With the Arizona premiere of “Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical,” Valley Youth Theatre takes a stand against bullying and bigotry, and reminds audiences that our differences can make us awesome, not outcasts.
The show, onstage Oct.12-28 in downtown Phoenix, tells the story of 8-year-old Lily Polkadot, who moves to the small town of Rockaway. The first Polkadot in an all-Square school, she faces daily bullying and a seemingly hopeless quest to gain acceptance from her peers. That is, until she meets a shy Square boy named Sky, and he becomes a friend who has the ability to see the person she is inside.
Inspired by the life experiences of civil rights pioneers Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine “Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical” is written by Douglas Lyons, Melvin Tunstall III and Greg Borowsky. In 1954, a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. But it took some time for the ruling to be implemented.
The Little Rock Nine were a group of black students initially denied entrance to the formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. President Dwight Eisenhower later sent federal troops to escort them inside. On Nov. 14, 1960, 6-year-old Ruby became the first black student to attend the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, escorted to school by four federal marshals. Norman Rockwell later depicted her bravery in his 1964 painting “The Problem We All Live With.”
Bobb Cooper, Valley Youth Theatre’s producing artistic director, says “Polkadots” sends “a message that needs to be conveyed, especially today. The way these characters respond to and resolve their differences epitomizes everything we strive for at VYT —to be a supportive and safe place that teaches children meaningful life skills, builds their self-esteem and fosters their creativity. We just happen to use theater as the vehicle to accomplish those things.”
He adds, “By opening our doors to ALL children, we allow them to freely express themselves and to be vulnerable with other young people who share their love of performing.”
Douglas Lyons, originator and co-lyricist of “Polkadots,” will attend the opening night performance and will teach a master class at VYT the next day. One of his goals for the musical is to bring diversity to the stage — a goal shared by Cooper.
“When it comes to casting, we don’t see differences as hindrances, and we don’t follow typecasting norms,” says Cooper, who is directing the show. “I know that for the 22 years I’ve been here, we have given equal treatment and consideration to all performers regardless of where they come from, where they live, who their parents are or what they believe. All we want is for children to be the best they can be.”
Because of the small number of characters, Cooper decided to have two casts rotate for alternating performances. Kate Daley and MarySue Dickens will play the role of Lily. Kate, 16, is a junior at Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee. This is her second role for VYT. Kate also played Nori in “The Hobbit.”
In her role as Lily, Kate says she hopes “to send the message that people should implement kindness and equality in their everyday lives.”
MarySue, a freshman at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, is also appearing in her second role at VYT. The 14-year-old was first seen in “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail.” Other credits include Kendra in “13 the Musical,” Lost Boy in “Peter Pan” and Marcy in “School of Rock,” all for Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre.
Alex Silver and Dominic Cardenas will portray Sky. A 17-year-old senior at Desert Vista High School, Alex has been in five other VYT shows, including appearing as Tommy Boy in “Newsies.”
“This show helps youth interpret complex topics such as racial inequalities and harassment by interpreting it into something they understand — shapes,” says Alex. “I hope kids take away that not just all races are equal, but all sexualities, religions, cultural backgrounds and personalities make a cool kid!”
This is the third VYT role for 16-year-old Dominic, a junior at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix. He also played Braxton in “Little Women.” Too young to actually remember the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, Dominic says, “This show has helped me realize the tremendous bravery it took for everyone to take their steps towards equality.” He adds that he hopes “Polkadots” will show people “that you should never be ashamed of who you are, and the more you celebrate your differences, the more everyone can celebrate life!”
Kiara Adams and Cecilia Bradley will play Penelope, who loves to torment Lily. Another VYT veteran, 14-year-old Kiara is freshman at North Canyon High School in Phoenix and has appeared in five previous VYT shows and played Danielle in “Bring It On” for Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre. Making her VYT debut, 16-year-old Cecilia is a junior at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe.
Mia Johnson and Ryley Grace Youngs will play the teacher, Ms. Square. A senior at Millennium High School in Goodyear, 17-year-old Mia also played Medda Larkin in “Newsies” at VYT and has been a member of the Phoenix Children’s Chorus for eight years.
Asked if it’s true that kids today don’t see color, Mia responds, “No, [to] this day kids still see color. I don’t know if that’ll ever go away, but I hope kids realize that all colors are beautiful no matter what and hope stereotypes of certain colors eventually completely go away.” The message she would like to send by being in the show is that “all of our different features make us unique, and we all carry beauty on the inside and out; no one is better than someone else.”
Making her third appearance for VYT, Ryley is 15 and a sophomore at Imagine Prep Surprise. “I hope that the children who see the show walk away feeling special and important,” Ryley says. “I hope they see that not being the same as their classmates is a great thing that should be embraced. Kids should feel loved, included and accepted regardless of their race, sexuality, religion or background.”
Unlike the other characters, Mama Square will be played by one actress: Grace Bush. Mama Square, the mother of Sky and Penelope Square, unhelpfully reinforces her children’s sense of superiority. Grace is 16 and a junior at Metropolitan Arts Institute in Phoenix. She has played the Elven Queen in “The Hobbit,” Lady in “Alice in Wonderland” and was in the ensemble in “Charlotte’s Web.”
Grace doesn’t think that kids today are as affected by stereotypes as adults are. “It is true that they ‘see color’ and take notice, but they don’t see that as a reason to change their opinion of someone.”
If you go: Oct. 12-28; 7 p.m. Friday, April 12; noon and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays; 12:30 and 4 p.m. Sundays. Valley Youth Theatre, 525 N. First St., Phoenix. $20 plus fees. 602-253-8188 or vyt.com
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