Nine years ago, Tsivia Cohen saw a problem when she looked on the calendar at the third Monday in January.
"Our sense was that children are off school from school for Martin Luther King Day, but don't really understand why," says Cohen, a programming director at Chicago Children's Museum. "We wanted to do something help kids make sense of Dr. King's life and make a personal connection to it so that it's not so distant from them."
What they came up with was a play - part musical, part improv and with a big role for the kids in the audience. The show, "What Does It Mean, Dr. King?" is now in its nine year, and asks serious but accessible questions about the civil rights movement: How did young Martin feel when he and his next-door neighbor, a white boy named John, were sent to different schools? What would you have done if you had been in Rosa Parks' shoes?
The show mixes professional actors with museum staff and Chicago residents, including 8-year-old Merlina Atkindele, who was plucked from the audience four years ago to play Ruby Bridges, the young girl who became the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South.
At the end of the show, which lasts about 20 minutes, kids can write their own letter to King, telling them what they've learned from him and how they feel about the cause he championed. The format works for kids of all ages: it doesn't shy away from the serious turmoil of the civil rights era, but focuses more on the personal stories than the violence and unrest that surrounded it.
"We've had people come back again and again as their children get older," Cohen says. "Parents will tell me that each year, their child comes to a different understanding about what all this information means."
We asked some of the cast members to talk bout what they hope kids take away from the play and the Martin Luther King holiday this year, and here's what they said:
The show is free with museum admission, and has performances on Monday, Jan. 17 at 11 a.m. and 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Event details.
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