A+ performances touch hearts in ‘Look Both Ways’ at Kennedy Center

The engaging, high-energy production for young people was co-produced by Theater Alliance.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks at the Kennedy Center Family Theater is an engaging, high-energy production for young people ages ten and above, but particularly apt for the less jaded elementary school crowd as this reviewer observed during a recent matinee.

Based on the award-winning book by acclaimed, bestselling Washington, DC, author Jason Reynolds, adapted by El Chelito and Raymond O. Caldwell, the latter who also directed, this is a world premiere co-production with Theater Alliance.

Although I did not bring along a ten-year-old, with my son and daughter, now in college and graduate school, I did once attend many a family theater production. I also recently read and quite enjoyed the middle-grade novel, a National Book Award finalist, on which this production is based. The novel is essentially a character study, a deep dive into the lives of middle schoolers post the last school bell—set on ten blocks, one story per block.

Kalen Robinson and Charles Franklin IV in ‘Look Both Ways.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Here lies the challenge with the play: It’s a bit too faithful to the novel and feels like a revue, a series of set pieces, some more successful than others, all of them earnestly and heartfully played by a six-person cast that should be soon making their way to their next block—Broadway. Top grades to this ensemble cast: Savina Barini, Charles Franklin IV, Ixchel Hernández, Tre’mon Mills, Kalen Robinson, and John Sygar.

In particular, among all the A+ performances was Kalen Robinson, who every time she leaped on stage delighted all with her versatility and presence. When she sang out, “How are you going to change the world?” I sensed a narrative theme emerging. The audience cheered their response. I only wish this theme was more visibly woven throughout the production.

The other challenge with the play is timing. The novel was published in 2019. So while this is only four years ago, with all that has happened in the world—pandemic-era school closings, the Black Lives Matter movement, gun violence, corrosive social media—the production feels sweetly dated even as it touches upon the characters’ wonderfully diverse searches for their true selves.

TOP: (on boxes) Tre’mon Mills, Ixchel Hernandez, and John Sygar; ABOVE: John Sygar, Savina Barini, and Ixchel Hernandez in ‘Look Both Ways.’ Photos by Teresa Wood.

In addition to the performers, what was A+ about this production was a soundtrack that mixed hip-hop with jazz. The original music is by Nick tha 1da. A set design innovatively used lighting and video to add even more energy and surprises to the stage. Credit goes to Jonathan Dahm Robertson for scenic design, Alberto Segarra for lighting design, and Kelly Colburn and Dylan Uremovich for video and media design. Choreography by Tiffany Quinn also receives high marks.

The most evocative moments focused on family and first love. The use of puppetry—designed by Amy Kellett—was particularly effective in a moving scene about a grandfather with dementia. Other high points were the interactive moments when the cast engaged directly with the audience and their young faces lit up with recognition at being seen as well as heard.

At the end, the play reached for a message that is not overtly included in the novel, and touched the audience’s hearts: “Write your own stories about your community…about your walks home. Write about how you are going to change the world.” Yes, write on, all, especially young writers, and hurry to the Kennedy Center for Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks plays through October 29, 2023, co-produced by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Theater Alliance 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.

The program for Look Both Ways is online here.

Recommended for grades 5–12. There is an extensive learning guide for Look Both Ways here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.

SEE ALSO: Dynamic ‘Look Both Ways’ tells tales of tweens and teens at Theater Alliance (review of the show’s first run by Aileen Johnson, September 1, 2023)


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