What if starting – or continuing – a dialogue about racism with your kids were as simple as a one word question: “Why?” And then following that “Why?” to the next “Why?” and the next?
Seattle Children’s Theater’s powerful world premiere production of “BKBXKids! Asks Why” puts the first question — the difficult, painful, central question — squarely on the conversation table:
“Why are Black people being hurt in America?”
The show, created and performed by the diverse troupe members of the New York-based Broken Box Mime Theatre (BKBX), proceeds to dig down into that question in a brilliant mix of pantomime, live saxophone, livestream smartphone videography and auditory storytelling by mime Regan Sims (in the title role of Regan). In four short acts over an approximately 60-minute run time, “Asks Why” explains the dangerous belief systems that have perpetuated racism in America for its entire history and, sadly, still today: that white men “discovered” the land that is now the United States rather than stealing it from Indigenous people; that light skin is better than dark skin; that America is, and always has been, free.
Ripping out the weeds
The mime artists here work together, and involve the audience, to pull the “weeds” of these lies from the ground of America’s psyche and then to plant seeds of change that will, hopefully, grow into a garden of equity and antiracism.
In a particularly powerful section, Sims climbs down into the deep and dark hole where the roots of racism were buried to bring to the discussion the all kind of thinking that led white people to make Black people their slaves:
“They believed a lie that people who are different from them were less than human, that we’re less human … to treat someone like they’re less than human it’s one of the worst things humans can do to other humans,” Regan discovers. “White enslavers treated Black people as property. They dehumanized them.”
From one question to another
And then another question:
“But why would someone dehumanize you?”
The answer unfolds in exquisite imagery and simple elegant mime. It is what we most need to talk to our children about. People dehumanize others “To get what they want, to feel powerful (because of) greed, fear.”
After untangling these roots of racism, Regan climbs up out of that dark hole on rungs set in place by Black freedom fighters: historic figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and contemporary fighters like Angela Davis.
“I know those names!” Regan exclaims as she touches the names of Black activists working in our world today. In that moment, the swell of pride on Regan’s face and a determination to join the fight is clear.
Director Becky Baumwoll says the idea for “Asks Why” started to take form soon after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020. In response, the company’s YouTube channel BKBXKids! added a “Become a PROTESTER” video to its series of mime shows for young people showing how to become various things.
Embodied storytelling to aid discussion
“We started a research project to try and figure out how we could, with our embodied storytelling, offer something new to kids and parents” in terms of approaching conversations about racism, says Baumwoll. “And, of course, we are having these conversations ourselves.”
Baumwoll, Broken Box’s artistic director, says the tipping point for the troupe and the decision to write “Asks Why,”came when they watched Sesame Street’s Coming Together Town Hall on racial justice on Sesame Street in June of 2020.
“During the town hall, a child asks the question that turned into Regan’s question in this production. Why for all that we’ve contributed to society, are Black people still treated badly in this country?” Baumwoll says. “The town hall addressed his question, but we thought there was more and we wanted to create a whole show that dove really deep into the answer to his question.”
A show for an intergenerational audience
The age recommendation for this energetic show is 3 to 9.
I have to admit, I haven’t met the 3-year-old that would watch the five actors here use their hands, bodies, faces to convey deep and difficult truths and really “get it.” But fifth-graders, the average target for this show, certainly will. It is also intended as an intergenerational experience, in the hope that parents and grandparents and others will join kids in pondering the questions leveled here.
And that preschooler?
Those in lower age range (say age 3-7) will enjoy the romp, the interaction, making flowers grow with their hands, the big gestures and expressive faces. Hopefully, they may just pick up a few big important words. Words that will grow in them and which they can ask about later, or listen for during a family discussion:
“We make the words as precise as possible while being understandable to around the 5th grave level,” Baumwoll says. “But there’s so much physical stuff to watch, it’s almost like watching a dance show for the kids who don’t totally grasp all the content. We were also mindful to not put images of violence on stage so that those little kids so that it doesn’t bring up things for very little ones that might be too traumatizing. But, the kids who can understand the language can turn over those difficult things.”
As the show concludes, the actors return to those seeds they and the audience planted together at the center of the show to suggest that they be tended and watered by families. How? By having conversations about racism, gathering factual information, speaking out, checking in on neighbors and otherwise building community, acts of healing.
“We take care of ourselves and each other to feel safe and seen,” says Regan.
“BKBXKids! Asks Why” runs through October 23 at Seattle Children’s Theater at Seattle Center. Tickets are $35 adults, $30 for kids.
More Wonderful Broken Box Mime
Catch Broken Box Mine Theatre artists in residence at their second appearance at Seattle Children’s Theater during their production of “BKBXKids! Destination: Everywhere.”
Wearing the traditional white face paint that originated from stage shows dating back as far as 467 B.C., Broken Box mimes will take audiences members of all ages through nine inventive stories, bringing them in on the boisterous fun and adventure.
“Destination Everywhere” premiered in the troupe’s home city of New York and also runs through October 23 at SCT.