MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week we're going Out in the Cold. And sure, when it comes to cold and snow especially, things around the Washington region have been relatively gentle of late. But at Adventure Theatre, the longest-running children's theatre in the D.C. area, one thing is certain, the snow is about to fall, big-time. And when it does, it'll be accompanied...
MR. MICHAEL BOBBITT
No, this is how Peter, so he's feeling the snow, seeing the snow.
And he gets very excited about it.
And producing artistic director, Michael Bobbitt, is getting very excited too because Adventure Theatre is gearing up to present a world premiere musical based on Ezra-Jack Keat's classic picture book, "The Snowy Day."
Bobbitt recently invited some friends of the theatre to a rehearsal where he previewed the orchestral tracks for some of the songs like this one, "Peter's First Steps."
Makes you happy, doesn't it?
"The Snowy Day" tells the story of Peter, a young boy who awakens one morning to the season's first snowfall and it turns out the story, which Keats wrote in 1962, was pretty revolutionary for its time, because little Peter in his bright red snowsuit was the first African-American character to star in a full-color picture book. In fact, Keats, who was white and Jewish, once said of his protagonist...
"My book would have him there simply because he should've been there all along." Do you have any reaction to that quote?
Well, I'm African American, my son is Vietnamese, my partner is Caucasian and so diversity is a big part of who I am and it's strange to believe that less than 50 years ago, we were so segregated. So, yes, Peter should've always been there and he can experience the snow for the first time just like anyone else.
This production is the second in Adventure Theatre's African-American Adventure series, five world premiere musicals based on books about the African-American experience. The first musical was "Mirandy and Brother Wind," adapted from a 1997 children's story.
I was looking for an African-American story to launch the series and all of the stories that I read were based on historical characters but I wanted to find things that really celebrated the culture and didn't necessarily talk about race. So I set out to find books that did just that.
And "The Snowy Day," Bobbitt says, was always a personal favorite.
I can see the copy of my book when I was a kid that was just wrinkled and tattered and torn because I read it so many times.
Bobbitt says all the musicals in the African-American Adventure series are composed by African-American artists. He enlisted D.C. area playwright and actor, David Emerson Tony, to write "The Snowy Day's" script. For music and lyrics, he turned to Darius Smith, a Howard University Musical Theatre professor who let me in on a little secret.
Darius said when he was little, he didn't read "The Snowy Day."
Shame on him. Shame on him.
MR. DARIUS SMITH
But I love it now.
And how could he not? Smith says when Michael Bobbitt gave him the book...
I read it over and over again and then had some conversations with my collaborator, David Tony, and we kind of just dove into the world of this late '60s, '70s type inspiration.
You can hear that inspiration in a number of Smith's songs, including one the cast ran through at that invited rehearsal. It's called, "Walk This Way."
That's Calvin McCullough in the role of Harold the Snowman. Now, Ezra-Jack Keats does mention in his book that Peter made a smiling snowman, but in David Tony's script that snowman becomes Harold, who's desperate to get to the North Pole. Harold is among several characters added by Tony and Darius Smith applauds his collaborator's creative license.
Kind of like how I was inspired for the music, he was inspired by the stories and just created all these wonderful characters that are really flushed out and have their own journeys. It's great just seeing the book, which is so simple in its beauty kind of blown up and into this whole new world of things.
But of course, this new world also includes original, iconic elements from Keat's book, says Allen Wiggins who plays Peter.
MR. ALLEN WIGGINS
So you will see Peter and the Foot Prince. You'll see the mound of snow fall on Peter's head. Harold the snowman gives me the snowball that I try to save for the next day. So you're going to get everything that you want and love from the book and then so much more.
And you're going to get it, Wiggins says, no matter who you are. Because even though 50 years ago the idea of a white Jewish man telling an African-American child's story did raise some eyebrows. Wiggins says, really it's a moot point.
It is not a story about the struggles of this African-American child. It's a child, who is African-American, going through normal everyday things that any six year-old would go through. He's experiencing new things, he's using his imagination and the story is universal.
Perhaps not 100 percent universal in these parts given that our region's six year-olds have yet to be treated to their first big snow of the season. But if, like Peter, you can reach into your mind and use that imagination, any day can be a snowy day, any day at all.
"The Snowy Day" opens January 20th at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo Park. For more on the show visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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