‘The Children’s Hour’ at Howard University

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If you have never seen or heard of The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, then you are missing out on a masterful piece of social commentary. Written in 1934, the play was highly controversial with its themes of homophobia and the power of rumor and gossip but, despite censorship and the play being banned in Boston, Chicago, and London, The Children’s Hour has been continuously revived, revised, and adapted over the years and remains today an incredibly disturbing and moving story that mirrors some of the darker aspects of our structured society.

Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts has attempted their own interpretation of this incredible play and they do not miss the mark.

At the center of the story are two women, Karen Wright played by Kristen Armour, and Martha Dobie played by Adanna Paul, who are close friends and have been working to turn an old building into a girl’s boarding school.  With the help of Martha’s Aunt, Lily Mortar played by Jasmine January, the women run and teach the boarding school.

After years of hard work and sacrifice, the two friends are finally seeing their hard work paid off with the success of their school, but the unruly student, Mary Tilford, played by Danielle King, creates panic and chaos in Karen and Martha’s lives when she creates a lie implicating the women have an “unnatural” relationship, in order to keep herself from getting into trouble.

Howard University’s production of The Children’s Hour is beautiful. Director Raymond O. Caldwell has taken Hellman’s play and made it his own.  With the incorporation of music and movement into certain scenes and transitions in the play, Caldwell adds a layer of the dramatic in such a way that does not take away from the realness of the drama but instead shines a spotlight on the detrimental effect that social constructs can have on individuals.

There are many superb performances from the cast. Armour and Paul are a perfect pairing for Karen and Martha, portraying the strength and fury that each of the women possess, while maintaining control and dignity. There is not a moment when you don’t root for these women and Armour and Paul carry the audience with them, through all of their anguish.

King’s Mary Tilford is a flawless demon. The character is difficult and can often be hard to make believable due to Mary’s remarkably spoiled and entitled attitude, which seems to border on psychosis. But King brings a genuine intensity to Mary that ensures her ability to easily manipulate all of those around her into believing her lies.

Mary’s, for lack of better terms, friends, Evelyn Munn played by Auriel R. Thompson and Peggy played by Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, are two of Mary’s seeming puppets, and their inner turmoil and fear-based friendship with Mary is incredible but hard to watch.

And one of the most intense moments of the play comes from Alexcia Thompson’s Rosalie Wells, where the fate of Karen and Martha lays in the poor girl’s hands. Rosalie is another student at the school who has a weakness for stealing but only Mary knows of her guilt. Mary uses this knowledge to sway Rosalie into supporting her lie about Kiaren and Martha. Caldwell’s direction and added effects accentuate Rosalie’s conflict and the anticipation in the scene is palpable.

Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour is a powerfully provocative story that has never ceased to resonate with audiences over the years. Howard University’s production of this play is no exception. With a strong cast and great direction, the show is an emotional experience that conveys the message of the evils of social injustice and the power of reputation.  The audience feels the fear and devastation, and carries it with them when they leave.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

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The Children’s Hour  plays through Sunday, November 8, 2015 at The Howard University’s  Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street NW, in Washington, DC.  Purchase tickets online.

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