You go, Guinea

The special challenge of children's theater--namely, how the heck do you make live performance not only accessible to kids, but competitive with the technological media forms--has been addressed before in this space. It's not really so different from the challenge of making live performance accessible and competitive to adults, who so rarely consider theater a Friday- or Saturday-night option and, when they do, discover themselves underwhelmed by the human voice and body not filtered through the prism of a movie or TV screen. But the kids seem like a good place to start, considering that cultcha-conscious parents will often take the ankle-biters to a Dallas Children's Theater performance when they would never consider for themselves an evening at, say, the Dallas Theater Center or Stage West. You can see the gap between what adults want for their kids and what they'll enjoy themselves by comparing the average attendance at the Children's Theater with the Theater Center's attendance. If everyone who was a regular patron of the former became one of the latter, adults would soon learn how to watch a play the way they want their offspring to learn.

The earlier that process begins in a person's life, the more likely we might one day truly see a generation that actually weighed the choice between seeing the new Jim Carrey movie and attending some hot ticket stage comedy (or maybe not--critics rush in where angels fear to speculate). Building that bridge of appreciation across the seasons of a single life must surely be on the mind of writer-actress Guinea Lada Bennett. Her daily schedule symbolizes this union: By day, she works at the Children's Center of the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, and by night she is co-artistic director of Soul Rep Theatre Company, one of the Southwest's few African-American companies.

Bennett has carried her mission of making theater responsive to children with her latest project, Miss Guinea Tells Herstories. It's a co-production of Soul Rep and Collected Works, the resident company-management entity of the Swiss Avenue Theater. Directed by Collected Works' Kate McClaine, the show is an almost one-woman version of a multi-actor production staged last year by Soul Rep and starring Bennett.

Guinea Lada Bennett may also face a challenge in making theater responsive to African-Americans. In an earlier interview with me, Kate McClaine agreed that she didn't think nearly as many black adults as whites attend theater. Now, with the proviso that most adults of every racial background aren't theatergoers, you could argue that this is because African-Americans so rarely see themselves on the live stage. But blacks do attend virtually all-white movies in high numbers, so what's up? Maybe it's the patina of privilege that surrounds theater that Bennett and McClaine are trying to disassemble with Miss Guinea Tells Herstories, which is about as down-home as you're going to encounter from any local company.

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Indeed, you get the feeling as you confront Jim Pavey's object-strewn front-porch and front-room set that you've been invited into the home of an unkempt woman who's got more on her mind than housekeeping. And so the garrulous Miss Guinea does--she's Bennett's alter ego, a tell-it-like-it-is, distinctly Southern archaeologist who unearths and enlivens the black American folklore recorded by author Virginia Hamilton in the book Herstories.

Bennett as Miss Guinea, who wrote this adaptation of Hamilton's collection, informs the audience that "storytelling is our livelihood here," "here" being the town of Folksville, whose population seems to be only Miss Guinea and her partner Uncle Sam (Sam Simmons). Yet it's the stories told by Bennett, with the support of Simmons, that swell the census reports of Folksville to epic--or, more accurately, mythic--proportions. Playing nearly all the characters herself, Bennett moves from one fable to the next with only some loose transitional patter to guide us through. There are six tales in Herstories, and while that word may make some fear a woman-warrior, Ntozake Shange-style redux, the premises in these tales concern how certain things came to be and are quite traditionalist in their attitudes and lessons: Spanking is good; you gotta have the Lord; men and women were born to play different roles; and so on. All the protagonists are women, but otherwise the feminism here is a wry, light basting on the folk tales--being female here certainly won't rescue you from a bad end if you're also foolish.

The looseness of the evening's structure is nicely matched by the performance attitude of Bennett, who doesn't so much act as tell wise, wooly jokes daubed with colorful strokes of voice, gesture, and expression. She understands that the sacred role of the griot, the village storyteller, is to maintain omniscience over all the characters described, to interpret them rather than channel them. Any Stanislavian attempt to inhabit, say, Buh Rabby while he's tricking a girl out of her garden peas or Malindy while she's trading her soul to an easily hoodwinked devil so she can regain spilt milk would make these stories, ironically, all about the storyteller. As Miss Guinea, she is the shepherdess of the whole loving, hurting human flock; to attempt to join her charges would be an abdication.

Theatrically, the evening's biggest disappointment came in the telling of the strangest, most fascinating story. Either there was some technical glitch, or director Kate McClaine indeed chose to stage almost all of Catskinella in darkness. There is phosphorescent tape placed around the angles of the stage, and the same material is used to illuminate a talking mirror. But the stuff isn't phosphorescent enough: the action is completely obscured, except for the title character's dancing under a glittering strobe moon in her dress made of cat skin, which eventually entices a prince. Equally wicked, but enjoying a blessed delivery in full light, is Good Blanche, Bad Rose, and the Talking Eggs, about a pair of sisters who react very differently to a mysterious old woman with magic powers. The sister who scoffs finds herself chased by rats and lizards.

Unfortunately, there were only a couple of kids present at the Thursday-night performance of Miss Guinea Tells Herstories, so it's impossible for me to say just how a group of children would react to Bennett's energetic, broadly comic delivery. Will the lessons of Good Blanche's respect of elders or Buh Rabby's exploitations of vanity resonate with them in a way that will at least compete with TV and video games? Will the importance of passing stories from one generation be impressed upon them? Quite frankly, I'm not sure those are fair expectations to place on a child. As an adult, I had more fun savoring the eerie Southern magic and the vain and arrogant exploits of the characters--not to mention contemplating the sometimes controversial cultural lessons being transmitted--than I probably would have had 20 years ago. Only now can I see how true these lessons about human nature are, and so they are richer to me. You go, Miss Guinea, and keep telling Herstories. But the question lingers: Who's best equipped to listen?

Miss Guinea Tells Herstories runs through August 1. Call (214) 320-8990.


Virginia Hamilton, whose most famous book is The People Could Fly, specializes in writing supernatural and fantastic stories for young people based on African, Caribbean, Creole, and Southern black folklore. But for the "Ms. Guinea in Folksville" section of Herstories, Guinea Lada Bennett turned to her own personal folklore.

"Folksville is Rusk, the East Texas town where I come from," Bennett said. "There's a mental institution there where most of the town is employed, as I talked about in Miss Guinea. I came from a family of griots; we sat on the porch the whole time and swapped lies."

Bennett, the artistic director of Soul Rep, is used to working theatrically with adults rather than kids, although she's developing a play she co-wrote, Pecan Pan and the Project Kids, to be staged by Soul Rep for kid audiences sometime in the near future. She will next do a cameo as Pam Grier in a short play for Soul Rep's Third Annual New Play Festival, which opens August 6 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.

"And I'm not wearing a wig," Bennett said proudly. "I went out and bought myself a pick. I was shocked at how big I could make my 'fro."

Bennett dismisses my generalization that African-Americans as a group don't attend live theater, although she'd like more support for edgier stuff from her own community.

"Black audiences flock to plays like Mama Don't, where they have at least one couch and some good singers and very familiar stories," she says. "They might not be critically acclaimed, but people pay 50 bucks to see them. It's a process of growth. We want the same people to pay $10 to see a Soul Rep show, where they'll experience sound and light and performance incorporated to a new theatrical level."

Soul Rep's Third Annual New Play Festival runs August 6-15. Call (214) 565-0186.

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