Play: The classic performance features a cast of local youth. Courtesy photo

Marking students triumphant return to the stage, the Morgan-Wixson Theatre Youth Education Series is staging the classic tale of Little Women with a modern take on what it means to be family.

While the source material of Little Women contains only white characters, the Morgan-Wixson has decided to tell the story in a way that showcases the diversity of the local community with a 50 percent cast of color, a transgender lead actor and students with learning challenges.

More than half of the cast members are first time performers at the Morgan-Wixson and the show also has the greatest proportion of students from public schools—including JAMS, Samohi, and Lincoln—in the theater company’s history.

“We felt that it was a way to turn a show kind of on its ear to show family is different now than it was in 1865,” said Anne Gesling, the show’s artistic director. “A family does not have to be all of one color, or one background or any of that.”

The stage production is an acclaimed musical telling of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, which is based upon Alcott’s life and shares the coming of age tales of sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March. While the story takes place during the Civil War, the conflict is only referred to obliquely and the show centers around themes including familial duty and personal growth, the value of sacrifice and the role of women.

“This show really is fun because you’re not just telling just a white story; It’s a story of family and how families struggle, how loyalties are generated and destroyed within the family and then brought back,” said Gesling. “It’s a universal story.”

The casting of Little Women is part of the Morgan-Wixson’s mission to expand access to the arts, which was crystallized through the creation of the theater’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee four years ago. The DEI Committee is headed by Ashley DiFrancesco and hosts monthly community discussions on topics ranging from color-conscious casting to code-switching to body image to gender expression.

The Youth Education Series (YES) is a long-running program at the even longer running 75-year-old theater. Their annual musical is always produced to a high level of professionalism, with cast members undergoing competitive auditions and rehearsing five days a week.

In recent years the theater staff became aware that the unintended consequence of this level of rigor was an exclusive casting process, and have committed themselves to making the program more accessible.

“What we realized is we were really kind of creating an elitist program, because to get into the show you really had to have some experience and you had to have some training and that’s not available to everyone. Financially, that’s just not necessarily viable,” said Gesling.

To open the door to more youth, the theater undertook extensive community outreach and began hosting acting, singing, dance and audition training workshops that are free to any student in financial need.

One of the leaders of the outreach efforts is Cori Goldberg, who is a teacher at John Adams Middle School and a producer of Little Women. As the mother of a biracial child, these efforts to increase representation and inclusion in the arts are close to her heart.

When her daughter began participating in YES several years ago, she was one of the few cast members of color, but nonetheless blossomed in the program which gave her a great sense of community.

“I became really passionate about this not only when I saw what it did to my daughter, but when I saw the potential for other kids who would not have these opportunities otherwise,” said Goldberg.

Fast forward to today and the Little Women cast is 50 percent BIPOC students. Goldberg’s efforts have played no small part in this as she has worked with choir and theater teachers across Santa Monica schools to identify and reach out to a diverse range of students who might be interested in auditioning at the Morgan-Wixson.

All cast members have been hard at work preparing for the upcoming performances of Little Women, which will take place on Nov. 13, 14, 19, 21, 26, 27 and 28.

Following the loss of the 2020 theater season due to the pandemic, Gesling expects this show to be extra special and said she has never worked with a more dedicated cast.

“They are theater rats every single one of them, they want to be onstage together and they are thrilled beyond measure to be back. It’s giving them a sense of purpose back,” said Gesling.

Reserved seats available at www.morgan-wixson.org or by phone at 310-828-7519 or by email at boxoffice@morgan-wixson.org. Tickets are $25 for adults. $20 for kids age 13 to 18 and $16 for those 12 and under. Proof of vaccination is required for all theatergoers over 12 and those not eligible for a vaccine must show proof of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of the show.

Clara@smdp.com