Long before she became a Newbery Medal-winning author and national ambassador for young people's literature, Jacqueline Woodson worked as a drama therapist for runaway and homeless kids in New York.
That experience of using the arts to mitigate adolescent trauma helped inspire her 2003 book, "Locomotion," a poetry-infused work that Woodson later adapted for the stage.
"Poetry is my go-to when the world feels like it's losing its mind," said the MacArthur "genius" fellow by phone from her New York home. "It's a grounding force in the world and is accessible to everybody."
Poetry is the language of 11-year-old Lonnie Collins Motion, whose nickname, Locomotion, gives the title to the show that makes its regional premiere Saturday at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
The play revolves around Lonnie and his sister, Lili, 8, who have been orphaned after a fire ravaged the family's home, killing their parents. The siblings are separated in the foster care system and continue lives as best they can.
"Young people are so beautifully resilient and such survivors," Woodson said. Lonnie's "life may be jacked up because he lost his parents and is separated from his sister, but he activates toward a future that feels hopeful. How do you make something out of something that feels like nothing?"
When it premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2010, "Locomotion" had a cast of three — Lonnie was played by one actor and two others played his teachers, parents, friends and everyone else. For this production, director Talvin Wilks has expanded the cast to have more young people onstage and make their characters more distinct.
"When I come to a play like this, I want to treat it almost like a world premiere, with opportunities to explore," said Wilks. "It's important that Lonnie at least have Lili and his best friend, Enrique — two identified peer-to-peer characters — played by youth. That's really essential to show a young person's vision of an adult world."
At the Children's Theatre, Lonnie is played by Junie Edwards, a junior at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists who was born in Detroit and moved to the Twin Cities for first grade.
"I've lost so many people in my life, the aspect of loss with Lonnie really resonates with me," Edwards said. "But he also gains a best friend, and especially the poetry that he uses to express how he feels. The way Lonnie goes in and out of memory with his poetry, and how clear it is, is probably my favorite thing about the show."
Wilks said that he sees "Locomotion" as part dream play, part memory play.
"It switches so fast sometimes where he may be playing inside a memory then jumps into a classroom or basketball game," said Wilks. "We had to create this terminology of where he may be at any given moment — whether the ultimate present, immediate present, immediate past or past past."
"Locomotion" is a sort of restoration work, but one in which a protagonist, whose home has been disrupted by tragedy, seeks to find closure and wholeness. In that sense, it's like a host of great works on the subject, including August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
"The parents will not come back but parenting is still needed and longed for," said Wilks. "Lonnie can't wait until he's old enough to be considered a guardian of his little sister so the two of them can be back together."
Who: By Jacqueline Woodson. Directed by Talvin Wilks.
Where: Children's Theatre, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
When: 7 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 & 5 p.m. Sun., 7 p.m. Wed. Ends March 5.
Tickets: $15-$69. childrenstheatre.org or 612-874-0400.