by Renee Westbrook
Special To The Record, February 23, 2006 1:30 AM
"Color Me Dark" bills itself as a story about Black Americans' migration north in the years after War World I.
In truth, it's really about something much simpler. Family.
Jerome Hairston's adaptation of Patricia McKissack's award-winning book chronicles the Love family's migration from Tennessee to Chicago in 1919. Their greatest hope is to escape Southern racism, but they soon discover that Northern racism is just as horrific.
What enables the new arrivals to stand up is what has always united them, cast member Fatima Quander said.
"No matter what happens, they're going to get through it because they're a family."
"Color Me Dark" is a touring production of the Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration. The troupe's Stockton visits have become annual favorites for many local families, offering virtually the only chance each year to see world-class children's theater here.
"Color Me Dark" will be presented tonight at Faye Spanos Concert Hall. It is recommended for middle school children and families.
For the current tour, director Ricardo Kahn is the patriarch of a stage family that includes Jeorge Bennett Watson, Bernie Alston, Daniella A. Drakes, Goldie E. Patrick, Gabriel Sigal and Jefferson A. Russell.
Quander said she enjoys the broad strokes of Kahn's direction in "Color Me Dark," which helps focus the play on the special bond that exists between sisters Nellie Lee (Quander) and Erma Jean (Drakes). When Erma Jean witnesses something so terrible it renders her temporarily mute, Nellie Lee becomes her only connection with the outside world.
Kahn encouraged the two actresses to use their own experiences to solidify that bond. Bringing that energy into her performance was exciting, but Quander had to remind herself to keep the heart of her portrayal uncomplicated.
"It's the story of these two normal girls that happen to be around during these monumental events," she said.
Quander wanted to play the part because she felt a deep connection with the character. With the recent deaths of Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, that connection resonates even more.
"There are moments onstage where I remember people like Mrs. King, Rosa Parks and Emmett Till," she said. "They sacrificed so much so that we can be onstage to tell this story."
It's a fact-based story that far outstrips many contemporary Americans' imaginations. The Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of Blacks to the North, many of them World War I veterans. The subsequent lynchings and riots led 1919 to be known as the "Red Summer."
Quander noted that the "Color Me Dark" troupe has been on the road since January and that the bonds will deepen before the tour ends in April.
"We're a family onstage and offstage," she said.