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February 2011

Adding Color to Children's Theater

Mirandy and Brother Wind Breezes Onto Local Stages

By Barbara Carney

One day in a bookstore, Michael J. Bobbitt was drawn to the art on a book’s cover as he and his son glanced through selections. Mirandy and Brother Wind, written by Washington, D.C., native Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, had won numerous awards. Bobbitt, now the producing artistic director at Adventure Theatre, was charmed by the book’s beautiful drawings and fluid language. He was interested in doing something about, “the dearth of African-American themes in children’s theater. The best musicals have elements of music in the story. So I figured a story about a cakewalk would be perfect as a children’s musical.” He personally acquired the rights to the book and began collaboration with John L. Cornelius, II, a musician/composer friend.

After much research, adaptation, composing, grants writing and rehearsals, the musical production of Mirandy and Brother Wind premieres on January 21 at Glen Echo’s Adventure Theatre and runs through February 13. The production will then continue at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in the District as part of Intersections: A New America Arts Festival, from February 25 to March 13.

JoAnn Williams, executive director of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, was part of the effort to receive grant funding for the musical from the National Endowment for the Arts. “Our mission is to present African-American history and culture. When we asked ourselves if we could name any African-American children’s musicals, no one could answer. So while we have not done this for children before, there was no way we couldn’t be involved.”

Mirandy and Brother Wind is set in 1906, in a rural South Carolina town. Fans of the book know the tale revolves around a spirited young girl named Mirandy. She wants to win her community’s cakewalk by harnessing Brother Wind—he will do her bidding if she can catch him. But her ambition is also balanced by empathy, and she is clever enough to win the cake while staying loyal to a friend.

Behind the Scenes

Bobbitt wrote the libretto for the musical and respects the original language of the book while drawing upon his own family history to get the details right. His grandmother grew up close to the story’s setting. She explained the home remedies of that time and place (sulfur, molasses and cod liver oil), the kinds of chores required (“sweeping the front yard—useless!”) and what kids did for fun (“rolling down the hill ‘til we got sick!”). These insights add texture to the production, celebrating Mirandy and the culture of her neighbors. Scenery draws upon the elaborate quilts made by the women of the area. Lighting features bright colors. Costumes reflect the era of longer dresses. The music is specific to the time period and mixes traditional African-American music and dance with contemporary music theater form. Lively numbers such as “The Cakewalk Song” and “How ‘Bout a Trade” evoke a ragtime sound, while “Go to Sleepy, Little Baby,” is a lullaby with a gospel tone. Young ears unfamiliar with these styles are in for a real treat.

Bonus Activities

Additional activities come with each production location. At Adventure Theatre, a book club component is open for participation to children ages 3 and up. In partnership with The Little Falls Library of Montgomery County Public Schools, Chick-Fil-A and Politics and Prose Bookstore, children receive “passports” that can be stamped at each special book club performance, which includes a free book club workshop after the performance. By reading additional books from a prepared library list, children earn points that can win free meal passes, books, movie tickets and free tickets to a show of choice at Adventure Theatre.

At the Atlas, Intersections: A New America Arts Festival presents nine days of multidisciplinary, curated performances celebrating art as an inspiration for conversation and connection. Author Patricia C. McKissack and illustrator Jerry Pinkney will be at the Atlas on Saturday, February 26. There will be book signings by McKissack, an art project led by Pinkney, a cakewalk competition and a free cupcake for all kids.

Expanding Audiences

Adventure Theatre is a 59-year-old organization that has transitioned from a volunteer model to a professional one. Bobbitt has helped heritage month programs reach out to diverse audiences to coincide with African-American History Month, Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and Women’s History Month. The actors reflect the diversity of the region, too. The goal is to honor the various cultures and provide children with a variety of experiences through music and theater. Partnerships with a number of other organizations, such as Reading is Fundamental, Mocha Moms and National Geographic, have also helped to expand the audience. This is the first time Adventure Theatre has partnered with the African Continuum Theatre, as well as the Dance Institute of Washington, and the first of Adventure Theatre’s series called African-American Adventures.


Mirandy and Brother Wind

What: A dance operetta for ages 4 and up, based on the picture book by Patricia C. McKissack

Where: Adventure Theatre at Glen Echo Park (adventuretheatre.org), 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, and The Atlas Performing Arts Center/Paul Sprenger Theatre (atlasarts.org) 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, D.C.

When: Adventure Theatre: January 21-February 12

ASL- and sensory-friendly performance: Sunday, February 13, 2 p.m.

Atlas Performing Arts Center: February 25-March 13

Special “VIP Day”: Saturday, February 26. With author Patricia C. McKissack and illustrator Jerry Pinkney. Signings at 2:30 p.m.; art project, cakewalk demonstration and free cupcakes for all kids.

Tickets: $15 at both locations


Barbara Carney is a writer in Washington, D.C.