Nashville playwright and producer Rev. jeff obafemi carr led a cast of five actors to the nation’s capital Feb. 13 for a production of his popular African folk tale ‘choreo-poem,’ Before The People Came. The show was presented by the Discovery Theater, the official Theatre for Young Audiences of The Smithsonian Institution in the Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History. Carr’s cast performed Before The People Came twice on Feb. 13 to sold out crowds.
Before The People Came had its World Premiere in Nashville as a joint production of Nashville Children’s Theatre (NCT) and Amun Ra Theatre (ART) in February of 2004. The original run of the show sold out 38 performances in a row, and was selected to the Provincetown Festival of New Works for Young People in New York City. It is, to date, one of the few shows to be selected for multi-year appearances at the National Black Theatre Festival (2009, 20011).
The Smithsonian premiere adds to a string of successful runs for the show, which celebrates its 10th birthday next month as well. The play blends African Rhythms, masks, vivid costumes, and life size puppets together to tell the story of a group of animals, weakened by drought, who discover a pear tree guarded by a vicious tiger. They learn to work together in a most unexpected way. The story’s lessons about sharing and diversity are artfully woven into a blend of spoken-word poetry and jazz, blues, funk, and pop music that leaves young audiences caught in its delightful spell.
Carr, who occasionally travels with the play to do talkback discussions with young audiences, says that the lifespan of the play comes as a pleasant surprise.
“First off, I can say that I knew we had something special over 10 years ago when I first sat down with Scot Copeland (artistic director of Nashville Children’s Theatre) to discuss bringing this folk tale to life,” said carr, whose writing and directing has now expanded into a burgeoning filmmaking career. “We had the perfect storm of creativity. I had Alex Stadaker (musical director) and Charlie Huddleston (scenic); NCT shared Patricia Taber (costumer) and Scott Leathers (lighting design and set), and we went all out, together, to shape and mold it. It was like playing in the Olympics with the original Dream Team. To see the show continue to have life beyond its original run is a blessing and a dream come true for me.”
Before The People Came has been featured coast to coast over the last decade at several top-tier theaters including the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (Nashville), the Orpheum Theatre (Memphis), Greenwood-Lander Center for The Performing Arts (Greenwood, S.C.), the Edmonds Center for The Arts (Edmonds, Wash.), and the Mt. Baker Theatre (Bellingham, Wash.), among others. The coming trip to Washington, D.C. marks a return to the east coast for the show, as it was featured in 2012 at Wolftrap National Park for the Performing Arts (Vienna, Va.), America’s only National Park devoted to the Performing Arts.
“We figured we’d pretty much topped out with Wolftrap,” carr said. “We were on an outdoor stage with hundreds of kids for multiple shows, at a landmark American cultural institution. We floated back to Nashville and beyond on that high alone. Months later, I get a call from my agent telling me that The Smithsonian wanted the show. I thought he was playing at first, but as it turns out, we’re hitting the road.”
carr’s cast includes Bret Grigsby Wilson as Elephant, Todd Suttles as Griot/Tiger, Kenetha carr as Rabbit/Giraffe, Bralyn Stokes as Monkey, and new cast member Alicia Haymer as Eagle/Owl. The magnitude of the show appearing in the national educational spotlight isn’t lost on carr, who ran Amun Ra Theatre in north Nashville for 11 years and served a term on the Metro Arts Commission.
“As a storyteller, one of your foundational hopes is that you will create something that will live beyond you,” said carr. “I’m blessed every time I sit in an audience and hear the kids laughing and singing along with what they see on the stage. It lets me know that I’ve contributed something lasting for them as well.”
Before The People Came is appearing as part of the Smithsonian’s Meet The World programs, which are supported by a grant from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.
The largest museum-based educational program in the world, The Smithsonian Associates annually offers more than 750 seminars, performances, lectures, studio art classes, and local and regional study tours. Performances at Discovery Theater and more than 80 educationally focused summer camps are among the programs that fosters the joys of learning for young people and their families.