Dallas — Virginia Hamilton once described her association with the past as it moving with her despite the fact that she removes herself from it. “It’s light often shines on this night traveler; and when it does, I scribble it down,” she wrote.
Thus one can understand her fascination with the tales told by slave women and girls that are now part of our oral histories. In Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales, Hamilton re-presents African-American fairy tales and myths primarily through lenses of women and girl characters. Tonya Davis-Holloway has selected six of these stories and adapted them for the stage in Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories. Davis-Holloway’s original adaptation was first presented by Soul Rep Theatre Company in 1998. This new adaptation now onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center includes original music by Christopher Mazen.
Directed by Anika McMillan-Herod, this production is framed by music that has been arranged by Nathan Young and performed by the cast of (in alphabetical order): Kassy Amoi, Karmela Berrones, Yolanda Davis, Terrence Dean, Jr., Zalayna Jenkins, Rene Miche’al, Dennis Raveneau and Bonnie Scott. Also appearing in the cast is Soul Rep co-founder and Artistic Director, Guinea Bennett-Price.
Hamilton’s father was a musician as were her children, so it makes sense that Davis-Holloway would have chosen music as the connective tissue for this piece. Music and dance are mainstays of the African-American tradition and perfect accompaniments for the stories, but the strength of this piece resides within the spoken words that carry the tales. The voices of this cast are wonderfully sonorous and colorfully dramatic. These stories, intended primarily for children, are deliciously seductive for adults as well as children thanks to the fun-filled dramatizations by this cast.
Hamilton was fascinated with the diverse portraits of women that appeared in the slaves’ tales, and she sought to recreate those in her stories. Davis-Holloway has arranged the selected tales in a way that showcases the prism-like qualities of the female: strength, intelligence, persistence, determination, kindness, and cleverness.
The six tales that have been adapted for this play are “Little Girl and Buh Rabby,” “Miz Hattie Gets Some Company,” “Good Blanche, Bad Rose, and the Talking Eggs,” “Malindy and the Devil,” “Lonna and Cat Woman,” and “Woman and Man Started Even.” These tales arose out of plantation life and were told mostly by slave girls seeking escape through their imaginations.
Hamilton grouped her stories into five sections, animal tales, fairy tales, supernatural, folkways and legends, and true tales. In some instances, human characteristics were assigned to animals, objects or to a god (anthropomorphism). The slaves worked with things they saw around them, including animals. The qualities they observed in animals appeared in many of their stories. In “Miz Hattie Gets Some Company,” God (Raveneau) creates the world’s first cat from a glove.
“Lonna and Cat Woman” is Davis-Holloway’s adaptation of Hamilton’s “Catskinella,” (a variation of Cinderella). “Good Blanche, Bad Rose, and the Talking Eggs” is based on the Creole story Talking Eggs which was initially collected by Alcee Fortier and published in 1895.
“Malindy and Little Devil” which dates back to 1890, is an example of the retelling of Biblical stories in the African-American folk tales. This tale is a revision of the story of Faustus, and traces back to the state of Virginia, the Carolinas and to Georgia.
“Woman and Man” originated in Tennessee during the 1890s. It is a creation myth informed by the story of the Garden of Eden. As shaped here it promotes the idea of gender equality as God’s original intent, and how that equality was perverted by the fallen angel, Devil.
Technical standouts in this production are the set (which according to the program results from a group effort of Johnny Wolf, McMillan-Herod, Guinea Bennett-Price, Douglas Carter and Rebecca Jeffrey) and the very well-balanced sound design of Brent Nance.