‘Show Way,’ a story of family and legacy, comes to the Kennedy Center | Arts & Theater

By COLLETTE CAPRARA

Families who take the opportunity to view “Show Way The Musical,” onstage at the Kennedy Center Family Theater, are in for a memorable, joy-filled and thought-provoking experience.

“It’s been truly rewarding to work with this show. Every day at rehearsal I get to sit and watch our amazing cast sing and act to bring this powerful story to life,” said Tyrone Robinson, the award-winning composer who created the music and lyrics for the production. “The costumes are beautiful, and the setting is stunning with a lot of surprises that I think families and young people, in particular, will enjoy and appreciate. They’ve created a truly Broadway visual production.”

The scenes and action in the musical are based on Jacqueline Woodson’s entrancingly illustrated Newbery medal-winning picture book. The story conveys the actual experiences and life journeys of seven generations of women in Woodson’s family, each of whom exhibited the courage, determination and care that empowered them—and future generations—to survive and thrive.

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The resounding message of the show is one of love and resilience and the legacy of women whose strength and fortitude illuminated their daughters’ and granddaughters’ lives in a journey from enslavement to freedom, through segregation, freedom marches and the quest for literacy.

The title of the show harkens back to Woodson’s ancestors who stitched quilts with images of stars, moons and roads that were literal “Show Ways,” which contained hidden messages to guide slaves on their harrowing journey north to freedom. Pieces of those quilts were passed down through the generations and were cherished as inspiring reminders that helped them to recognize their personal show ways, which would empower them to meet the challenges confronting them.

Robinson and Woodson are a dynamic and visionary creative duo, who had worked together on an earlier production in 2013.

“This is the world premiere of this musical, and what interested me in this story—in addition to Jacqueline’s powerful and emotive language and writing—was that it is a story about family and legacy. It’s an American story and, no matter what your family looks like, we can all understand and relate to what that is, what our families pass down to us.”

The mesmerizing journeys of Woodson’s predecessors are powerfully conveyed through the talents of director Schele Williams, choreographer Tiffany Quinn and just six vocalists/actors; three of the cast members have impressive Broadway and nationwide experience and the other three exemplify the thespian talent within the DC area. With the exception of Danielle Lee Greaves, who plays Griot the storyteller, all the actors—Avia Fields, Theresa Cunningham, Angela Birchett, Emmanuel Elliot Key and Danyel Fulton—take on the roles of multiple characters. Throughout the creation of the musical, Robinson and Woodson worked closely together to ensure that an accurate account of her family heritage was represented.

Robinson also researched the panoply of styles, genres and instruments that were part of the evolution of African American music throughout the course of more than 120 years, including the Gullah low country music of South Carolina. The pulsebeat of African drums is a presence throughout the musical, and the Kora, a stringed instrument used extensively in West Africa, contributes to the transporting quality of the production, which was enhanced with orchestras by Wilkie Ferguson.

“The story is universal in its specificity. Every family has a legacy that they can relate to. I hope families will leave with a sense of pride in their own histories and the feelings of joy, gratitude and hope, and that families will continue their conversations when they return home,” said Robinson. “You’re going to learn about American history and be in a room filled with a lot of love because, in the end, it is a story about love,” Woodson said.

Added features for young audiences include suggested readings, activities and projects on the Kennedy Center’s website. In addition, the site’s Moonshot Studio is offering drop-in activities and scheduled workshops. Children can explore some of the hidden language of quilts and design their personal quilt square and use mixed media to create a poster that combines powerful images and words, and their vision for a better world.

Collette Caprara contributes to The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star.

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