Seattle Children's Theatre excels at bringing our most beloved childhood stories to live on stage. The current season alone features classics like Robin Hood, Goodnight Moon, and The Garden of Rikki Tikki Tavi. But SCT is perhaps at its best when presenting stories that aren't already intimately familiar for audiences. Such is the case with Mwindo, the story of a boy born fully grown with magical powers, which has been passed down for generations via the oral tradition of central Africa’s Nyanga people. For two years, local playwright Cheryl L. West (Before It Hits Home, Jar the Floor, Pullman Porter Blues) has crafted a script and bring the mythic epic to the stage. The world premiere production of Mwindo at Seattle Children's Theatre opens January 22 and runs through February 15.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to West about Mwindo's origins, upcoming writing projects, and the importance of exposing children to theater.
What drew you to the story of Mwindo?
I had lunch with Seattle Children’s Theater artistic director Linda Hartzell one day and we were talking about potential projects to do. So I pitched her a couple things and then she said, “You know there’s a story—an ancient story—that I have wanted to do for years. It’s an African fable and it’s called Mwindo.” And I just loved the title, something about it seemed very active and rhythmic and powerful in a way. And so the more we talked about it, I did a little research, and I said, “You know, I’d like to take this on.”
I had never done a fantastical piece in my career—that spans now over 25 years. All this time, I’ve never done anything with creatures and mythic or fantastical elements. So I was really excited to let my sort of childhood imagination take over. What kind of story would I like to hear based on this myth? So I took the myth—which is usually told orally with singing and dancing—and said, “How can I reset it and reconstruct it for today’s audiences of kids, but still keep the mythic elements?”
What aspects of the myth do you feel still resonate so many generations later?
The story of the father and son; the sort of competitiveness that the father had about the son—without even knowing the son—and that he would not provide him with as much money or dowry as a girl child would. In many of the myths, the father then bans the son or kills the son. And then the hero journey is how the son becomes a hero in his own life, and then the life of the people of his village. In terms of most hero stories, you are confronted with something that’s so awful—in this case with the father want to kill his own son—and then how does that son become a man and learn the issues about redemption and forgiveness and leadership?
How has it been working with Seattle Children’s Theatre?
Well, I have a history with them. I can’t remember the year we did Addy: An American Girl Story (note: it was 2007), and that was a very successful experience. That show ended up going on tour. Their production values are so incredible and they’re very, very innovative in the ways of telling the story, and yet remain simple at the same time. They are very committed to telling stories that don’t talk down to children, but uplift children and empower children, and have children then sort of put their own experiences on the story. What will they think about redemption? Could they forgive the father? Are they a hero in their own stories? So I knew going in that I would get incredible physical production, I would get the time I needed to develop the piece, and then encouragement I needed. And that has held true.
Why do you think it’s important to expose children to theater at a young age?
I think that when we expose children at a young age to theater, we first allow children to see a story which hopefully instills in a child that they can create their own story. I think that we will affirm children’s experiences by what we put on stage, so then a child will feel less alone in the world. One of the things Seattle Children’s Theatre does is represent all types of stories out there. So that if a children comes to a story with an opposite experience or different cultural background, they will learn something else about another culture or another tradition. That makes them better global citizens.
What future projects are you currently working on?
I am working on a stage adaptation of Akeelah and the Bee, and I’m very excited about that. It goes into rehearsal this summer (at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego). I’m working on a commission for Arena Stage (in Washington D.C.) that’s going to be a small bio musical on a blues icon—I don’t want to say who. I also have play that’s being developed by Seattle Rep called BasketCases and it’s about the competitive world of AAU Basketball for girls. It’s a story about basketball moms basically, (laughs) and it’s a lot of fun.
What's the best show you've seen in the past year?
I went to see The Great Society—Robert Schenkkan’s play—and I loved it. Because one: I learned something about my own history that I didn’t know. Two: it’s an incredible production. And three: I could see the craft. It is so difficult to write that type of play, and cover that much ground, and still make it seamless. So I was also there as a fellow craftsperson and just admiring his work on that to get it to that point.
How has Seattle influenced your writing?
I think foremost Seattle has provided me an artistic home. I came here in 1987 because I won a spot in the Group Theatre’s that multicultural playwrights festival. And that was one of my big breaks in a way. It was of my first sort of big play, called Before It Hits Home. The Group Theatre produced a workshop of that, and from that one of the artistic associates from Arena Stage came to see it. And long story short, it eventually went to Arena Stage, and I met (ACT Theatre artistic director) Kurt Beattie at the multicultural playwrights festival, and he said, “Well if you ever have anything else…” and I was working on a play called Jar the Floor—which has also been done all over the country—and he was running Empty Space [Theatre] at that point, so I came back here for production of Jar the Floor.
So Seattle kept beckoning me. The Rep has done I think four or five of my plays, I’m not sure at this point. And then when Sharon Ott ran the Seattle Rep, she offered me an artistic home. And at that point I was thinking of making a move from Illinois, and she said, ‘You come here, and this is an open place for you to develop work.” And that has continued, when Ben Moore has been there all this time, it has always been a welcoming place for me to come and work. My career, in some ways, got launched here in terms of the professional aspects of it.
Jan 22–Feb 15, Seattle Children's Theatre, $29–$36