Kidzu Re-opens With New, Larger “Launch Pad”

If you’ve ever been to Kidzu Children’s Museum, you probably remember familiar exhibits such as the Gravitron and the Makery, but Director of Education Lisa Van Deman says the new Kidzu Launch Pad at University Mall is unlike anything that’s come before.

“We’re 8,500 square feet of awesome.” Kidzu Treehouse

In addition to old favorites, there’s a two-and-a-half story tree-house that fills the museum, as well as the climbing wall Van Deman says parents have been clamoring for:

“’It’d be great if Kidzu had a climbing wall.’ ‘Would you consider having a climbing wall?’ ‘My kid loves to climb.’ So, in answer to our community, we’ve worked with a company called Progression Climbing, and we’ve created this awesome climbing wall,” says Van Deman.

Visitors will find new niches like the Discovery Den, a quiet nook for children who might need a break from the hustle and bustle of the museum.

“This is a nice place for children to come and snuggle in,” says Van Deman. “There’s puppets, there’s tactile activities, and textures.”

And there are expanded exhibits like the Forest Theater play space.

“We are saluting the Forest Theater on UNC’s campus with our own Forest Theater,” says Van Deman. “Our exhibit curator has a friend who had worked for Ralph Lauren and is now living down here in the Triangle. She offered to make our costumes for us, so we have designer costumes.”

Van Deman says what sets Kidzu apart from other children’s museums is its connection to the local community.

Kidzu Art wall

“What really makes this place sing, and what really differentiates us, is this community celebration and reflection,” says Van Deman. “This could not have happened by an outside exhibit design firm. This is truly walking the walk of a community children’s museum. We create with the community, we listen to the community, we reflect the community, and we celebrate the community, so this really did take a village.”

Kidzu first opened in 2006. Since then, the museum has welcomed more than 250,000 visitors, while leapfrogging to five different locations, first on Franklin Street, then in University Mall. Most recently, Kidzu was forced to move from its original space in University Mall to make room for Silverspot Cinemas.

Van Deman says moving three times in three years has been a challenge for museum staffers and the families they serve.

“It has been difficult. It’s been difficult emotionally because we want to continue to serve our visitors. We know those breaks are disruptive. Financially, honestly, that’s been tough. We’re a not-for-profit, a not-for-profit that’s had to pick up stakes and move. There’s expenses incurred there, and being closed for certain amounts of time and not earning the money we need to be earning. That really has been tough.”

Now, she’s hoping supporters will embrace the new Kidzu and help make it a success.

“It’s really important that when people come here, they love it, so they will emotionally support it and financially support it.”

You can visit 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m.-5 p.m. on Sundays.

For more on Kidzu, click here.

Last Chance: “A Kid Like Jake” At Deep Dish

Theater season is in full swing in Chapel Hill – this weekend, PlayMakers Repertory Company opens its 2014-15 season with “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” – and as things kick into high gear, you still have one more chance to catch the season’s first big don’t-miss-it production, the terrific “A Kid Like Jake” at Deep Dish. It closes this weekend after a successful run, with shows in the University Mall theater on Thursday at 7:30 and Friday and Saturday at 8:00.

For tickets, visit this link.

Making its first appearance here after a successful run in New York last year, “Jake” is the story of Alex (Meredith Sause) and Greg (Jim Moscater), two parents trying to place their four-year-old son Jake in an elite private preschool. It’s harder than it sounds: there are dozens of applicants for every open spot, and the schools are looking for any excuse to rule candidates out. They even subject the kids to high-stakes placement exams. (It’d be farcical if it weren’t true.) Alex and Greg seek advice from Judy (Rasool Jahan), the renowned expert who runs Jake’s current school, and she suggests they emphasize Jake’s most distinguishing characteristic – namely his “gender-variant play,” the fact that he likes playing with dolls and dressing up as Disney princesses. Alex balks: she doesn’t want to force him into a label prematurely. (Her own parents, it’s hinted, had done a similar thing to her when she was young, and she’s still a bit resentful.) But is Alex right to be worried – or is her fear just masking her own insecurities?

Before the show began its run, I spoke on the air with Meredith Sause and Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick.

I got to see “A Kid Like Jake” twice, once with some friends at a preview and again on opening night. “Intense” was the word I heard the most, from audiences on both nights. “Jake” takes a little time to develop – there are many different sources of conflict at play, and the early scenes are there primarily just to set them up – but then tensions quickly simmer, build, bubble over, and finally explode in a pair of breathtaking back-to-back scenes.

In the process, we get an insightful look at a couple in crisis – two generally decent people who are just trying to do right by their son, but who are also very human, and very flawed. The play’s best feature is its naturalism, the degree to which Alex and Greg and Judy all talk like real people. To the extent that that’s the case, the fact that Sause and Moscater and Jahan are all Trained Actors actually works against them at first – the actors are well-rehearsed, but the characters are clearly making it up as they go, and that creates a bit of a disconnect. Once the play begins building to its climax, though, the emotion takes over, the actors let loose, and it’s a roller coaster from there on out. You’ll remember the two confrontation scenes near the end, but they’re bookended by a pair of quieter but equally powerful moments: Alex having a panic attack in a doctor’s office (wonderfully played by Sause) and a dream sequence where – well, I won’t give anything away. (Both scenes feature Jess Jones, effective in a smaller role.)

a kid like jake meredith sause jim moscater

Jim Moscater and Meredith Sause. Photo via

Extremely well-written by first-time playwright Daniel Pearle, “A Kid Like Jake” raises and explores a lot of difficult issues without pretending there are any easy answers. Liberal as she claims to be, Alex is squeamish when it comes to violating gender and sexuality norms, and that squeamishness clouds her judgment: she’ll gladly indulge Jake’s Cinderella fix behind closed doors, but she gets uptight whenever it’s mentioned in public. But is she wrong to want to avoid fixing labels on kids before they’re ready? “There is such a thing as a phase,” she says; we doubt her motives, but is she incorrect? Is Greg’s judgment any more trustworthy, any less biased? Is Judy’s? It’s telling that Jake himself is never seen and never heard: the play doesn’t revolve around him so much as his parents’ perception of him; and the heart of the conflict is in the fact that neither Alex, nor Greg, nor Judy, nor we in the audience, will ever know how closely the perception matches the reality. All we can do is guess.

Writing those last two sentences reminds me of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who also wrote about that gap between perception and reality: we can never know what’s really there, he argued; we can only know what our senses tell us is there. Kant, as it happened, is also the philosopher who developed this succinct rule for how to act morally: “Act in such a way that you treat (others) never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

“A Kid Like Jake” is about raising a child, it is about family, it is about gender, it is about education, it is about a lot of things – but above all this it is about people who try to reach that moral standard, without ever quite getting there. We’re all in the same boat.

“A Kid Like Jake” runs through Saturday at Deep Dish Theater in University Mall.

Sunday’s 5K Is “Not So Normal”

The Not So Normal 5K is finally here!

After two days of pre-race events around town on Friday and Saturday, the race will take place in Carrboro Sunday morning – with proceeds going to benefit dozens of local charities, especially the ArtsCenter in Carrboro and NC Children’s Promise.

Then at 4:00 pm, the event concludes with a free concert inside University Mall, featuring performances by DSI Comedy, local musicians Ella Bertram and the Buzztown Band, and the Nashville-based band Stereosparks.

Brian Buzby of the Buzztown Band stopped by WCHL this week to speak with Aaron Keck on “Aaron in the Afternoon.”

The whole affair has been organized by Jay Radford – a Chapel Hill dad who writes the “Mom in Chapel Hill” blog. For more information, visit

September Fundraiser/Concert Is “Not So Normal”

It’s being billed as “a celebration of community and philanthropy” – and it’s hitting Chapel Hill on the weekend of September 12-14.

It’s the “Not So Normal 5K.” Organized by Jay Radford – a dad who writes the “Mom in Chapel Hill” blog – the event is ‘not so normal’ because it will benefit not just one, but dozens of local charities. Proceeds from the 5K on Sunday, September 14 will benefit the Carrboro ArtsCenter and the NC Children’s Hospital; participants are encouraged to bring book donations for Book Harvest or food donations for TABLE and PORCH – and participants are also encouraged to form teams and solicit sponsors to raise funds for any non-profit in the area. (“Run for what moves you,” says Radford.)

And in keeping with the ‘not so normal’ vibe, the event is not just a 5K – it actually spans the entire weekend, from Friday through Sunday, with comedy shows at DSI Comedy Theater, a Pajama Party at the ArtsCenter, a movie on the lawn at Weaver Street Market, pre-race dinners at restaurants across Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and more.

The weekend culminates with an outdoor concert Sunday night at University Mall, headlined by rising country star Frankie Ballard (whose single “Helluva Life” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart earlier this year) and featuring Nashville-based performers Casey Jamerson and Stereosparks as well as local kids’ entertainers The BuzzTown Band. The concert is being presented by WQDR radio, 94.7 FM – so tickets to the show cost just $9.47.

Organizer Jay Radford spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck on “Aaron in the Afternoon.”

Aaron also spoke with the concert headliner, Frankie Ballard…

…as well as Casey Jamerson, who performed on Broadway and in Australia before starting her Nashville career…

…and Storey Condos, the lead singer of Stereosparks.

For a complete schedule of events and ticket information, visit

Direct From NYC, “Kid Like Jake” Opens At Deep Dish

Photo via

The Deep Dish Theater Company opens its 2014-15 season this Friday with Daniel Pearle’s “A Kid Like Jake,” a moving story about parents seeking a better life for their son.

Directed by Deep Dish veteran Tony Lea, “Jake” stars Meredith Sause and Jim Moscater as Alexandra and Greg, two parents trying to get their four-year-old son into a prestigious kindergarten. Jake loves dressing up like Snow White and Cinderella, and Alexandra and Greg are being encouraged to play that up in their application – and that in turn leads them to question their own beliefs.

Meredith Sause and Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick joined WCHL’s Aaron Keck on the air this week.

“A Kid Like Jake” just concluded a highly-acclaimed run off Broadway. It opens on Friday at Deep Dish and runs through September 20.

Deep Dish Theater is located in University Mall. For details and ticket information, visit

UMall Chick-Fil-A Holds School Supply Drive

University Mall’s Chick-fil-A restaurant is hosting a school supply drive to benefit Orange County teachers and students.

The drive is in partnership with the PSF-East Chapel Hill Rotary Teacher Supply Store, and the Store is making even more of an effort to assist local teachers by offering a $75 voucher to buy supplies in store for their classrooms.

In the recent history of state legislative budget cuts, North Carolina public education has taken one of the hardest hits. The General Assembly is currently working out an 11 percent pay-raise of teachers, as North Carolina holds one of the lowest rankings of teacher pay in the country.

“Our Chick-fil-A team is honored to help collect school supplies for the Teacher Supply Store,” said Sammy Culberson, franchise Operator of the Chick-fil-A at University Mall in Chapel Hill in a statement. “We encourage the community to come out and help local teachers and students start the school year poised for success.”

Donations can be dropped off in the restaurant during the mall’s open hours from Saturday, August 2 to Saturday, August 16.

Items requested by the Store include: Pencils (no.2), colored pencils, glue sticks, markers (fine line and broad tip), Sharpies (fine and ultra fine), highlighters, index cards (ruled and unruled), Post-It Notes, Scotch tape, composition book and construction paper.

For each guest that brings three items, Chick-fil-A is offering a complimentary Grilled Chicken Sandwich.

Hot Diggity Days Event at University Mall

Ron Stutts with some of the ladies from Elevate

Ron Stutts with some of the ladies from Elevate

WCHL kicked off Hot Diggity Days at University Mall on Friday with a live remote.

Hot Diggity Days is UMall’s summer sidewalk sale and featured special guests like Marilyn Monroe, Illusions of the King tribute artist, Keith Henderson, and more. The event ran through Sunday.

For more information on Hot Diggity Days, click here. To see a photo gallery, click here.

University Mall Adds New Tenants

The University Mall has announced three new expansions for the upcoming years: Tacos y Tequila this coming June, Planet Fitness this December, and Aveda Institute in early 2015.

Tacos y Tequila is a contemporary Mexican restaurant, serving a broad selection of south-western cuisine. Planet Fitness is a fully-staffed gym, possessing a wide variety of exercise machines and circuits for mall attendees to utilize. The Aveda Institute is a beauty and cosmetology school, complete with a spa and salon.

The General Manager at University Mall, Peter DeLeon, is excited about these new additions and the momentum the mall has carried along with the changes.

“What I want to make sure everybody remembers is that this isn’t just a few new stores. This is a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” says DeLeon. “What’s happening because of all this change, it’s creating a lot more interest in the marketplace for University Mall, and we have a lot of things in the pipeline that we’re hoping to announce sooner rather than later.”

While the mall is expanding as well as becoming more luxurious, DeLeon assures that they intend to make sure there is something at U-Mall for all patrons.

“I’d like to think we do have something for everyone,” assures DeLeon, “and where we’re going, what we want to make sure what we’re doing for the community, is making sure we have things that are relevant for them. And as we’ve been in the marketplace, these are the kinds of tenants people want.”

“Life Is A Dream” At Deep Dish: Redemption, Just In Time

Last Thursday, at my friends’ insistence, I finally saw the movie “Thor.” It’s a big-budget action spectacle, with lots of lights and noise and CGI, but the basic premise is Shakespearean: cast out of his family by the machinations of his scheming half-brother, left broken and penniless in an alien land, our brash, headstrong hero prince (read: he’s a jerk) must regain his status as favored son and heir by proving his moral worth to his aged, tough-but-kindly father.

So you’ll understand why I was feeling a bit of déjà vu the following evening, sitting in Deep Dish Theater for their production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is A Dream” – a classic Spanish play (often likened to Shakespeare) that follows pretty much exactly the same plot.

Eat your heart out, Joseph Campbell.

Written in 1635 during the Golden Age of Spanish literature, “Life Is A Dream” is the story of Segismundo, a prince who’s been imprisoned literally from birth by his father the king. Seems he was born under a dark cloud—the stars have decreed he’ll grow up to be a tyrant—and so for the good of the country, his father has kept him locked away, ignorant of his rightful status as heir to the throne. (Why the king doesn’t just kill him outright is never entirely explained.) But as the king grows old—and his other would-be heirs begin sparring over succession—he relents: okay, he says, we’ll take Segismundo out of his cell, reinstall him as prince, and see how he handles it. If he behaves, terrific. But if he acts like a tyrant—we’ll simply drug him, lock him back up, and tell him the whole adventure was all a dream.

Meanwhile, subplots abound: a woman named Rosaura disguises herself as a man (seriously, have I mentioned Shakespeare?) to infiltrate the kingdom and take revenge on the prince Astolfo, who’s stolen her honor; the king’s closest aide discovers her secret and realizes he’s duty-bound to her too; and meanwhile Astolfo schemes to marry his cousin, the princess Estrella, to lay claim to the throne, but he may or may not still be pining for Rosaura. It’s not easy to keep up with it all: the plot is about as complex as “Hamlet,” but while that narrative unfolds slowly over three-plus hours, Calderón crams all his plot points into an hour and 45 minutes. (“I have no idea what is going on,” I overheard one audience member say during intermission.)

But as with Shakespeare, the plot isn’t as important as the underlying philosophy. Are we free to chart the course of our own lives, or are we fated to turn out a certain way? How can we tell the difference between dream and reality? Is there a difference, really? Is life itself not just as temporary and fleeting and inscrutable as a dream? And what does that tell us about how to live our lives? The intrigues of kings and princes and spurned lovers abound—there’s even a swordfight!—but the real heart of “Life Is A Dream” is in its philosophical musings, and those are handled primarily by two characters: Segismundo himself, and Rosaura’s companion Clarin, a stereotypically wise fool reminiscent of the one in “King Lear.”

Deep Dish Life Is A Dream

Alphonse Nicholson as Segismundo and Amber Wood as Rosaura, in “Life Is A Dream.” Photo by Jonathan Young via

So that’s “Life Is A Dream.”

But more importantly: how good is it?

By the time I took my seat, I was already excited about the potential. In the few minutes before the house opened, as all the playgoers milled around in the lobby, we could hear passionate shouts and the clinking of blades on the other side of the wall—just one more last-minute rehearsal, I guess, but it sounded so cool. And the set design (by Lex van Blommestein) grabs your eye as soon as you walk in: angles and windows and disheveled shelves and an ethereal backdrop that evokes mountains, oceans—attractive and forbidding and foreboding, all at once.

But the play itself takes a long time to find its footing. I still remember a production of Craig Lucas’s “Reckless” I saw in college, in which the first act was so bad I almost left at intermission but the second act was some of the best theater I’d ever seen—and I got a similar vibe from “Life Is A Dream.” It wasn’t quite that extreme this time around—the first act had its good moments, the second act had its flaws—but the difference was definitely there. The first act feels like community theater, with all that that entails: nice costumes, fine production value, and performers going through the motions of acting without really finding the emotional connection to their characters. This is not really the actors’ fault, incidentally: “Life Is A Dream” is a fine play, but some of the characters’ motivations are simply baffling, especially early on. Why, for instance, does the king choose to imprison Segismundo for life instead of simply killing him? Having chosen to imprison him, why does he then choose to give him a classical education? Having done that, why does he then choose to free him, and why does he go about it in a way that’s all but guaranteed to elicit the worst possible reaction? John Boni’s performance as Basilio the king is actually quite good (notwithstanding his New York accent), but the character himself is impossible to believe. Same goes for Amber Wood as Rosaura, Anne-Caitlin Donohue as Estrella, and Peter Battis as Clotaldo the king’s aide—all of whom deliver fine performances despite having characters who make a number of brow-furrowing life decisions.

But the second act ultimately redeems the first, and it’s all thanks to the play’s two philosophers, the wronged prince Segismundo and the wise fool Clarin—the two richest and most sympathetic characters, and (as luck or fate would have it) in Deep Dish’s production the two best acted as well. As characters, Segismundo and Clarin actually don’t figure too much in the first act—but they dominate the second, as Segismundo gets swept up in the royal intrigue and Clarin is left alone with his thoughts. And what thoughts! As Clarin, David Hudson is simultaneously hilarious and insightful and touching and tragic; unburdened by all the mounting plot points, he’s free to deliver a memorable performance.

But it’s Alphonse Nicholson’s dazzling turn as Segismundo that truly makes “Life Is A Dream” worthwhile. Sticking with the Shakespeare theme, Segismundo’s journey is a bit like Ophelia’s in reverse: he starts the play half-mad, muttering wild things to himself while life goes on around him, and the plot turns on his gradually reconnecting with sanity and society. It’s a tough part to play, and Nicholson nails it. Intense, fierce, passionate and sympathetic, he commands the stage from the moment the spotlight first falls on him—and it’s his intensity, plus Hudson’s, that finally win over the audience in the end, though it takes a while to get there. During intermission, I overheard an audience member in my row cracking jokes about the play; by the end, I heard the same person gasping (with real emotion) during Segismundo’s final speech. I felt roughly the same way.

(It’s also worth noting, as a side point, that Nicholson is the only black actor in the cast—including Boni, who plays his father. This passes without comment in the play itself—and it’s obvious from the get-go that Nicholson was simply the best actor for the part—but casting a black actor in that role also adds an additional dimension to a story about a man who begins his life in bondage, is freed in a callous and capricious manner by a king who doesn’t particularly care whether he succeeds, is cast back into bondage and is forced to regain his freedom all over again. But the play is seventeenth-century Spanish, not twentieth-century American—so the audience is left to ruminate on that for itself.)

In the end, if “Life Is A Dream” doesn’t quite reach the heights of Deep Dish’s last production, the quietly stunning “Arcadia,” it’s still worthwhile (stick around, it’ll win you over) on the strength of Nicholson’s performance as Segismundo—who never quite reaches a conclusion on whether life really is a dream, but resolves to make the best of it nonetheless. How that’s to be defined is up to you.

“Life Is A Dream” runs through May 31 at Deep Dish Theater in University Mall.

Who’s Really Unhappy About Roses Closing Shop at UMall? Seniors

There’s one group of Chapel Hill residents that is particularly unhappy about Roses leaving University Mall in June: Senior citizens.

WCHL talked to some senior shoppers at the University Mall store one afternoon this week, and here’s what some of them had to say.

Lula Alston is a retired senior who lives in Chapel Hill.

“I hate it,” she said. “It’s really the only store in town that you can just go in and lounge around. And you can almost find everything you need.”

For Alston, those immediate needs include clothing, household items, and even food. When asked where she will shop after Roses goes away, she had this to say:

“I have no idea right now.”

Another Chapel Hill retiree, Josephine Cundari, takes the bus to the University Mall Roses twice a week.

“It’s bad. Bad news. People shop there. And then they have the senior discounts on Wednesdays. That helps, too. It’s a shame.”

The discount retailer has operated a store at that location since 1973. Roses is owned by Henderson-based Variety Wholesalers, which owns more than 400 discount stores throughout the southeast.

Variety Wholesalers is owned by the family of Art Pope, the budget director for North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.

Earlier this week, Wilson Sawyer of Variety Wholesalers told WCHL that the store is closing due to a rent increase, as well as plans by University Mall to downsize the store.

University Mall is owned and operated by Madison Marquette of Washington, DC. In an email to WCHL, Robyn H. Marano of Madison Marquette declined to comment about a rent increase.

She said that the departure of Roses opens “an opportunity to enhance retail, dining and entertainment” at the mall.

Marano said an announcement about new tenants should be coming over the next few months.