ALLIANCE’S FAMILY-FRIENDLY WORLD PREMIERE POPS ARTIST ASHLEY BRYAN’S CHARACTERS ONTO THE STAGE IN AN ADAPTATION BY AWARD-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT JIREH BREON HOLDER.
“The Dancing Granny” runs June 10-July 16 at three locations: the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University in Brookwood (June 10-18); The Galloway School in Buckhead (June 24-July 2); and Spelman College in southwest Atlanta. Details, tickets HERE or at 404.733.5000.
Moments after her dramatic announcement, she was up and dancing again.
Many of us have grandmothers (or grandfathers) who use expressions that tickle and intrigue us.
“The music sweet me so,” is what Sarah would say to explain why she simply had to get up and dance. She’d dance from one room to the next. She’d dance as she stirred a pot or made her bed.
Sarah Bryan, who came from Antigua in the West Indies, was the grandmother of renowned artist and author Ashley Bryan, whose output includes some 50 children’s books (from Beautiful Blackbird to Sail Away ).
Just like the title character in his award-winning 1977 children’s book, The Dancing Granny, Grandma Sarah would “shake it to the East” and “shake it to the West.”
The Alliance Theatre has turned Bryan’s book into a play; the adaptation is written by playwright Jiréh Breon Holder, whose recent Too Heavy For Your Pocket sold out its Alliance run and is scheduled to play off-Broadway in the fall.
When Bryan, a scholar of African and African-American folklore, set out to create The Dancing Granny — itself a retelling of the 1936 Antiguan trickster tale He Sings to Make the Old Woman Dance — Grandma Sarah was both muse and model.
Granny is about a lazy old spider named Ananse, who fools Granny Anika into dancing miles away from her garden so he can steal vegetables like the “sweeter than sweets” beets.
Grandma Sarah had six children, all of whom left the Caribbean and settled in New York City. At age 68, she came to visit her brood — and stayed 20 years. When Bryan returned from World War II, she was living with his parents.
“I loved to sit there with my sketchpad, trying to capture the joy and rhythm of her movements,” Bryan says. “She never posed for me. I simply drew her in quiet moments or in action. I always wanted to capture the body in its many marvelous motions.” Sarah died in the mid-1960s at age 90.
The Dancing Granny storybook contains 75 or so expressive ink-and-brush drawings of the old gal kicking it up, flipping a cartwheel, spinning, shimmying, sashaying. The small but meaty volume is still available and invites you to thumb through its pages as fast as a flipbook.
Holder’s world premiere stage adaptation has five characters: Anika the Granny, Ananse the Spider, the Sun (who drums), and the Earth and the Wind (who dance).
The play encourages us “to embrace the small joys of life, and to dance every chance we get,” says Holder. He describes this first effort at a piece for young audiences as “surrounding” and says “Everyone will feel like they are part of the vegetable garden.”
Holder laments a 21st-century move away from moralistic characters and relished the chance to work on this tale and “spend time with these flawed yet fun characters as they make their way through a fable designed to teach old and young alike the value of working together.”
“My grandmother treated the whole world like it was a little village,” says Bryan, who’s 93 and writes and creates art daily at his longtime home on Little Cranberry Island off the Maine coast. “When she was on a city bus she would talk to people next to her like she’d always known them and they’d always known her.”
In shaping his play, Holder was inspired by his own grandmother, who also loved to dance. He calls the show “a dance party honoring the fact that many of us remember our grandmothers fondly.”
Ameenah Kaplan plays Granny. The actor-drummer-dancer started the project as its choreographer before being asked to take the lead role.
“For me, the big surprise has been how well I fit into Ashley’s world,” Kaplan says. “It’s like we may be cut from the same cloth. We exist in music, color, rhythm, simplicity and a connection to nature.”
It feels natural to slip into Granny’s skin, she says. “Rhythm is always flowing through me.”