Strollers bring ‘Wisdom’ back for Black History Month

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Five years after Maplewood theater company The Strollers staged a production of “How the World Got Wisdom,” its players are back at it again. The children’s theater production, a compilation of African folktales and music, is being staged at the Burgdorff Center, 10 Durand Road in Maplewood, for two weekends to kick off Black History Month. Dena Daniel, a codirector along with Amanda Feliciano and show producer, enjoyed the show so much in 2015 that she decided to bring it back for an encore this year.

“It’s stories acted out,” Daniel said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Jan. 30. “We’ve used a narrative device so that they’re saying what they’re doing. So they’ll say it in third person, and then say their line. They have to think about the division between the story and the lines.”

The cast of 10 children and six adults don’t leave the stage throughout the show; they’re either playing a character who is telling a story or playing a character who is listening to a story. They play djembes and other percussion instruments at certain points.

“We always do a children’s show in the winter, and they invite a lot of creativity from the kids,” Daniel said. “They’re very much a part of creating it, not just performing in it. We’ve had a lot of enthusiasm from them. We want to make the community part of community theater. We can bring our own ideas to it and we’ll tweak or change the ensemble. We’ll let them have a large say in who they play. It’s not a hard and fast script.”

In an email on Jan. 30, Daniel said the loose structure of “How the World Got Wisdom” gives producers room to cast everyone who auditions.

“We can vary the load for each kid based on their comfort, strengths and availability,” she said. “We really try to include any kid who sincerely wants to join the project. For ‘Wisdom,’ we cast everyone who auditioned, then pulled in a few friends to round out the adult presence.”

Carol Cornicelli directed the 2015 production of “How the World Got Wisdom,” and this year she’s in the cast.

“It’s always different when you have different people,” the Maplewood resident said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Jan. 31. “But it’s nice to have a fresh view of what someone else would do. And it’s nice to be in it, because I like playing on stage.”

The cast was finalized in the fall and rehearsals began, becoming more frequent throughout January. Cornicelli said that even though working with a large group of children can be difficult, it’s fun more often than not.

“Having kids is challenging because of the energy they have,” she said. “There’s this burst of energy they bring in that doesn’t stop until they leave. It’s amazing that they have all of that after school. You never know what they’re going to do. When you’re teaching them, you learn more too.”

Idris Talbott is a newer member of the Strollers, and this is his first time working with children in a cast.

“It’s very fun,” the Harrison resident said in a phone interview on Jan. 31. “They’re quick learners. But they know what they’re doing. They’ll just go for it, when adults can be a little more hesitant.”

Maplewood resident Beth Seales is a member of the cast, as are her two daughters, Zoe and Violet. The three of them have done a couple of shows with The Strollers; Seales joined the company when her children wanted her to audition.

“Last year they wanted to try out, and at the auditions they were looking for adults,” Seales said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Jan. 31. “So I did, and it was great. It’s been a bonding experience for us.”

Even though “How the World Got Wisdom” is a children’s show, Daniel said audience members of all ages will enjoy it.

“We want to make it feel cozy, so the parents don’t dread it,” she said. “Especially with the drums, it’s hypnotizing. We’ve heard nothing but good things about it.”

Chosen because of February’s annual celebration of Black History Month, “How the World Got Wisdom” tells folktales from South Africa, Ghana and other African nations. Cast member and Irvington resident Melyssa Searcy said research went into the way the cast would tell the stories.

“It’s interesting to see how Africans tell stories,” she said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Jan. 31. “In theater, when you do something cultural you want to be as accurate as possible. But not a lot of community theaters do a lot for Black History Month, so it’s nice to have a group focus on that. It’s nice to see the diversity we have in the cast, because that makes it better. It’s a great way to be engaged in it.”

Searcy said she’s learned about different African cultures herself from being involved with the show, her third with The Strollers. Seales agreed.

“So many of us grew up hearing the Greek myths and fairy tales and things like that,” she said. “But you didn’t hear folklore from Africa. Maybe they’ll learn. It’s still stories, and anyone can enjoy those. Plus there’s live music.”

Talbott agreed on both counts.

“It’s not just talking about slavery,” he said about the show and how it fits into Black History Month. “It’s going way, way back to real African culture. It’s made me look stuff up, so the adults are learning too. We have these stories, but they’re so much more than that. They’re about the peace and love of nature that Africans have, and how dance and music can bring people together. There’s so much to look at.”

“How the World Got Wisdom” will be at the Burgdorff Center on Friday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 8, and Sunday, Feb. 9, at 1 and 3 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.thestrollers.org.

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