Chicago Children’s Museum stage production brings Martin Luther King Day meaning to kids

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 asksserious 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:

  • Olivia Porter (plays Rosa Parks and adult Ruby Bridges): “I want to spark curiosity. Maybe they’ll go home and sit down at the computer, see what else they can find out.”
  • Merlinda Atkindele, 8, (plays young Ruby Bridges): “I want them to know that segregation is not good. That we should treat everyone equally.”
  • Leonard House (plays Dr. King): “I want them to have a sense of who Dr. King was and what he meant to the world. I want to give them a sense of history. I like the way the show relates to things kids are going through.”
  • Elliot Berry, 11 (plays young Martin) “I want them to know that one day they can reach their goals. They can be what they want to be when they grow up.”
  • Peter Williams, associate vice president at the museum (plays the white bus driver in Montgomery who tells Rosa Parks to move) “I want kids to know that Dr. King was a great American who was once a kid himself. He made our country better.”

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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