The bottom line
Playing at Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) through February 15, the world premiere production of Mwindo is a sublime, concise and fantastical retelling of an ancient Central African folk tale. Though recommended for children ages 9 and up, it's appropriate (and compelling) for younger children as well (see specifics below).
Playwright Cheryl L. West takes theatergoers on a hero’s journey with the retelling of Mwindo, which was passed down through centuries of oral storytelling by the Nyanga people of the East Congo.
“Mwindo is an unusual tale in which a parent rejects a child, instead of the more familiar theme of rebel youth. It is an adventure tale about the young man, the hero Mwindo, whose journey must include the lessons of forgiveness,” says Director Linda Hartzell, SCT’s artistic director.
My daughter was captivated before the actors even stepped onstage: huge vines covered the stage and my 10-year-old noted the ladders underneath them, along with her desire to climb. Once the lights dimmed, the story pulled her further in. The Chief announces the birth of his sixth daughter, praising the bride price he will get once his eagerly awaited seventh daughter is born. Questions flew out of my daughter’s mouth: Why doesn’t he want a son? Why don’t we meet all of his daughters?
We do meet a magical creature immediately: Spider Cricket, who has a colorful costume, wings that won’t help her fly and a jubilant nature that carries the show from start to finish. Spider Cricket, played by Felicia Loud, is the Chief’s eyes during the birth of his seventh child, who turns out to be a man-child named Mwindo. It’s to West’s credit that audience members easily understand why Mwindo is disowned by his father: he’ll gather no bride price and, more importantly, he’ll take power away from his father, the tribal Chief.
The playful innocence of a young Mwindo makes this difficult fact bearable for young viewers. There’s a spear fight, an imagined raging river and the basket he travels in, and a mother giving her life for her son. But this rendition never feels too much for my companion. It’s a story to wonder at and relish as Mwindo travels to the underworld to live with his Aunt Iyan, the owner of seven hearts shown by bright LED lights on her white gown’s chest.
It’s hard not to give the whole story away, but know that each of this play’s characters — including puppets — adds delight and depth to this story. For example, at first glance it’s easy to dismiss Cha-Cha, a silly hedgehog who tells Mwindo he’s been sent by the gods. But by the play’s end, he’s a fitting oracle. When the actors’ asked the audience questions at the after-show Q&A, the young audience members made it clear they understood every lesson taught by this centuries-old Central African epic tale.
Parents should know
Kuti, the water serpent puppet, has huge red eyes that magically move and many arms. My 10-year-old thought young children might be frightened by these wondrous eyes. Still, I thought viewers much younger than the show’s recommended age of 9 would love this show, with a running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.
For specifics on the content, and a sneak peek at themes of the play, which include forgiveness, leadership, maturity, and African oral storytelling, check out Mwindo’s Active Audience Guide.
If you go ...
Where and when: Mwindo plays at the Seattle Children’s Theatre Charlotte Martin Theatre through Feb. 15.
Tickets: Tickets start at $20; purchase online or by calling SCT’s Ticket Office at 206-441-3322.
Tips: Come early and check out the vine-filled stage and stay if there is an actor Q&A after the show. The actors are adept at having children discuss the play, and are great at talking with children while they sign playbills.