Three-time Newbery Honor author Jacqueline Woodson’s adaptation of her 2006 novel, Locomotion, had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater on October 23. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, the play runs through October 31. Locomotion, which was published by Putnam in 2005, was a National Book Award finalist and won a Coretta Scott King Honor.
Locomotion centers on an 11-year-old boy, nicknamed Locomotion for his high energy, who is struggling in foster care after the deaths of his parents; he discovers that poetry helps him express his feelings about that tragedy, his sister, and his new life. It wasn’t this story, but another of Woodson’s novels that initially caught the eye of Deirdre Lavrakas, the production operations manager at the Kennedy Center. She brought it to the attention of her husband, Kim Peter Kovac, the Kennedy Center’s director of theater for young audiences, who wasn’t interested in adapting that novel, but perused Woodson’s other work and selected Locomotion for adaptation.
Though she had written a pilot for Nickelodeon’s mini-series adaptation of her novel Miracle’s Boys, Woodson had never adapted her fiction for the stage. The novel’s format provided her with a distinct challenge, since it involves what she calls “both external and internal action. In the play, the external action plays out traditionally on stage, while Locomotion recites his poetry directly to the audience. That way, I was able to show both of his worlds.”
Woodson has made numerous trips from her Brooklyn home to Washington, D.C., since rehearsals began for Locomotion in September. There she collaborated closely on the play with dramaturge Faedra Chatard Carpenter, a professor in the department of theatre at University of Maryland, and director Nelson, an adjunct professor in theater at Georgetown University, who has worked in professional theater for 37 years.
The process of making her story come alive on stage was rewarding, Woodson reports —and not entirely unlike her publishing experience. “Faedra helped let the light come through the slits, in the same way that my editor, Nancy Paulsen, does when she’s working on my books,” she explains. Woodson felt it was important to open and close Locomotion with music, and asked a friend, songwriter and musician Toshi Reagon, to write and record the song that frames the play.
Woodson (whose Pecan Pie Baby, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, is due out today from Putnam), likens the experience of watching her play at the Kennedy Center to holding a picture book she’s written for the very first time. “Even though I’ve seen sketches and paintings, there’s something about the finished book and the way the illustrations and the words feel like they were always a part of each other,” she observes. “The same is true of the play—the lights, the staging, the costumes. None of this was my doing, but it all became part of a bigger, better whole in a way that made me really happy.”
Though she expressed some nervousness before the premiere, Woodson reports that her reaction to seeing the debut performance was “one of absolute relief more than anything else. In some ways, it was everything I expected, but it was also very different.” She notes that the audience’s standing ovation at one of last weekend’s matinees “was very surprising.”
Yet clearly gratifying. “It’s always amazing to be a part of other people’s experience of my work,” she says. “At the performances, when the audience laughed or nodded in agreement, all I could think was ‘Yes! They got it!’ ”