By Sarah Mankowski   Published Feb 02, 2006 at 5:27 AM

It can be said that life's harsh truths can be most clearly seen through the eyes of a child. At the same time, it is from this point of view that beauty and joy can be revealed to us, which we would otherwise overlook in a seemingly hopeless world. In a stroke of genius, First Stage Children's Theater Director Rob Goodman put these tenets to work by commissioning playwright Kermit Frazier to write a play that, according to his notes in the playbill, asks, "Are the ideals and methods of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still valid for today's youth?"

The beauty of Frazier's work is that it does not neatly answer this question. In fact, nothing is quite linear in this work, which examines the multiple facets of social ills that plague this country and, more specifically, the African American population. Scenic designer Felix E. Cochren's crazily slanted façades are an excellent illustration of the biased nature of reality for the neighborhood's residents. Smoky windows, aglow in orange light, personify the unresolved tensions between everyday civilians and the local criminals, which have replaced the racist conflicts of the '60's.

This is the perfect setting for the tough questions only kids sometimes are brave enough to ask. After Dashaun Johnson's (Christopher D. Stone) best friend Corey Taylor (Joel Boyd) boasts about his A+ book report about the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson asks, "If they fought so hard for integration, why don't we have any around here?" Stone effectively portrays your typical "at-risk" urban youth, with his corn rows and oversized sports jersey. Yet he is versatile enough to show his soft underbelly that is vulnerable to the encroaching and ever-present delinquent elements in his surroundings. His painful ethical struggle between choosing a dead-end, low wage job to earn some money to buy his grandmother a birthday present, and making some fast easy money "slingin" for the local drug dealers is quite compelling.

Yet Frazier reminds us, which he reiterated after the show, that we must look to history to find answers for these problems, which will continue to negatively impact future generations if action is not taken. The marchers' entrance at the opening of the play literally gave me goosebumps. In many of their scenes, they sang the most beautiful renditions of gospel songs I have ever heard. Sheri Williams Pannell delivered a solo version of "Amazing Grace" at the beginning of the second act, which was so heartbreakingly gorgeous that it literally drove me to tears.

First Stage harnessed the creativity of the Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre in this production with mixed results. Longtime Mask & Puppet Co. artist Michael Pettit created the scariest police dog I have ever seen, which was unleashed onto the protestors in a scene that brutally reminded us of our country's extensive legacy of persecution and violence. On the other hand, the masks worn by fellow neighbors, the preacher, drug users and dealers were somewhat distracting. At one point, my niece whispered, "How do they see out of those things?" With their faces half-hidden, the characters reminded me somewhat of "Phantom of the Opera" and struck me as a neighborhood populated with residents who were horribly burned in an accident, or were in some way physically disfigured.

Either way, "Smoldering Fires" was an extremely apropos way to begin Black History Month. This particular performance was dedicated to Dr. James Cameron (America's only living survivor of a lynching, founder of America's Black Holocaust Museum) and Rep. Gwen Moore, who said a few words afterwards. First Stage Children's Theater couldn't have chosen a more effective method of proving to children that the Civil Rights Movement is alive and well in Milwaukee.

"Smoldering Fires" runs through Feb. 24. For more information, please call 273-7206 or visit