Last night, The Kennedy Center presented an inspiring world premiere commission of Bud, Not Buddy. Kirsten Greenidge created the fast-paced and touchingly funny script, based on the book from award-winning children’s literature author, Christopher Paul Curtis. It’s the story of an orphan boy’s journey to find his father, in Michigan during the Great Depression. Interwoven with music by multiple Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard, the production combines literature, music, and theater to create what the program describes as “a play within a jazz concert.”
Before the show had even begun, the live band, conducted by Victor Simonson, sat on stage while people began to file in to The Eisenhower Theater. As the seats filled, the energy of the space became electrified with an almost impatient eagerness that could be felt throughout the room. And as soon as the band began to play, it was clear that the audience was in for a joyous ride.
The actors slowly took the stage and mingled amongst themselves as the music moved through everyone’s bodies. The stage had chairs and music stands set up in front of the platform that the band was arranged on, and the characters sat as they were introduced one-by-one.
The cast is composed of an impressively talented group, with several of the actors playing multiple parts. Justin Weaks is Bud, the kid out to find the man his Momma told him was his dad. Frankie Faison is Herman E. Calloway, the musician Bud believes to be his father. And then there are Calloway’s band members: The Thug (John Clarence Stewart), Jimmy (Roscoe Orman), Steady Eddie (KenYatta Rogers), Doo Doo Bug (Ray Shell), and Dirty Deed (Michael Willis).
Charlayne Woodard is the only woman in the cast and plays many key parts, including Bud’s mom, who gives Bud his mantra and the title of the production with her line, “Bud is your name and don’t ever let anyone call you Buddy.”
Bud’s story starts in an orphanage, where he finds out that he is being sent to a family and must pack his things to go. Weaks portrays Bud with incredible confidence rooted in a need for survival. He is charmingly naïve and boyish but also strong and resilient. Weaks has a positivity that propels the whole show and creates an immediate desire for Bud to succeed.
Buds foster parents turn out to be brutally uncaring and their bully of a son, Todd Amos, (KenYatta Rogers) gets Bud in trouble and sent to sleep in the shed. It is from here that Bud’s real adventure begins, when he breaks out and goes “on the lam.”
With the help of a flyer that Bud’s Momma gave him, he finds Calloway — imbued by Faison with an intimidating presence — who refuses to accept that he is Bud’s father, and Calloway’s band, who welcomes Bud out of intrigue and curiosity in his story. And while the exact nature of Bud’s new “family” is uncertain, he is on the path to finding the truth of who he is.
Director Clarke Peters does a wonderful job creating a beautifully fluid and coherent play, while using an unconventional format. The set resembles that of a staged-reading and the actors constantly switch between characters, when the story breaks from the main narrative for flashbacks or Bud muses while relaying his tale; Patrick Calhoun’s sound design works perfectly with lighting design by Dan Covey to make every transition subtly clear.
The show carries the audience through every possible human emotion. Woodard encapsulates the feel of a genuine loving mother figure as Miss Thomas; Faison is closed off and cold as Calloway; Rogers is hilarious as Bud’s friend at the orphanage; Weaks is a constant source of hope and the promise of a better future as Bud.
Bud, Not Buddy is a show about music, surviving, loving, and changing for the better. People lost, are found, and unbreakable bonds are created. With Blanchard’s brilliant jazz, a heart-felt tale, and an impressive cast, The Kennedy Center’s world premiere of Bud, Not Buddy opened with an excitement that blew the doors off the theater with its richness of suffering, hope, and heart.
Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.