From slavery to the present, Show Way transforms Jacqueline Woodson’s children’s book about ancestral matrilineal history, hope, and freedom into a children’s musical. Commissioned by the Kennedy Center and making its world premiere, this show is chock full of wisdom, history, foot-stomping music, and choreography drawing from African American and West African dance traditions.
Show Way the Musical tells the story of Soonie’s great grandmother, who at seven years old was sold from her family. Carrying a piece of muslin and red thread, Soonie’s great grandmother initiates the tradition of using cloth, thread, and the needle to create not only quilts and clothing but also as a medium for carrying on family memories. Through textiles, the family remains connected and transmits familial stories and history through subsequent generations. The moves from the 19th century to the present, highlighting salient moments in American and African American history.
The musical score by Tyrone L. Robinson, making his Kennedy Center composing debut, with orchestrations by Wilkie Ferguson transforms the lyricism of Woodson’s poetry into songs delivered with a cast of strong vocalists. Taylor Williams’s electronic music design makes the sound hip and engaging. Tiffany Underwood Holmes leads the band and plays the keys behind the backdrop making the music sound as if it was prerecorded for the occasion.
Playing the Edler Mother, Theresa Cunningham’s forceful and clear singing conveys the emotional trauma of having a child snatched from its mother. Yet the musical never goes dark; becoming bereft of joy is not what drives this story. The music is what keeps the headiness of selling a child away from its mother digestible.
This tragedy, which occurs not once but twice in the musical, becomes subsumed in the joviality of the singing and dancing. What holds this intergenerational family of women together despite the tragedies and losses are memories, hope, and pride. Momentary relief from the pain of enslavement comes with the freedom song, which garnered wild audience applause with Cunningham, Danielle Lee Greaves (Griot), Avia Fields (Lil Bit), Angela Birchett (Mama), and Danyel Fulton (Auntie) delivering riveting harmonies.
Emmanuel Elliot Key’s (Brother) death by gunfire, which takes place during the Civil War as his character—an enslaved man—fights for the North, exemplifies Key’s ability to convey realistic movement when falling dead from gunshot wounds.
Likewise, Key’s maneuvers from buck dancing to the juba to the Charleston are as much about choreographer Tiffany Quinn’s vision of the diversity in African American dance genres as about highlighting salient moments in African American dance history. Quinn finds an apt conveyer of her vision in Key.
Scenic Designer Tony Cisek, Lighting Designer Kyle Grant, and Projection Designer Jeremy Bennett score a big win with the backdrop resembling a Faith Ringgold–like quilt with images of Woodson, her daughter, and six of their ancestors. The images first appear as silhouettes. Lighting reveals the features in each silhouette as the story of the ancestors unfolds. Projected onto the backdrop is a timeline of events, names, and iconography in African American history: the Great Migration, Jim Crow, redlining Emmett Till, Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter, and “I Can’t Breathe.”
As much as the story of slavery and the plight of African Americans in the U.S. is wrought and curated often to minimize its horrors and trauma, this musical provides a cogent vehicle for initiating a conversation with children about American history and American slavery. Slavery in the U.S. is one of the most taboo of topics in conversation, but nonetheless one of the more written about tropes in the American literary canon.
It helps to read Woodson’s book with beautiful illustrations by Hudson Talbott before seeing this show. Since cast members double as different characters and the playbill does not list all their roles, reading the book will help discern who the characters are as well as their names.
Running Time: 48 minutes, with no intermission.
Show Way the Musical runs from May 13 to May 29, 2022, Thursdays to Sundays at 1:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., and 7:00 p.m., in the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($20), call the box office at (202) 467-4600, toll-free: (800) 444-1324, or go online.
The program for Show Way the Musical is online here.
This production is most enjoyed by ages 7 and up.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons regardless of vaccination status inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking. As of May 15, 2022, the Kennedy Center no longer requires vaccine verification to attend indoor events and performances. The Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.