On the 50th anniversary of Ezra Jack Keats’ classic, The Snowy Day, Adventure Theatre is producing a world-premiere musical based on the book.
Adventure Theatre, the longest-running children's theater in the D.C. area, is gearing up to present a world-premiere musical, based on Ezra Jack Keats' classic picture book, The Snowy Day.
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 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, "May book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along."
"I'm African American, my son is Vietnamese, my partner is Caucasian," says Michael Bobbitt, Adventure's producing artistic director. "So diversity is a big part of who I am. And it's strange to believe that less than fifty years ago we were so segregated. So yes, Peter should have 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," Bobbitt says, "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, he 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 'cause 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 Toney to write The Snowy Day's script. For music and lyrics he turned to Darius Smith, a Howard University musical theater professor, who says he found inspiration in the book's 1960s setting.
And Toney found inspiration in the book's plot; in fact, he took some creative license and added new characters to Keats' tale, from Harold the Snowman to Roberta the bird.
"He created all these wonderful characters that are really fleshed out and have their own journeys," Smith says of Toney's writing. "It's great just seeing the book which is so simple in its beauty, kind of blown up into this whole new world of things."
But of course, this "new world" also includes original, iconic elements from Keats' book, says Alan Wiggins, who plays Peter.
"You will see Peter and the footprints," says Wiggins. "You will 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 gonna 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 fifty years ago, the idea of a white, Jewish man telling an African-American child's story raised some eyebrows, Wiggins says really, it's a moot point.
"It is not a story about the struggles of this African-American child," he says. "It's a child who is African American, going through normal, everyday things that any 6-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 6-year-olds have yet to be treated to the 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 runs Jan. 20 to Feb. 12 at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo Park.
[Music: "Prologue" by Darius Smith from The Snowy Day]
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