“African Tales” delivers artistic and educational lessons at the Birmingham Children’s Theatre

By Denise Stewart

For The Birmingham Times

The Birmingham Children's Theatre presents African Tales at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center. (Frank Couch, The Birmingham Times)
The Birmingham Children’s Theatre presents African Tales at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center. (Frank Couch, 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.

Life Lessons

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.

Ben George dances in the opening act. (Frank Couch, The Birmingham Times)
Ben George dances in the opening act. (Frank Couch, The Birmingham Times)

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.

"African Tales" gives young audiences a chance to learn about African cultures. (Frank Couch, The Birmingham Times)
“African Tales” gives young audiences a chance to learn about African cultures. (Frank Couch, The Birmingham Times)

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.”

Members of the production feel "African Tales" will invite many to open up to Africa cultures. (Frank Couch, The Birmingham Times)
Members of the production feel “African Tales” will invite many to open up to Africa cultures. (Frank Couch, The Birmingham Times)

Accept Others

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
Upcoming Shows

One of the nation’s oldest and largest professional theatre companies for young audiences, Birmingham Children’s Theatre produces high-quality, professional theatrical entertainment and curriculum-relevant arts education experiences for children and families. BCT is located within the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). The physical address is 1010 19th Street North; Birmingham, AL; 35203.  The entrance is on 19th Street and there is metered parking. Phone: (205) 458-8181 Fax: (205) 458-8895

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Nov. 14-Dec. 16

Book By:  Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent

Directed By:  Norton and Lani Dill

Ebenezer Scrooge is a prosperous curmudgeon who believes personal wealth is far more valuable than the happiness and comfort of others. With an infuriated “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge summates his feelings of Christmas tidings and charitable giving, but he’s forced to face his selfish ways when three ghosts on Christmas Eve lead him through his Past, Present, & Future. Thanks to their guidance, Scrooge recognizes his faults and greets Christmas morning with a cheerful “Happy Christmas” before spending the day reconnecting and sharing love with those that mean the most to him.

School Performances:  Tuesday – Friday at 10 a.m.

Home School Day: Dec. 15 at 10 a.m.

Public Performances:

Friday, Dec. 2 & 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 3 & 10 at 2:30 p.m.

Recommended for:

Children 5 and older – Family Friendly Option for all ages

TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Nov. 29-Dec. 17

Book By: Sina Skates

Directed By: Heidi Woodward

Adapted from the poem “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore.  The classic story jumps to life on the WeeFolks stage as the Mouse Family tries to settle in “for a long Winter’s Night.” See this family discover the magic of Christmas as Santa Claus drops in for an unexpected visit at the home of Mr. & Mrs. Mouse and their other woodland friends.

School Performances: Mondays – Fridays  9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Home School Day: Dec. 1st at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Public Performances: Dec. 3rd and 10th at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.

Recommended for:

Children ages 3 and up!

EINSTEIN IS A DUMMY

Jan. 31-Feb. 24, 2017

Book & Lyrics By:  Karen Zacarías

Music By: Deborah Wicks La Puma

Directed By: Brandon Bruce

As an adult, Albert Einstein changed our view of the universe. But as a boy, he struggled with the same issues any 12-year-old might—keeping up with violin lessons, impressing the girl next door and, oh yeah, comprehending the fundamental relationship of space and time to the speed of light, of course.

This uplifting play about a fictional day in young Einstein’s life confirms that each of us is both ordinary and special. With an engaging, original score, a healthy dose of imagination and the help of a mysterious cat, Einstein Is a Dummy reveals life’s atomic possibilities.

School Performances:  Tuesday – Friday at 10 a.m.

Home School Day: Feb. 23, 2017 at 10 a.m.

Recommended for:  Grades 2nd and up

WAKE UP BROTHER BEAR

Jan. 10-28, 2017

Book By:

Janet Stanford, PLAYWRIGHT

Kathryn Chase Bryer, PLAYWRIGHT

Katie Chambers, COMPOSER

Directed By: Autumn Brown

Watch as Brother & Sister Bear experience a full year of glorious Seasons.  Together we see a waterfall melt, chase an elusive fish, and skate on an icy pond.

Children are continually part of the action with a bag of props that help create magical moments.

School Performances:  Mondays-Fridays at 9:30 & 11 a.m.

Home School Day: Jan. 19 at 9:30 & 11 a.m.

Saturdays, Jan. 21 & 28 at 10 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.

BALLOONACY

Feb. 28 – March 31, 2017

Book by: Barry Kornhauser

Directed by: Autumn Brown

A tender, uplifting show for the little ones (and the big ones too). Sweet, inventive and packed with physical comedy, this play explores the power of friendship and shows how, with a little imagination and acceptance, companionship is everywhere.

Balloonacy’s mix of puppetry, wordless situational comedy, and Chaplin-esque physical humor is a winning combination.” -Twin Cities Daily Planet

School Performances: Mondays – Fridays 9:30 a.m. & 11:00 a.m.

Home School Day: March 9 at 9:30 & 11 a.m.

Recommended for:

Children ages 3 and up!

This production has been endorsed by Autism Speaks and is shown to resonate with children with Autism and those with other sensory issues.

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH

April 7-29, 2017

Written by: Roald Dahl

Directed by: Brandon Bruce

A magical peach! An imprisoned boy! Insect friends! An incredible journey! This amazing adventure of James Henry Trotter will fulfill the fantasy of anyone who has ever dreamed of escape. Roald Dahl’s story comes hilariously to life in this delightful dramatization that reveals the wickedness of some, the goodness of others, and the indecision encountered by many when they are faced with crises

School Performances: Tuesday – Friday at 10 a.m.

Home School Day: April 20 at 10 a.m.

Public Performances:

Fridays, April 7 and 14 at 7:30 p.m.

Saturdays, April 8 & 15 at 2:30 p.m.

Recommended for:
2nd-8th Grade, or children ages 6-12.