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
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
"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
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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