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Review: SHOW WAY THE MUSICAL at The Kennedy Center

The production runs through May 29th.

Review: SHOW WAY THE MUSICAL at The Kennedy Center

Show Way The Musical is a short musical adapted from the children's book of the same name by Jacqueline Woodson. It follows the family of Soonie, a Black woman in America, and the matriarchs that led her family from the time her ancestors were enslaved.

With a small cast of just six, and a tight 50-minute run time, this show is targeted toward children 7 and up, and played in the Kennedy Center's Family Theater. The show worked for children in an array of ways.

First, was of course the run time and the pace; as stated above, the show is barely 45 minutes, which is a good amount of time to deliver a compelling narrative and its lessons, themes, and knowledge, while still being able to keep the attention of some of the younger ones. The pace was also quite quick, with most of the jumping pretty quickly from number to number, always providing something new and exciting to feast your eyes on.

And in terms of visuals, the show delivered a very consistent and appealing style through various mediums. When first walking into the space, the audience is greeted with a backdrop that remained constant for the piece. It was painted to look like a beautiful multicolor quilt or Show Way, which, throughout the show, we learn is something Soonie and her family have used to stitch secret messages to help enslaved people to freedom.

The Show Way was covered in different designs, patterns, and colors, and also featured portraits of Soonie's family, and other motifs, like a folded United States flag, for Soonie's relative who was a veteran. Tony Ciseck (scenic), Jeremy Bennet (projection), and Kyle Grant's (lighting) design was so simple, effective, and in some ways genius. The simple painted material of the Show Way backdrop, was transformed to fit any purpose the show needed: it was semi-transparent, and was utilized for a stylized silhouette effect, different sections were lit up with different colors to emphasize a certain theme of a story. Pieces opened up to be windows and doors, literally placing the cast members into the Show Way in both a literal and metaphorical sense. While full of character, the execution was sleek, and a very exciting part of the performance, which worked in harmony with the story and themes of the show.

The physical world of the show was brought alive in a similar aspect through the costumes, which were designed by Jeanette Christensen. Most of the characters wore simple garments (a shirt and a skirt, or a shirt and pants), that were designed to evoke and replicate what seemed to be the mid-1800s to early 1900s. They were nondescript, as to make them work through the multiple generations the show works through, but still very clearly of another time, and worked quite well for the goal. The only slightly noticeable anachronism was perhaps some of the shoes, however, it was clear they needed to facilitate heavy movement, and work through different time periods, and thus were inoffensive, and did not break immersion.

The only costume that got to exist outside the realm of the past, and even out of diegetic reality, was that of the Griot, played by Danielle Lee Greaves. The Griot, named after the nomadic musicians and storytellers of Africa, wore an asymmetrical jumpsuit, with the quilted designs of a Show Way stitched onto it. This bolder costume clearly sets them aside from the other characters, who exist in history, and shows us that she is the guide and narrator for the evening.

And the performance of Greaves meshed as well. She has the unique position of being the only cast member to really directly address the audience, which of course is children, and she did a great job of keeping an engaging upbeat demeanor when speaking out, and still fitting into the world of the play when needed.

Another stand-out performance came from Emmanual Elliot Key, who played Brother (every member of the show besides the griot plays many parts, and is thus named familial titles such as Brother and Auntie). There is no doubt all the cast members were great dancers, however, Key was given the unique opportunity to showcase his movement with multiple solos. He was incredibly graceful yet full of character, and over a treat to watch. A particularly memorable part of the show involved Key dancing through history in a way, showing the growth of jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, all the way up to Jim Crow laws through dance.

The director, Schele Williams, and the choreographer, Tiffany Quinn tactfully used dance not only as a visual spectacle but as a means of storytelling. Many a time throughout the piece a short dance was used to convey a piece of plot, or an emotional crescendo, with language not even needed. There was actually quite a bit of dancing across various styles, and many paid homage to the history of dance and enslaved people in the States, as well as dance, being an integral part of Black culture in America.

The music carried the same weight and was in a way a time machine for the show, with the music changing based on the era and generation of the family being depicted at the time. All voices in the show meshed incredibly well together, however the incredibly full and grounded voice of Theresa Cunningham's Elder Mother, and the nuanced tones of Danyel Fulton's Auntie were particularly moving.

Review: SHOW WAY THE MUSICAL at The Kennedy Center
World Premiere of Show Way The Musical

As stated above this is a show for children, and works very well for them, however, there are small discrepancies that may make the show a bit confusing for younger audiences. The show featured a tight, six-person cast, and as is the convention with smaller casts, many roles are played by the same person, which is of course no problem. Though there were times when characters would switch quite quickly, and a new generational family would be introduced without much time to catch up. This was not a problem no doubt for the adult members of the audience to map out, but one can imagine perhaps a bit of confusion for a younger theater-goer, particularly at one point in the show when (if not mistaken) Angel Birchet (Mama) plays her own daughter.

Otherwise, though, it is a good show for children, and an important one. The show must be given praise for Woodson and Williams' tactful handling of the material. The show shows and teaches about the history of Black folks, and enslaved people in America, and does so through the framing device of one family, and in particular, the importance of phenomena such as a Show Way. The musical depicts the tragedies of slavery, and gives children a real portrait of the time, however, is careful not to traumatize, nor romanticize any aspect of the period. It is also sure to show the times of joy and love shared among Soonie's ancestors and places a lot of weight on the idea of ancestors and family being there for you when no one else.

A short children's piece that delivers on many fronts, the Kennedy Center's Show Way, is great for children and adults. Focusing on family, and ancestry, it teaches us to look at the stars, and also a lot of interesting history about enslaved people, stitching, and Show Ways. The piece runs with no intermissions for 50 minutes. Audiences should be advised the show deals with loss, racism, and slavery. Information on tickets, including sensory-friendly performances, and student discounts can be found at

All photo credits to Kyle Schick.

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From This Author - Tavish Young

Tavish Young is a writer and creative living and working in Maryland. After a childhood in the theatre, Tavish has explored acting, playwriting, set design, and costuming, and has studied the art at Goucher... (read more about this author)

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