Embracing the Wonder and Joy of Everyday Life

February 2, 2021
Piper N. Davis

Ezra Jack Keats clipped four photographs from Life magazine in 1940 that showed a little boy getting a medical shot while standing in the grass. The photos were the author’s inspiration for Peter, a young Black character who would soon come to life in his books. In the series of photographs, the boy looks happy — trusting. He steps up to get the shot, and the final picture shows him in tears. The strip of photos caught Keats’ attention. He would often revisit them and placed them on his studio walls before illustrating his children’s books. Keats loved looking at the little boy and eventually decided that he would become the hero of his new book. Then began an experience that turned my life around,” Keats wrote, as indicated by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, “working on a book with a Black kid as hero. None of the manuscripts I’d been illustrating featured any Black kids —except for token Blacks in the background. My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along.
 

Keats’ book The Snowy Day was the first illustrated children’s book to have a Black main character. He captured the magic of the day-to-day adventures of a boy being a boy. The book was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1963. Keats would go on to write six more books featuring Peter: Whistle for Willie; Peter’s Chair; A Letter to Amy; Goggles; Hi, Cat!; and Pet Show!

This month, the Playhouse presents a theatrical adaptation of Peter’s adventures in The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats as part of its virtual Off the Hill touring season for students and families.

The Snowy Day is about joy. It’s about finding joy in every moment — in the snow, in playing with your friends, in playing with your dogs, in learning how to whistle. It’s about discovery and family. That’s really important right now — to find our joy in every little thing, to embrace our friends and our family, and to revel in connection,” said Playhouse Education and Community Engagement Director Daunielle Rasmussen, who also directed the production.

 

Kearston Hawkins-Johnson (Peter) and Montez Jenkins-Copeland (Dad) in a scene from the Playhouse's virtual production of
The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.
 

An Early Talent

Keats was born in 1916. He grew up poor in East New York, which used to be known as the Jewish quarter of Brooklyn. It was clear that the boy everyone knew as Jacob “Jack” Ezra Katz was extremely talented. He received a medal for drawing when he graduated junior high school, and in high school he won a contest run by the Scholastic Publishing Company for one of his oil paintings, which showed homeless men warming themselves around the fire. He loved the fine arts. His parents fully supported him, but because it was during the Great Depression his father worried that Keats would not be able to make a living.

In 1947 after he served in World War II, he legally changed his name to Ezra Jack Keats due to anti-Semitism. The discrimination he suffered shaped the way he viewed the world. According to the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, he once said, “If we could see each other exactly as the other is, this would be a different world.”
 

Photo of Ezra Jack Keats from the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

Keats went on to illustrate over 85 books and write and illustrate 22 children’s classics. He wrote The Snowy Day in 1962, and it is just as important now as it was then. This story allows you to be a part of Peter’s world and to experience the wonder of childhood. It gives you the opportunity to see a Black family living in their own space and place.

A Story of Wonder

Playwright Jerome Hairston adapted The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats into a play that includes shadow puppets and music. All the actors get the opportunity to be puppeteers at one point during the show, and some of them have the fun of interacting with the puppets as their own characters. The playful original score for our production by Sound Designer Trey Tatum is like a character of its own, guiding you through the scenes and establishing the sounds, moods and beats of Peter’s life.
 


A.J. Baldwin (Mom),
Kearston Hawkins-Johnson (Peter) and Montez Jenkins-Copeland (Dad) in a scene from the Playhouse's virtual production of The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.

“I think it was important to play this role because I believe that it is the artist's responsibility to contribute to the narrative of building a new reality, challenging points of view, and bringing awareness to the human experience,” says actor Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, who plays Peter in our production. “I wanted to be a part of a story that shows joy, fun and the beauty of childhood while in a Black body. And to share this with others and hope that they can find relief, love, delight and connection with experiencing Peter's childhood.”
 


A.J. Baldwin (Archie) and K
earston Hawkins-Johnson (Peter), in a scene from the Playhouse's virtual production of he Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.

Encircled by Peter’s family, friends and neighbors, the world is loving, adventurous and thrilling! He is a child taking in his universe, and we get to be a part of it. The themes of The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats offer something that everyone — no matter their age, race, class or family structure — can relate to. Peter, his family and friends invite you to join them as they explore, discover and experience the joy of an authentic rhythm of life.
 
Stream the Play!

The Playhouse is excited to offer this socially distanced production virtually with the help of Optic Lizard Productions, who recently filmed and edited our virtual Off the Hill play The Wind in the Willows. The three-camera video team includes Tony Arrasmith, Joe Harrison and Todd Joyce. (You can read more about the process of filming a virtual production in our blog, Staging a Show for Film.)

Free virtual performances of The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats are available Feb. 12 to Feb. 28, 2021. To learn more about how to access the video, visit our production detail page.


Article author Piper N. Davis served as Cultural Director for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s virtual production of The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats.