Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Actually, Falsettos, As You Like It and benevolence and Renee's review of Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Potter Experience
When Steptoe's 32-page picture book appeared in 1988 it was widely praised and considered a breakthrough in its use of an authentic African setting, namely the realm of Zimbabwe at a time, about six hundred years ago, when its city was a center of trade and culture. Brooklyn-born Steptoe, who was both author and illustrator of "Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters," used motifs and colors that capture the environment of this southern African nation. Steptoe received the 1988 Coretta Scott King Award and was named a Caldecott Honors winner. In Steppingstone's production, co-directors Ansa Akyea and Charla Marie Bailey recreate the immediacy of the book's narrative as well as the color and sensibility of its setting. Their able design team contribute to this with a set and costumes that are modest in scale, but retain a feel of authenticity.
In a remote village, Mufaro is raising two daughters. Both are beautiful young ladies but of vastly different tempers. Nyasha is kind, gentle, honest, and content with her humble life. Manyara is vain, indolent, irritable, and yearns wealth and power, even imaging herself becoming queen of all the land. While Mufaro goes out in the bush to hunt, Nyasha works diligently in their garden, where she befriends a garter snake. Manyara chides her sister for having a snake as a friend, and steps inside to nap.
A messenger from the Great City comes to their village to announce that the Prince seeks a wife, and enjoins all beautiful and worthy maidens to come to the city so that he may choose among them. Manyara is sure this means her dream is about to come true and is prepared to leave Nyasha behind, but the messenger tells Mufaro that both of his daughters must appear before the prince. Manyara and Nyasha each take the long journey to the Great City. Along the way, they encounter strangers who call on them to act in certain ways. The choices Manyara and Nyasha each make determines their fate when they at last meet the prince. The conclusion and the moral it presents are not likely to surprise many in the audience, but nevertheless provide great satisfaction as the story ends with everyone receiving their just desserts.
The tale is greatly enhanced by Jones' and Opoka's musical score, with songs that draw upon African melodies and rhythms, brought further to life by Ricky Morisseau's full-throttle choreography, which similarly incorporates traditional African qualities. An ensemble of four who function as villagers enlarge the scope of choral and dance elements, while also providing humorous sidebars as squabbling neighbors.
The show is well cast, with Kia Brown exuding both the confidence and vanity inherent in Manyara, and Alaysia Duncan winning us over with her portrayal of Nyasha's humility and kindness. Both actors possess the loveliness to qualify as "beautiful" daughters, and both offer appealing singing voices and graceful dance in their performances. Brandon A. Jackson, as their father Mufaro, projects a strong and steady presence, clearly loving both daughters while fully aware of each one's virtues and shortcomings. Jackson offers a particularly moving solo vocal performance. Danyelle Robinson has a commanding presence as the storyteller, and also as the prince's messenger to the villagers. In a deft touch that is typical of this production's modest elegance, a silvery sash added to the all-white costume she wears as storyteller indicates her status as a stylish citizen of the city.
Steppingstone has been consistently mounting well-crafted, entertaining theater that draws talent from community youth along with professional actors, directors, and creative artists. Their productions do not impress with awesome set design, extravagant costumes, or state-of-art sound and light effects. They do offer wholesome and earnest fare, with a focus on story and message, that is a wonderful way for children to be introduced to the magic and meaning that theater can bring to their lives. Their productions also exhibit a warming optimism to audiences of all ages. Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters delivers all of these, and confirms Steppingstone's great value to its community.
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, through February 24, 2019, at the Steppingstone Theatre for Youth Development, 55 Victoria Street N., Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $5.00 - $16.00; Recommended for children ages 5 and up. For more information, visit www.steppingstonetheatre.org or call 651-225-9265
Book: Karen Abbott, based on the book Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe; Lyrics: Dominque Jones & Atim Opoka; Music: Dominque Jones; Arrangements and Music Director: Atim Opoka; Director: Ansa Akyea & Charla Marie Bailey; Choreographer: Ricky Morisseau; Set Design: Micah Haworth; Costume Design: Rhiannon Fiskradatz; Lighting Design: Joshua Stallings; Sound Design: John Acarregui; Props Design: Brooke Nelson; Dialect Coach: Mina Kehoe; Stage Manager: Kivan Kirk; Assistant Stage Manager: Tumi Akin-Deko; Production Manager: Rachel Ostroot.
Cast: Kia Brown (Manyara), Rashaad Dinkins (Prince/Hungry Youth/Old Woman/Headless Man), Alaysia Duncan (Nyasha), Eyala Elate (Villager), Isis Giles-Jordan (Villager), Brandon A. Jackson (Mufaro), Camrin King (Villager), Cortez Owens (Villager), Danyelle Robinson (Storyteller/Messenger).