So many children’s shows are about tolerance and openness and the acceptance of differences. Yet so few actually deal with overt racism. The shows are often cast with cultural diversity in mind, so issues of race are largely mooted.
“Polkadots — The Cool Kids Musical” is an exception. Using the real-life Little Rock Nine desegregation story as a model, this children’s theater show has characters that demonstrate deep-rooted insensitivities and show cowardice amid a time of progressive cultural change. The word “race” is not used, and the show takes place in a fantasy world, but it’s really about racism. It goes there.
The town of Rockaway is totally Squaresville. Every one of its residents appears to have “Square” as a surname. They have small colorful square patterns on their skin. They sing a nationalistic anthem, “Square Motto,” every night at dinnertime.
Then a new student shows up on the first day of school, and she is polka-dotted rather than squared. Lily Polkadot is eager to fit in, but she has to withstand the taunts of her classmate Penelope Square and the indignity of having to sip from the “polkadot pump” drinking fountain instead of the nicer-looking “square sprinkler.”
“You’re supposed to know life isn’t fair,” Penelope sings. “You’re a cool kid when you’re a square.”
To drive its polka-dotted points home, Lily is played by an African-American performer, the effervescent and upbeat Faith Lawrence, while the other three cast members — hyper-hostile May Yoshioka as the intolerant Penelope, gentle bespectacled Benjamin Cooley as Penelope’s more open-minded younger brother Sky and serene Serena Ryen as the kids’ schoolteacher Ms. Square — are not.
Economically built for a four-person cast yet jam-packed with songs and dances, “Polkadots” is getting produced around the country — you could have caught it in Nantucket, Mass., last month, and it’s being done at Shelton’s Center Stage Theatre in June.
Douglas Lyons, who grew up in New Haven and is a graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, wrote the lyrics and co-composed the music for “Polkadots.” (The other co-composer is Greg Borowsky, and the book is by Melvin Tunstall III.) Lyons directed the production of “Polkadots” that is playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through May 20. The show will be seen by more than 2,500 students, and teaching artists have visited local schools to discuss it.
“Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical” is a fine calling card for Lyons, whose latest musical “Five Points” (which also has overt racial themes, and is intended for older audiences) had a developmental reading in January at the Goodspeed Festival of New Artists in East Haddam. “Polkadots”’ songs are complex and wordy, a step above most kid-musical fare. Lily faces some hard truths, and even her sweet teacher Ms. Square doesn’t always have her back.
The plot ties up way too conveniently. Ultimately “Polkadots the Musical” becomes another of those TV movies where enemies become friends because they like how each other dance. The show ends with a song of simplistic inclusivity: “You’re a cool kid even if you’re gay, straight, a bit overweight/nerd, jock with white polkadots/boy, girl, go challenge the world.”
But for most of its rather frenzied hourlong, dozen-song time on the Playhouse on Park stage, “Polkadots” is impressive in how far it will go in tackling some tough social issues. It does so using a cartoonish style that plays directly to very young children. Playhouse on Park’s deep-thrust, floor-level stage area keeps the show up-close and accessible. There are several canny audience-participation moments, including a chance to join in on the cross-cultural dance “The Squadot.”
Squareville’s worth a visit. At the end of “Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical,” once everyone’s cool with each other, you might even want to live there.
POLKADOTS: THE COOL KIDS MUSICAL runs through May 20 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are May 12, 13 and 20 at both 1 and 4 p.m.; May 16 at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; May 18 at 10 a.m.; and May 19 at 10 a.m., 1 and 4 p.m. The 10 a.m. shows on May 18 and 19 are sensory-friendly. Tickets are $18, $16 for students, seniors and Let’s Go Arts members. 860-523-5900 and playhouseonpark.org.