Dynamic ‘Look Both Ways’ tells tales of tweens and teens at Theater Alliance

A world-premiere Kennedy Center co-production, the playful play is based on the award-winning novel by Jason Reynolds.

It’s back-to-school time! And that makes this the perfect season to catch Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, the Theater Alliance co-production with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, now playing at the Anacostia Playhouse. This world premiere, based on the award-winning Jason Reynolds novel, is adapted for the stage by El Chelito and Theater Alliance Artistic Director Raymond O. Caldwell, a 2023 Helen Hayes awardee for Outstanding New Play or Musical Adaption, who also directed.

Caldwell’s ambitious production is nuanced. It’s dynamic. It’s engaging. Moreover, it’s necessary in these times when adults are making harmful choices for young people under the guise of protecting them, as with the book bans sweeping the nation. Like the multi-award-winning Reynolds, this creative team presents the specialness of the tweens and teens of Latimer Middle School with honesty, affection, and above all respect. I assure you, you will leave the production with a greater appreciation for their experiences than you entered with.

Charles Franklin IV (foreground) with Savina Barini, Kalen Robinson, and John Sygar in ‘Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks.’ Photo by Noah Willman.

The stories you will see of ten after-school experiences are poignant, hilarious, and thought-provoking. They are brought to life by the ensemble of Savina Barini, Charles Franklin IV, Ixchel Hernandez, Tre’mon Mills, Kalen Robinson, and John Sygar. Each of these actors is versatile and talented. At the beginning of the show, I had favorites. And then all of a sudden all of them were favorites. These six are called on to portray a range of emotional states in presenting the ten vignettes: bravado, fear, worry, joy, confusion, hope, giddiness, indifference, grief, and more, and they do so moment-to-moment and situation-to-situation without missing a beat between each vignette. And all the while they each created memorable unique young persons to whom the audience could relate. Frankly, any one of these winning performers is capable of shouldering a featured role in another production. But I’m glad to have the opportunity to see them all working together because their chemistry revealed how well they absorbed the humanity of their characters. This is the humanity I wish everyone could see.

Kudos to the creative team. The play’s technical components were equally as strong as the acting. Indeed, the production was technically sophisticated. The spare set was imaginatively depicted, with a screen and wooden models of buildings including the school. Additionally, the creative team employed a variety of staging techniques and methods, including live images projected onto a backdrop screen, film and video replay, puppetry, shadow boxes, and live microphones. These multiple techniques reflected the variety of approaches Reynolds employed in the stories of Look Both Ways. Narratively, Caldwell’s techniques and staging both reflected and expanded the novel, turning the adaptation into something fresh and dynamic. It’s worth noting here that I’ve read the novel.

Need you be familiar with the novel to enjoy or understand the play? Not at all. Much of the narrative is straightforward, while some scenes prompt you to make inferences about what happened before. Think of milk. Really. Good. Milk. Milk churned to cheese. Really. Good. Cheese. What Caldwell has done is to extract the essence of each story, the beauty and deliciousness of it, the really good cheese from the really good milk. Thus, for example, we don’t need to know the origins of the dog presented in Reynolds’ story of “The Broom Dog” in the novel in order to appreciate Caldwell’s interpretation of it scenically in the play — and to understand how Caldwell depicts the theme of connection and compassion. Again, no. No prior reading necessary. But hey, it won the Carnegie Medal, the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award, and was a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature finalist, plus more. So check it out!

TOP LEFT: Savina Barini, Kalen Robinson, and Tre’mon Mills; TOP RIGHT: Abuelo Puppet (performed by John Sygar and Savina Barini) and Ixchel Hernandez; BOTTOM LEFT: Savina Barini; BOTTOM RIGHT: Tre’mon Mills in ‘Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks.’ Photos by Noah Willman.

Lastly, there are many questions raised by the play. What do you do when a friend is bullied? How do you make a friend? How do you keep one? How do you make amends? How do you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to show love? And finally, as we contemplate the next generation, their legacy and our own, there is this question, the final one of the play: How you gon’ change the world?

I urge everyone to ask themselves these questions. I urge everyone to see this production.

And bring the family! Look Both Ways is for all ages and recommended for 8+. Last night a nearby youngster in the row behind me giggled at the funny shenanigans of the “Low Cuts” gang and wordplay. I spied tweens who enthusiastically participated in the mutual breathing exercise that the audience joined to help the character Canton when it was hard for him to breathe. And those of us a few generations removed nodded appreciably throughout and clapped in recognition of adults behaving like adults. At the close, the hearty applause and ovation made clear what the evening meant to all ages.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks is a fitting closer for Theater Alliance’s 20th season, a season dedicated to sharing stories that bring intergenerational audiences to the theater for community, connection, and dialogue. That’s what this production was all about.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks plays through September 17, 2023, presented by Theater Alliance in partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, performing at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC. For tickets ($40, general admission; $25, student/senior/military), call the box office at (202) 290-2328 or purchase them online.

The program for Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks is online here.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks
Based on the novel by Jason Reynolds
Adapted for the stage by  El Chelito and Raymond O. Caldwell

Savina Barini
Charles Franklin IV
Ixchel Hernandez
Tre’mon Mills
Kalen Robinson
John Sygar

Director: Raymond O. Caldwell
Associate Director: Ezinne Elele
Choreographer: Tiffany Quinn
Scenic Designer: Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Costume Designer: Jeannette Christensen
Lighting Designer: Alberto Segarra
Sound Designer: Brandon Cook
Original Music by Nick tha 1da
Projections/Digital Media by Kelly Colburn and Dylan Uremovich
Props Designer: Amy Kellett
Dramaturg: Jennifer Clements
Stage Manager: Genny Ceperley
Assistant Stage Manager: Emma Sheffer

The Theater Alliance and Kennedy Center co-production of Look Both Ways will also play October 14 to 29, 2023, in the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($20) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.


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