Animal Act 

Nashville Children’s Theatre premieres local playwright’s likable adaptation of African folktale

Nashville Children’s Theatre premieres local playwright’s likable adaptation of African folktale

Noted local actor/director jeff obafemi carr’s new play opened last week at Nashville Children’s Theatre. Based on an African folktale, Before the People Came features contributions from carr’s associates at his own fledgling Amun Ra Theatre, including choreographer Nomalanga Eniafe and musical arranger Alex Stadaker. NCT standbys Scott Leathers and Patricia Taber are providing sets, lighting and costumes.

carr’s creation—which he dubs a “children’s jazz choreopoem”—is based on a fable about animals (rabbit, giraffe, monkey, elephant, eagle and owl) who endure the suffering of drought conditions, then set about to remedy things by snatching the pears off a tree well-guarded by an ornery but gullible tiger. It’s a simple enough setup, and the story comes through in humorous, generally entertaining fashion, courtesy of a very good cast, which features Persephone Felder-Fentress, Jeff D. Boyet, Bret Grigsby Wilson (making his NCT debut), Jenny Littleton and Herbert Mark Parker.

Several charming jazzy/bluesy original songs—also written by carr—are the highlight of the performance, including the final number, in which the cast uses both voices and sign language to convey the lyrics. In addition, Taber’s costumes provide a lot of color and visual interest along the way; her work on the giraffe and elephant pieces is especially impressive, their size putting them in the category of larger Sesame Street-type puppets.

This is a solid effort all around, and as a collaborative venture between a newer theatrical enterprise and a well-established local institution, it not only represents a friendly networking idea but also reaffirms NCT’s links to the African American community.

Specifically as regards the writing, there are some rough spots. carr’s script, clever as it often is—with pop song titles like “I Got Plenty of Nuthin’ ” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right” interpolated into the dialogue—also has some slower patches. It is theoretically pitched toward grades Pre-K and up, but the opening-day performance seemed in danger of occasionally losing the very youngest viewers (which, admittedly, is an occupational hazard of children’s theater). Pacing seemed best when carr’s rhyming couplet technique was at the fore, its childlike singsongy rhythms pulsing the story playfully forward. Running time is just under one hour, so the proceedings hold to a child-friendly length.

This production doesn’t have the quiet wonder of NCT’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, another African-based tale staged in 2002 and featuring carr in a starring role. Nevertheless, the play’s lesson about the importance of sharing comes across effectively, and there are enough heartwarming and mirthful moments to go around.

Performances continue at NCT through March 6.

—Martin Brady


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