flint, Michigan, during the Great Depression (1936, to be exact), Bud, Not Buddy tells the story of Bud, a 10-year-old orphan who is sure about two things: he wants to find his father, and his name is not Buddy.

The few clues he has about his father’s identity point him to Herman E. Calloway and his band. Even though Bud is on a journey of self-discovery, the story also reveals some of the realities and tragedies of life for people of color during 1930s America. Despite the sometimes painful content, Curtis infuses Bud’s story with plenty of warmth, hope, humor…and jazz.

In the story, Calloway is the leader of a jazz band that eventually takes Bud in and gives him a new home. On stage, the music is brought to vibrant life by a full band performing an original jazz score composed by five-time Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard.

It’s sublime and elevates the entire show to another level.

Blanchard’s music draws the audience into the show and plays them out of the theater, and it also forms the backdrop of Bud’s uniquely American story. It’s a fascinating way to tell his story, and it makes for truly engaging theater.

The story itself is primarily told through Bud’s eyes. He narrates his own experiences, much of which is related through flashbacks, directly to the audience. The cast of eight sits in a row in front of the band and interacts with one another by standing up and reading their lines. There is very little movement around the stage, and the sets are minimal.

Words and music (and, occasionally, lighting cues) propel the story forward.

When I say the actors sit on stage and read their lines, I’m not kidding. They are all obviously reading from a script in front of them. I’m not going to lie; this was more than a bit distracting and took some getting used to. Most of the performers read directly from the script, and unfortunately, in some cases, it was painfully obvious they were doing more “reading” than “acting.”

Justin Weaks does an admirable job carrying the show as Bud, and he really captures the potentially difficult contrast of Bud’s character: a 10-year-old who confronts the world with both wide-eyed innocence and jaded realism.

Charlayne Woodard also turns in a fantastic performance as Miss Thomas (and every other female role). Most of the actors assume multiple roles, with the exception of Weaks as Bud and Frankie Faison as Herman E. Calloway.

Faison, whom audience will recognize from The Wire and Marvel’s Luke Cage (among many other films, shows, and plays) is a joy to see on stage, but his part is much too small for an actor of his caliber. For much of the play, he has very little to do, and it was a shame to see him just sit there for a majority of the show’s 65-minute run time.

Also in the cast is Roscoe Orman, who kids (of all ages) will recognize from Sesame Street, where he played Gordon for an astonishing 42 seasons.

The show only has a handful of performances at the Kennedy Center, so if you’re in the area and interested, go check it out this weekend. Don’t miss it!

Bud, Not Buddy runs through January 15, 2017 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $20 to $60. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center website, visit in person at the Kennedy Center box office, or call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

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