The made-for-TV animation "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was released 53 years ago. Consider: the animation (and the comic strip) contained no characters of color at that time. Does it matter what color Charlie Brown is in 2018?
The first "Peanuts" black character, Franklin, was introduced by Charles Schulz in 1968, three years after the release of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The relevance of this history came to my attention while speaking with CFCC theatre instructor Jack Landry, who is directing the stage performance of this classic tale, and Kaleb Bradley, a black actor playing the title role.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is onstage at the Wilson Center in downtown Wilmington this Saturday, December 8th. Showtime is 2:00pm and children ages 12 and under are admitted free. The annual production of this show is a tradition at CFCC, and Jack Landry is collecting non-perishable goods for Mother Hubbard's Cupboard at the show, as he has done for over a decade.
Vince Guaraldi's famous score will be played live by pianist Kevin Kolb, percussionist Troy Pierce, and bassist Ryan Woodall.
Listen above; our extended conversation is below and includes Rachel Briggs, who plays Lucy in this production.
Gina: Jack Landry, this Charlie Brown show every year...
Jack: Yes ...
Gina: It's become a tradition at Cape Fear Community College.
Jack: It sort of has! We started long ago when, pre-Wilson Center, we had a little building called the E Building that was a sheet metal building right by PPD. It's now a parking lot, but that was when I first started at Cape Fear, that's all we had as far as a black box, and now we've moved from a couple of different things. We were at City Stage one year and it was like I'd load in with my truck and students hiking stuff upstairs and now we're in the big beautiful Wilson Center main stage.
Gina: Is this the first time you're doing it at the Wilson Center?
Jack: No, this is the third time at the Wilson Center main stage, which is, you know, a bigger venue. It's obviously lovely and 1500 seats and it's kind of a challenge for these guys who've come from our black box to learn to project and fill the space and have fun in this big thing. But I think word's gotten out enough now, Gina, that it seems a lot of people that have come before bring the kids back and it's kind of a fun little tradition and we try to make it affordable and fun.
Gina: Mhm. Well it's very affordable.
Jack: In fact it's free, Gina, for kids 12 and under.
Gina: I understand that you can bring a can.
Jack: Yes. So part of what we've done for 12 years is teamed up with Mother Hubbard's Cupboard and I've encouraged all of our patrons to bring a canned good and then we'll take those groceries and give them to Mother Hubbard's. Last year I think I put 20 or 30 bags of groceries in my truck and ran it over. So it's nice. We're literally feeding folks with theater. So, it's Christmas time and we want to give back and it's something we've done for awhile so we want to continue doing that.
Gina: So we grew up seeing "Charlie Brown's Christmas" every year.
Jack: It's still on!
Gina: I mean, I'm sure it is, but because of the way that media is nowadays, I imagine it's not the same thing where you know that every kid that you know, every single person is watching "Charlie Brown's Christmas" at 7:00 on ABC or whatever it was. You know what I'm saying?
Jack: I know exactly what you're saying. No, I think—and of course they've rereleased movies, but it's the CGI kind of pretty-fied situation. Yeah. I know, a lot of these things, I have to go, "Yeah, Charlie Brown, the thing comes on every year!" And students will look at me and go, "Huh?"
Gina: Do you have students who've actually never seen it?
Jack: Sure. Yeah.
Gina: You've never seen it! Neither of you have seen it!
Jack: Yeah, they had never ever seen it. And/or there's references that you go, "Oh yeah, that is dated." Bubblegum cards. We have to have like a dramaturg come in and explain bubblegum cards, which are, for those that don't know, your listeners, are essentially like baseball cards I grew up on, but they were not necessarily just sports figures. They were sort of historically significant people and you got those like, you know, Harry Potter does with characters from Hogwarts kind of thing and they were just sort of cool cards to have. So little things like that. But I think certainly the theme and certainly the humor and then the whole kind of, what's Christmas all about is universal and it's certainly timeless. And so I think the message hasn't changed at all and I think it's even kind of fun to play with the nostalgia of when this thing was written. And we've hopefully had a good time. I think these guys have had fun. I dunno, they're nodding.
Gina: Rachel and Kaleb, did you know about Charlie Brown at all before you did the show?
Rachel: I knew about Charlie Brown, but I'd never seen the "Charlie Brown Christmas." And I knew like a base knowledge about Charlie Brown. Just that Snoopy is a character. And there's Charlie Brown.
Kaleb: Yeah, I had heard of "Charlie Brown Christmas." I never watched it. But we definitely had Charlie Brown, like little Christmas antiques around when I was a kid.
Jack: And then people refer to them and you'd go, well, who's that? Is that essentially how it worked? Yeah.
Gina: So tell me the story of "Charlie Brown's Christmas."
Kaleb: Well, it starts off with basically Charlie Brown and he's really feeling down because he really doesn't understand why he feels so sad about the Christmas time and why he just doesn't understand it.
Rachel: Yeah and then Lucy tries to come up with her reasons as to why he's feeling down and comes up with the solution that he should go get involved in their Christmas play.
Kaleb: And so there's all this commercialism going on, you know, they try to find a Christmas tree and all the kids want Charlie to find this big old shiny aluminum Christmas tree. And he finds this like really cute, kind of pathetic, old style Christmas tree. And he brings it back and everyone's like, "What's going on? That's not what we wanted." And then Linus steps up to the table and tells Charlie what Christmas is all about, which is, you know, Jesus Christ being born and the miracle that is Christmas.
Gina: Well, give me the psychological background of Charlie Brown and Lucy and their relationship.
Jack: Good question. Is it a love-hate relationship?
Kaleb: I mean, it's definitely a love-hate relationship. Lucy definitely challenges Charlie in a lot of ways and I think it's only to make Charlie do better. But Lucy just doesn't know how to come across in a polite manner.
Rachel: Yeah. She comes across very abrupt and abrasive, and she thinks that she's doing the right thing and she thinks that, you know, she's helping out and that they're going to put on this great thing and her ideas are the correct way to go about it. But she could probably dial it down a little...
Jack: She's a Sagittarius. She knows what she wants. Is that fair?
Kaleb: Yeah, most definitely.
Rachel: I watched the special itself and then I watched a lot of Charlie Brown and then I found out that my grandmother is very much like Lucy and walks over top of my grandfather all the time. And I've found that in portraying Lucy, I've become a little bit more like her and a little bit more sassy towards people.
Gina: Sure, that can happen when you're doing a role. It's good to shake it off when you're done with the play, though. And tell me about the Charlie Brown. And tell me, how do you prepare to be Charlie Brown?
Kaleb: Well, definitely getting into the mindset that these are kids and so they do things that a teenager or a young adult wouldn't do and they're very emotional. And I have this thing where I tell myself that I'm depressed and everyone hates me, like right before I go on just to get into that, like deep depression mindset. Because Charlie Brown does say that he's depressed like five times throughout the whole play.
Jack: And part of the fun, Gina, is physically we've tried to kind of recreate really what's very basic animation and if you recall and your listeners that have seen it, I'm sure most of them, it's that sell on top of, you know, where it's just not great animation and it's just what they had at the time. And we've tried to sort of recreate this two dimensional quality. So the actors kind of flap around and essentially have like four or five bizarre poses they can do. But that's it. And then Kaleb has found a lot of really funny physicality things that I didn't even necessarily know were in the show, but Kaleb will kind of power down like a bunny that's lost his batteries, and he's just found some really funny physical things that I think are part of the fun of doing a really bad cartoon, basically.
Kaleb: Most definitely. It's lots of paper-thin movements and very cartoon-like gestures.
Jack: It's kind of fun to describe it on the radio because it's hard to imagine until you see it, but essentially there's a point, kinda hands down, hands up and that's sort of all they do and they don't necessarily have anything to do with what they're saying. But the guys had to draw something. So it makes for kind of a funny sight to see when these guys are dancing around. And then they've figured out a way to walk that looks like they're doing high-knee exercises. And it makes me laugh every time.
Gina: And I want to say this about Charlie Brown. He is depressed and he thinks everyone hates him, but he's also a deep thinker.
Jack: For sure.
Gina: And that's why he's depressed, and that's why he doesn't fit in quite right in that way, because he's like a guru and it's depressing to be a deep thinker in the world.
Kaleb: Yeah, I totally agree.
Gina: So actually, how old is this show?
Jack: I should know that. I think it's 1958. It first came on CBS and they almost pulled it because it's fairly overtly religious, but they got away with it essentially because it was a kid's show. And it's funny because the jazz is so complicated that it's been a challenge to find people that play it that are jazz musicians. The Guaraldi stuff's pretty complicated and we have, I want to make sure I plug them—we have three guys, Kevin Kolb that you may know around town, he's the keys player. And Troy Pierce is on percussion. Ryan Wittle is our bass player. And they're awesome. One of the things we've been able to do with this show is we are playing the original Vince Guaraldi jazz live while the actors perform it, just like the show. And so it's kind of a neat little spectacle to hear them on the Steinway and watch these guys acting in front of it. It's interesting too, because we were talking about it today—the music really is sort of the through line and the pace for the show, and we're now layering everything on top and
it's kind of coming into its own with all these elements, but it's really fun.
Gina: As young people, as college students—this show is over 50 years old—what is the relevance of it today?
Jack: Good question.
Kaleb: I think that it's extremely relevant, especially I think for adults even, because I just realized that this year I'm not getting a whole lot of presents from relatives. I have barely any money to get presents for people and so I'm kinda just like, is Christmas all about just like giving each other gifts? Or is it all about family and love and miracles and all that?
Jack: Yeah. It's funny, I was thinking about this because of Cyber Monday and Black Friday and they talk about the materialism and so that message of course is relevant, and I think more so now. It's weird, right? That now it's sort of celebrated as a holiday that, oh yeah, you shop on this day for this stuff, but Monday's the stuff that's online and you know, all that stuff. So I think the message is totally relevant today if not more so than 50 years ago, I think.
Gina: Are these characters relevant today?
Rachel: I think so. Especially towards younger people growing up, like you can find yourself in characters—not necessarily each character you can find one person, but you can find a bit of yourself in each character. And in watching something like this, it helps younger people grow, because I grew up watching shows and I would relate to them and I think in watching something like Charlie Brown where it does have that good message of what Christmas really is about, it helps younger people and older people to find themselves and then come to the realization of, okay, now I understand what Christmas is about and I see where Lucy's coming from, I see where Linus is coming from, I see where Charlie Brown's coming from and I can relate to them and then help you understand the message.
Jack: In that way it's kind of a deep thing, actually, not to harp on it. But it's funny because when you're six, it's fun to watch Snoopy bouncing around and he's good and he's a dancer and he's great and fun to watch. And then when you get a little older you're like, oh yeah, Pig Pen's really comfortable with himself even though people make fun of him for being dirty. It's sort of some cool themes and yeah, I think that makes sense. You're like, you know what, I need to be more like Pig Pen. I need to be more assertive like Lucy or—
Gina: Or, Lucy's a psycho and I need to not ever be like that.
Jack: Exactly. Exactly
Rachel: She's got some redeeming qualities!
Gina: Okay. Wait. Lucy has some redeeming qualities. What are they?
Rachel: She included Charlie Brown in the very beginning. That's her one redeeming quality.
Jack: That's all we got?
Kaleb: I'd say that Lucy is definitely a supporter and maybe even like a hardcore supporter to the point where it's like, you need to back off. Yes, she did include Charlie Brown and when Charlie Brown gets the idea about the Christmas tree, she's all gung ho for that.
Rachel: Yeah, but she takes over that idea...
Kaleb: Well, yeah, that's what I meant about hardcore supporter. Yes, she supports ideas, but she also wants to mold them and make them her own.
Gina: She's kind of a control freak.
Jack: She's a little Type A.
Gina: So I guess what I'm really kind of shooting toward is these characters themselves are over half a century old, but they still make sense for children today? Is that what we're saying?
Kaleb: Most definitely. Yeah. These characters are relevant today, especially for the younger kids.
Rachel: We're the same people regardless of like, when you look at history, people are always the same. They have the same motives, they have the same experiences. So Charlie Brown 50 years ago might go about it slightly differently than he would today, but he's got the same deep-rooted psyches. He's got the same emotional background. He's got the same reasons to being the way he is because it's the same underlying themes then versus now. And people are always going to be the same regardless of when in history you look at them.
Gina: I think Lucy would be doing mean girl stuff on her iPhone.
Jack: That would be interesting if we did the entire show 2018. If you walk into anybody's house and they've got a Christmas CD on, a lot of people will have this soundtrack on it. It's weird, right? We know it so well that I think most coffee shops are running it right now for Christmas, you know, and I think that's kind of interesting that it's still relevant.
Gina: It's just good music. Good music lasts.
Kaleb: And the characters are so relatable. I mean, they have different aspects that you can find in each and every one of you. Because Lucy, super assertive, you know. I'm definitely find myself being extremely assertive at times, especially when I don't get food on time. Charlie Brown, him feeling depressed and down just about life and Christmas, you know, everybody gets depressed every once in awhile. And he's also such a deep thinker, which I completely relate to. I overthink a lot of things. And yeah, the characters are super fun. They're super cute and adorable and very relatable.
Jack: And you get to see the legendary dance, when they all dance their really bizarre ways, that is super fun to translate from cartoon land into 3D. We have students trying to figure out, what exactly is Frieda doing? It's sort of the "Thriller," and then there's kind of a cabbage patch thing with Jeremy, but not really
Rachel: And Linus and Sally are squashing bugs.
Jack: Yeah. We've decided that Linus and Sally are essentially stepping on cockroaches. That's the dance. And so that was kind of fun. And it's funny, you guys talking about it. Because now here I am, I'm 40 and we've done this for 12 years, Gina. I have kids now that are 8 and 6. And I think the challenge is apparent, at least maybe if you're trying to do a good job. And I always joke, "That's Bad Parent Moment #875." But watching the show and this message of, you know, it isn't really about things and materialism, I think it's obviously still relevant 50 some plus years later, but I think now more so than certainly in the 50s, we just have more distractions. We have more stuff, more social media, more things, all this stuff coming to kids. And I think it's really easy, of course, to forget what Christmas really is all about. That's the coolest.
Gina: Let me ask you another really important question. What characters from Charlie Brown are in this show?
Kaleb: Well, we obviously have Charlie Brown himself. Lucy. Peppermint Patty. Linus. Sally. Pig Pen. We have Snoopy.
Jack: You guys, maybe a better question: who's not in it? If we've got some diehard Peanut people... I can tell you, Woodstock is not in this show. And I'll tell you another interesting fact that you guys might not know—The Dog House for the Christmas special, for no reason that we can figure out, is blue. And in all the rest of Peanut Land, it's red.
Gina: Also, let's talk about Charlie Brown being black. I'm not sure if that's a thing or not, if that's relevant or not. I think it feels completely normal. But is it something that is on your minds at all?
Kaleb: Actually, that didn't really occur to me until I was on Facebook and I saw someone share a picture of Charlie Brown meeting Franklin, who was the first black Peanuts character ever. And I was just like, wow, that's like really groundbreaking. And then the fact that I myself am black and am playing Charlie Brown, at a time where Franklin didn't exist—I thought that was really, really cool and actually very progressive in like an accidental kind of way. Yeah.
Jack: You mean didn't exist because this one's pre-Franklin?
Kaleb: Yeah. This one is pre-Franklin.
Gina: Right. So there were no black characters in the original Christmas special. I do know about Franklin and I'm telling you, Charles Schulz was very progressive.
Kaleb: Oh yeah.
Jack: I would like to say that I wanted to be sort of gender blind and race blind in casting, but I let all my cast audition for these parts in my acting class. This is their final, Gina. And Kaleb won the part through his audition. I mean, it wasn't even a choice of, "Let's push the envelope." It was more like, he had a great read. So it didn't even occur to me. But I hope that if anybody is sort of set in their ways racially can't get past what color these guys are, maybe that makes them think and challenges that. So if nothing else, I think subliminally, it maybe adds a sort of universality to this character.
Gina: When I first saw you guys sitting out there, I was like, oh, Charlie Brown's black. Then it went out of my mind and I didn't think about it. Then, now as we're talking about the characters and stuff, I thought again, you're black.
Jack: Did you know that, Kaleb? [Laughter]
Gina: We're making an announcement now. But I wonder, you know, should that even be discussed? That's a question that I have sometimes ... does this even warrant discussion?
Jack: Are we post-race?
Gina: I know we're not post-racial, though. I know we're not.
Jack: Yeah. Is that weird to talk about?
Kaleb: No, I don't think it's weird to talk about. I think it's actually really good to talk about it. Especially because I know, "Romeo and Juliet," Thalian had just done a production of that and [Romeo's] family, they were all black and then Juliet's family were all white. And people were sending in hate mail trying to take down this show because they did not like that idea of seeing interracial love on stage. And that baffled me that we are in 2018 and then people are still doing this.
Jack: Good. Well, so yeah, I mean I think we've made this choice, even if it wasn't on purpose from the get-go, I think maybe people will think about, "Why is this character one color or the other and does it matter?" And I hope it makes it even more relevant even today to look at this message regardless of what color these guys are.
Kaleb: Yeah, most definitely—look past the color of someone's skin and see the essence of Charlie Brown, no matter what color, what shade, how big or how small.
Gina: There are a lot more roles out there, especially if you go back in the history of what's been onstage in the United States, that are for white people. Have you noticed that?
Kaleb: Yeah, are you talking about the lack thereof or like...
Gina: I'm talking about, there are a lot more roles for white people.
Kaleb: Oh yeah. Most definitely. And even nowadays where we even have specific stock, black stereotype characters, you know, there are still way more roles. And it's not even like they're trying to say, "Oh, we need a white person here." It's just that black people audition for it, but don't end up getting it. They end up losing it to a white person just because that's what sells.
Gina: You know, this is a whole ‘nother discussion.
Jack: This is like my theater appreciation class when we talk about minstrel shows and sort of history of—like Paul Robeson, we were talking about this in class the other day, you know, "Ol' Man River," eventually he's known for "Showboat." And that's what made him. But he started out where he could find work and where he could find work was in these pieces that mocked his culture. He had to do that if he wanted to make a living. And it's kind of interesting to talk about that.
Gina: It is. It's also interesting, this role has historically been played by a white person—because why? Not because the choice actually matters. I mean, sure, there are certain things that you definitely want a white person for like, let's say if you have a racist cowboy or something, you know what I mean, like that person's gonna be white. But that's a conversation I'd love to do a whole hour-long special about.
Jack: I'm down.
Kaleb: I'm down.
Rachel: There was uproar recently with the Harry Potter play that came out, "Harry Potter and The Cursed Child," and the actress that played Hermione was black, and everybody sent in stuff like, "That's not how she was written in the book." And then J. K. Rowling had to come out and say that she never described a race for Hermione, like it was never written in. It's just everybody read it and in their mind, like they saw the movie, and what they thought of created a white person. So then they were like, "Oh, she's not supposed to be..." But then J. K. Rowling was like, "No, I never specified. There's no right or wrong."
Jack: No, that's interesting.
Jack: I'd like to think most people can get past that.
Gina: I wish I could say that most people do. But I don't know about everybody in the whole world.
Jack: August Wilson wrote 10 plays on the African American condition and the journey and they're all Pittsburgh and they're 1910s all the way up to... And his whole thing was it has to be only a black cast. And I've talked about is my class, you know, is that okay? And I think if the story is about this thing that's only this culture and this sort of microcosm that we're going to talk about, I think it makes sense. Right? So if I'm only talking about some family that's whatever, Chinese and blah blah blah, or white and Kentucky in the 30s, then that makes sense. But obviously if it's a thing like, "Oh, Romeo is white because I saw the Zeffirelli movie" or "Shakespeare wanted it that way." You know, then you're like, well, no he didn't. But you're raising some interesting questions. And I think if the fact that we've cast a black actor in Charlie Brown makes someone take pause, I think that's maybe a good thing.
Gina: It's a good thing just to go, oh hey, Charlie Brown looks this certain way. But he didn't have to look that way.
Jack: Yeah, and again, I think that makes the theme even more universal, that it's not just this white Peanut world, it's everybody. And hopefully all of us can sorta get this message, you know, Christmas is more than stuff.