Even though, in this Digital Age, we tend to view things through an expansive global lens – now more than in any previous era – we still, when we want to hear a story, tend to look no further than our own backyard.
Perhaps this tendency is driven by our ever-growing hunger for familiarity and connection. Yet Ann Arbor’s Spinning Dot Theatre – which specializes in global children’s theater, and has both a youth company and an adult repertory company – believes that exploring stories from faraway places not only offers exciting new ways to connect, but also provides ways to reframe the struggles that we may be too close to to see clearly.
SDT’s latest presentation, “The Kids from Amandla Street,” is the company’s first-ever Unity Production – meaning that it features both youth and adult SDT actors, with various levels of experience – and comes from South Africa. (SDT’s age recommendation for “Amandla” is ten or older, since issues related to racism, violence, and immigration are explored.)
“We often try to pick plays where the kids are the catalyst for what happens,” said director (and SDT founder) Jenny Anne Koppera. “This is about four kids, and what they do when the road isn’t finished, and people say they’re going to close down the schools until the foreigners leave, because their bad juju is supposedly contaminating the true South African spirit.”
One young girl hopes to become President of South Africa; and one child has parents who work outside the country, so he’s been left with a gun at home, in order to protect his brother and sister. One of the play’s questions involves whether he will use the weapon when provoked.
“We pitched the show to our youth company, but there were some issues with taboos – like this kid having a gun – but it was too important not to do,” said Koppera. “That’s what gave us the idea of combining all levels of our company together. … To have (young people) in the cast, and have their voice heard, seemed really important to the work we do at Spinning Dot.”
To solve this age-appropriateness riddle, SDT’s “Amandla” cast seventeen actors in six roles, so that different actors could tag in to play the same character in a specific scene. “It’s an intriguing look into how we perceive a character if he’s played by a white boy, or a forty-five year old South Korean man, or a 25 year old African American man,” said Koppera. “It applies a different lens to what the play’s pushing against and cracks it open in a different way.”
Koppera was first exposed to “Amandla” via a reading at the 2016 New Vision/New Voices conference at the Kennedy Center, which was also where she met playwright Lereko Mfono, who recently arrived in town to meet and talk with the cast and see their performances. (SDT’s cast will travel to Chicago next week to put on additional performances there, as part of a partnership that made Mfono’s visit possible.)
“Having (Mfono) here reminds us where the story grew from, and using our own lens, we can add to that dialogue, and ground the actors, and this allows us to respect the work while awkwardly making it our own,” said Koppera. “ … Because there’s always the question of cultural appropriation when it’s not of us but speaks to us. By having the playwright here, we can make sure we honor the work … in a way that’s meaningful and respectful.”
Unlike most productions, though, “Amandla” is a bit of a moving target, offering three performances, over the course of three days (March 8-10), in three different spaces (Ann Arbor’s Neutral Zone, EMU’s Honors College in Ypsi, and the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsi).
“It’s a way to get this material out to different audiences,” said Koppera. “We’re small, and we’re mobile, which is why we’ll sometimes pop up in coffee shops and places like that. Part of the reason for that is we’re really trying to reach out to people who maybe wouldn’t be likely to come to a theater space. We’re trying to tap into a younger crowd.”
For show details, visit www.spinningdot.org.