Winning her way to freedom
Award-winning African-American playwright Cheryl West adapted the play from Connie Porter's books. The story of Addy brings to the fore the plight of a family of Southern slaves during the Civil War, and their struggle to stay together in the face of adversity. Nine year old Addy escapes from her North Carolina plantation with her mother and, following a perilous journey to Philadelphia, experiences freedom and school for the first time.
The play premiered last spring at the Seattle Children's Theatre. It is the theatre's first touring production and has crossed the country since January.
Thanks to sponsorship from Greylock Federal Credit Union, each child in the audience will receive an Addy shell necklace kit and American Girl book, and Addy dolls will be raffled off before each performance.
Tickets cost $20, and American Girl dolls are admitted free of charge. Visit www.thecolonialtheatre.org or call (413) 997-4444.
Katy Lothrop of Pittsfield a social worker and mother of two girls, Christina and Lily explained the lasting appeal of American Girl dolls and stories.
For her family, it started with the books, she said. "The stories in the books make the characters come alive, and then one of the grandmothers gave us a doll, and that began us on our doll odyssey."
Now invested in the phenomena, Lothrop described an entire subculture devoted to the 18 inch dolls that have captured the hearts and imaginations of young girls across America.
Created more than 20 years ago by the Pleasant Company (and since acquired by Mattel), the dolls depict nine-year-old girls from different eras of American history, from the 18th to the 20th Century. Pivotal events such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the Great Depression, and World War II become real through the adventures written about each character.
Ethnic and economic diversity underscore the collection. The dolls include Kaya, a 1764 Nez Perce Native American; Josefina, from 1824 New Mexico; and 1854 Swedish immigrant Kirsten. The recent addition of Julie from the 1970s established as "history" the era when the mothers of many current doll owners were children.
Almost 20 million doll enthusiasts have watched live revues in the theater and visited dedicated retail shopw, where they can dine in the cafe with their dolls at their side and refresh their doll's 'dos at the hair salon.
In the Berkshires, there are regular opportunities for young fans to gather. At the popular American Girl Club nights at Barnes & Noble bookstore at Berkshire Crossing Plaza in Pittsfield, a gaggle of girls learns about the life and times of a different doll each month, through stories, games and crafts.
At a Kirsten-themed holiday celebration, the Swedish festival of St. Lucia provided a variety of tasty traditional treats. Call (413) 496-9051 for future events.
Week-long school vacation camps at the Ventfort Hall mansion in Lenox center their programs around Gilded Age doll Samantha, and conclude with elegant tea parties for campers and their dolls.
This extraordinary success has resulted in over 120 million books and 14 million dolls sold (at $90 a pop these days), and the Lothrops have certainly done their bit to support the ever-expanding American Girl empire.
As preschoolers, Lily, now aged 9, and her sister Christina, aged 12, enjoyed the Bitty Baby dolls, and progressed to the mini six-inch replicas of the historical set. "In our family," says Katy, "we believe you have to be old enough to take care of the doll. It's a very precious thing, and you need to treat it as such."
Lily acquired her first full-size doll, Elizabeth, as a gift from her grandmother. The second arrived courtesy of a Super Bowl-connected windfall, and she recently purchased a third with a gift certificate and personal savings. Her sister Christina has two others of her own. The girls have collected a number of historical ensembles, and "we also like to dress our dolls in modern day clothes," explains Lily.
Victorian lass Nellie O'Malley currently sports a spiffy Hannah Montana outfit found on eBay, and Lily fondly recalls the pumpkin Halloween costume her Grandma made. "It's really cute, it has these little boots that look like they're leaves."
Grandma keeps busy sewing doll outfits for all her granddaughters, and, adds Katy, "there are patterns that you can buy to make (their) clothes."
Hair care is a really big deal for American Girl dolls. "If you don't have the brush, if you don't do it properly, your American Girl doll will end up having an Afro!" cautions Lily. Her mom learned the drill from reading the book and watching the dolls have their hair done at the American Girl salon. Apparently, using a special brush with adequate water spray is the key to success.
Story and history
Christina is a voracious reader, and over the years has amassed an extensive collection of American Girl books, borrowing the remainder from the library. Alongside the character story books are lifestyle titles offering advice on topics such as homework, staying home alone, body image and health as well as mysteries and short stories collections. She particularly enjoyed learning about her mom's childhood period from the Julie books, and can impressively explain with authority the history of Title 9.
Katy confesses to having read most of her daughters' American Girl books. ("Kaya made you cry so bad," reveals Lily.) "They are very historically accurate, and that was one of the things that appealed to me about them," she explains. "Christina has read the Kit and Molly stories to my mother who lived during those times...and (she) remembers a lot of those things just the way they were represented.
"I think Kirsten is my favorite because she's a Swedish immigrant. She came to the United States to Minnesota where I grew up," she adds. "My dad's family had come from Sweden. It reminded me of stories my great grandmother had told me."
"The American Girl dolls have withstood the test of time for my daughters," says Katy. "So while Barbies and Bratz have come and gone, the American Girl dolls have remained. It's those dolls that they play with together, bring on trips to Grandma's and have their tea parties with."
Explains Christina, "if you're young, then you read those books and play with the dolls and know the history and stories. In a history book, it only talks about the important issues that went on and the important people. This is like reading about a normal kid that grew up in this time period. Julie has the most amount of freedom compared to Felicity, who couldn't do anything she wanted to. She couldn't go to college, she couldn't study Latin. (As for Julie,) whatever she wanted to do, she knew that she could do it."
Christina believes that American Girl dolls encourage the girls of today "to dream big and make changes...to become the person who makes the difference tomorrow... and to try to make the best of a situation.When you're young that will stick with you forever, 'cause you get the message."
From one generation to the next, the American Girl story has endured in the Lothrop household, and continues to do so in countless others across the country.
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