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CTM play full of questions, history lessons for teens

April 16, 2017 GMT

When Children’s Theater of Madison announced its upcoming production of “To the Promised Land,” middle and high school teachers snatched up tickets for its daytime performances for students.

The play’s plot, written by Milwaukee playwright Jonathan Gillard Daly, touches on issues right out of a lively discussion in social studies class: housing discrimination, immigration, poverty, police shootings of young black men, minority and women’s rights, social activism in 1960s Wisconsin.

“To the Promised Land,” however, also is a heartfelt and inspiring story about two young teens, said Roseann Sheridan, artistic director of CTM. The story centers on Ruth, an African-American girl in 1960s Milwaukee who, she discovers, lives in the same house where Golda Meir grew up 60 years earlier.

The play uncovers the unlikely but deep connections between the two teenagers — both of whom are at a time of their lives when they’re trying to understand the meaning of “home,” and also the directions their lives might take when they leave it.

“It’s really a story of triumph,” Sheridan said. “We see at the beginning a young girl who has completely shut down and doesn’t look like she’s on the right path. And she really finds her strength and her courage and her voice by the end of the show.”

Though Ruth is dealing with a family tragedy linked to race, “you don’t ever feel you’re assaulted by what happened,” Sheridan said. “The story is more about Ruth learning to understand” the difficult events of her life.

The drama in “To the Promised Land” is offset by moments of tender humor and comic relief, said Sheridan, who recommends it for young audiences from middle-school age on up.

“I think that, mostly, people are going to come away wanting to learn more — about that time, about those people — because there’s so much about it that’s accurate,” she said.

Ruth is a fictional character, but she’s living during a real time in Milwaukee’s history, when marchers took to the streets asking for fair housing access for all. Golda Meir, who would serve as Israel’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, really did grow up in the Milwaukee neighborhood in which “To the Promised Land” is set.

CTM is only the second theater company, after First Stage Children’s Theater in Milwaukee, to perform “To the Promised Land.” Daly re-worked the play extensively for CTM, and along with Sheridan worked on dramatically unifying the “worlds” of Ruth and Goldie.

Ruth is played by 13-year-old Laetitia Hollard of McFarland, last seen as the Ghost of Christmas Past in CTM’s “A Christmas Carol.” Chicago-based Jeri Marshall plays Ruth’s mother Florence; Milwaukee native Marques Causey plays Ruth’s brother Cliff.

The young Golda Meir, or “Goldie,” is played by Baraboo High School freshman Alice Wenzlow, 15, of Baraboo, who along with Hollard is part of CTM’s Teen Actors Academy training program. Paula Daniel appears as Goldie’s mother Bluma. Other cast members are Trevor Rees, Miranda Beadle, Grace Halverson and Ellie Tumarkin.

Daly has attended some rehearsals, but said he won’t be at opening night — because he’s currently appearing in a Milwaukee Chamber Theatre adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” written by his wife, Gale Childs Daly.

Daly, who earned his theater degree at UW-Madison, is a well-known stage actor who works nationally as well as extensively in his hometown of Milwaukee. After many years as a theater family on the road, the Dalys moved back to Milwaukee about 20 years ago to raise their son and daughter, now 30 and 23.

Daughter Emily attended Golda Meir School in Milwaukee, which was the original Fourth Street School that Golda Meir attended, and today is a magnet school for talented and gifted students. The principal enlisted Daly to help the students produce “a part-documentary, part-play about Golda Meir’s life” for their classmates, he said.

“The more I was working on that, in that school, specifically in the gymnasium where Goldie spent her time as a kid, and where the Prime Minister (Meir) came in to visit in 1969 to address the students — I got so fascinated with the idea that she had been in this building, and now there were all these other students here,” Daly said.

Meir had migrated to Milwaukee from Russia in 1906. By the late 1960s the school’s neighborhood had changed “from a Jewish ghetto to an African American ghetto,” Daly said.

Meir “was quoted as saying how much she felt like she identified with the plight of African Americans in this country, because she could really relate to the idea of belonging, and searching for the place where you belong.”

To shape “To the Promised Land,” Daly studied the early childhood chapters of Golda Meir’s autobiography “My Life,” reviewed the oral histories of mid-century African American women who migrated from the South to work in Milwaukee, and went through many 1967 copies of The Milwaukee Journal to review local events during the childhood of his fictional character Ruth.

Daly, now 62, recalled the Milwaukee housing marches even though he lived through them as a child growing up in a white Milwaukee suburb.

“And at the time of the uprising, one of the consequences was the death of a young man, a freshman at UW-Whitewater, and he was killed by police,” Daly said. That shooting is echoed in “To the Promised Land.”

“All of this (research) kind of worked together into the fabric of the play that I wrote, based on what I remember, and what I researched, and what I learned about Golda Meir and the school she went to,” he said. “So it’s a local story to Milwaukee, but it’s really a universal story, too.

“I’ve spent a large part of my career working on theater for young audiences. And the one thing I learned — and I learned the same thing when I became a parent — is the best way to get young people interested in what you’re talking about is to talk up to them and not down to them,” he said.

Growing up in the white suburbs, “I was sheltered from a lot of realities. And I don’t think that does anybody any good. …A lot of people don’t give credit to young people to be able to handle the truth. So that is part of this: I want young people to know what happened in Milwaukee in the 1960s. I want them to know about the struggles that people like Ruth and her family encountered, every day.”

Sheridan said she would like audiences who see “To the Promised Land” in Overture Center’s Playhouse to leave the theater wanting to learn more.

“I’d love for people to come away with curiosity questions about these characters in this time, and about our own role — Milwaukee’s history and Wisconsin’s history — in the civil rights movement,” she said. “And also, for young people in particular, the take-away being that there are many ways for you to stand up for what you believe in, and that your own circumstances don’t have to be the determining factor of your destiny.”