By Denise Stewart
For The Birmingham Times
The rhythm of African drums accompanied by singing and dancing stirred children to bounce and swing their hands during a recent performance of “African Tales” at the Birmingham Children’s Theatre (BCT). But for the thousands who fill the Birmingham–Jefferson Convention Center venue each week, there’s more to this show than song and dance.
The season opener of “African Tales” marked the BCT’s unveiling of a new program called STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. At the conclusion of each performance, cast members lead children in lessons on math and science connected to the performance.
“With ‘African Tales,’ the children get exposed to African culture, song, and dance. They also get a good lesson in math and the kinesiology of performance,” said “African Tales” Director Donna Edwards Todd. “Dancers and actors are always aware of the scientific basis for performance. Body movements often require deep breaths to prepare so that the muscles get the oxygen they need.”
Music, she said, offers lessons, as well, because musicians and dancers have to keep track of the beat.
In addition to music and STEAM, “African Tales” offers life lessons through two different stories. “Rumpelstiltskin” is based on the classic children’s tale that teaches the importance of telling the truth. And “Kalulu,” the story of an African king, teaches children about the ills of boasting and cheating.
Every week, Tuesday through Friday, school buses roll up and unload students from across the state to attend the show, said BCT Director of Advancement and Sales LeNa Powe McDonald. Some students come from as far away as Mississippi and Georgia, she said.
Presenting shows like “African Tales,” “opens the door for discussion among diverse groups,” McDonald said. “Many of the children who see this show may not come in contact with African culture. This can help them look at others differently.”
During the performance, children are introduced to a traditional Swahili song of welcome, “Funga Alafia.” With drummers playing and actors clapping, the children quickly grasp the song and learn about the multiples of four that carry the rhythm.
Showcasing Magic City Talent
As director, Todd said she had input in the set design, costumes, and lighting.
“We started working on this in May. They asked me my vision, and then the professionals made it happen,” said Todd, who grew up in Birmingham and started dancing and performing as a child on the southwest side of town.
For years, Todd owned a dance and performance studio. Later, she worked in theater at Alabama State University, the University of Montevallo, and South Carolina’s Benedict College. She also has done performance tours in Venezuela and Italy. Working with the BCT is special, she said.
“The other experiences I have had in professional theater have prepared me for this,” Todd said.
McDonald said, “So many people know and respect Donna Todd in this area. It’s good to see her make her return in this role.”
In addition to Todd, two of the cast members were hired from local auditions: Rickey Powell, a member of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, plays the role of the king; and Tammara Turner, who majored in music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), sings and performs in the show.
Inviting to Everyone
Actress Alexandria Bates said “African Tales,” with its multiracial cast of seven individuals playing various roles, breaks barriers and stereotypes.
“I think the play is giving the city itself a chance to feel that African culture is inviting to everyone,” said Bates, 24. “It’s not for just black people to enjoy. That’s why we have a multiracial cast, so everyone can experience and learn that in Africa there are white people, there are different cultures and types of people.”
The show also engages the audience by allowing elementary school children to participate in singing and drum playing. Seeing how the show has an impact on children was a big deal for Bates, who attends Jacksonville State University.
“A little girl who looked to be about 8 years old walked up to us post-show and described in detail how amazing it felt to see the performance,” Bates said. “She said, ‘I felt like I was in Africa, the music was great, and it was so unbelievable.’ It actually made me cry.”
Shows like “African Tales” are important because they expose children to the theater experience.
“If you don’t live on the best side of town, you know that you can go downtown to a theater and be on stage,” Bates said. “It’s so enlightening, and it can change their entire aspect of life.”
Bates said she hopes the show inspires children.
“Theater is not something to run away from, especially for African-Americans,” she said. “I suggest that people, maybe once or twice a month, go find new and interesting things. If you’re just hanging out in Birmingham and there is a show for $10, you could potentially change a child’s life because you just walked up on a show.”
Another “African Tales” actor, 20-year-old Michael Rodgers, said plays like this are why the BCT is important: “If we continue to have a diverse repertoire of shows people will say, ‘Interesting. A show about Indians, a show about Africans’ Theater draws people in and brings them closer.”
Seeing the reactions from children gives Rogers energy.
“Of course, they love the drumming and the music,” he said. “But when I peek out and look at the audience, I see in their faces that they are into the story. It is exciting. They are really into the story, and that gives me energy.”
In connection with “African Tales,” on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, Todd will give a presentation called “Dance Three Way,” which includes ballroom, African, and classical dancing.
“Most people in Birmingham have some connection to the BCT because it’s a staple in the community,” McDonald said. “What’s unique about ‘African Tales’ is that it tells two stories in an original way with live music and African dancing. Where we are in general as a culture, it’s important to understand how to accept others and see the importance of all cultures and all backgrounds. This play does that.”
“African Tales” runs through Oct. 21, 2016. High school day is Oct. 19, 2016, and show time is 10 a.m. For more information about “African Tales” and the BCT, visit www.bct123.org/schools-1/, email Daniel Bussey at Daniel@bct123.org, or call 205-458-8181.
Birmingham Times staff writer Ariel Worthy contributed to this article.
BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S THEATRE