It is an exciting trip through time. And, by the final curtain call, these children will have learned that there is much more to Africa--and Africans, for that matter--than what they might have seen in old movies.
This ambitious historical saga, playing to enthusiastic audiences throughout the District of Columbia, is called From Africa to America. Unlike most film epics, with their towering sets and casts of thousands, this one has but a few hand-painted backdrops-- including an African village with little thatched huts--and a small but talented cast of about a dozen Whittier teachers. Though the production is decidedly low-budget--one can hear the footsteps of the stagehands rushing to draw down the curtain, and the needle on the record player skips now and then--it nonetheless offers many moments of high drama.
For example, as Rosa Parks takes her rightful place at the front of the bus, the cast members begin to sing “We Shall Overcome.’' And the song is quickly picked up, without prompting, by the children, who seem to have been born knowing all the words. And, for just one moment, there is a magical connection, a hot spark that bridges the gap between the past and the present.
Says special education teacher Constance Jackson, who plays the part of Rosa Parks: “It’s always amazing to look out into the audience from behind the stage doors. Small kids, even kindergartners, are just into it. They don’t even want to go to the lavatory.’'
The musical play, researched and written by Whittier teachers, is directed by the school’s own Cecil B. De Mille, Evelyn Williams. Unlike history texts, which often overlook the African continent’s contribution to the human story, the play sets the historical record straight, Williams says.
“Most of our students never knew there were kings and queens in Africa,’' says Williams, a preK teacher. “And they thought all Africans spoke the same language. They didn’t know the geography--the deep forest, the plains, the deserts. They just thought it was all jungle.’'
Until about two years ago, that’s what most Whittier teachers thought, too.
“A couple of years ago,’' Williams recalls, “we had a young parent who came to us and asked, ‘Why aren’t you teaching African history?’' At Whittier, where most of the students are African-American, it was not an irrelevant concern. Says Williams, “We had to start asking ourselves, do we even know our own history?’'
After careful consideration, she concluded that the answer was “No.’' So Williams persuaded her fellow teachers to let those celluloid visions of Africa die on the vine. Then, she and about 20 other teachers split up into teams, investigating the continent’s rich history--its kings and queens, tribal and family culture, art, music, and languages--and came up with their own script for the history of Africa and its now far-flung people. No Tarzan, no Jane.
Although most of the action takes place onstage, children are also helped along by between-scenes narration. The education begins even before the curtain rises, as kindergarten teacher Shelley Graham warms up the audience like a cheerleader.
“It gets cold in the Sahara Desert, is that right?’' Graham asks.
“They carry baskets on their heads in Africa, is that right?’'
And as the play begins, to the accompaniment of recorded drum beats, the learning continues. “The narration is where the history is taught,’' Williams says. “And there’s a huge matte drawing onstage showing the different parts of Africa. We just bring the students step by step, from King Ramses of Egypt to the present day.’'
Of course, a history textbook can tell the same story, but, Williams believes, not as well.
“Theater really shows you life,’' she says. “For instance, one of the most popular skits in the play is called ‘Flossie Learns to Read.’ It shows how one slave tried to learn to read and was beaten for doing so. That made the kids very sad. I’ve seen more than one of them cry. But it also made them determined. After the play, many of them come up to me and say, ‘I’m not going to be like Flossie. I’m going to study hard to learn to read.’'
Although the play has an emotional impact on its audience, perhaps no one is more touched by it than its players.
“Each time I perform the play, I get more from it,’' explains John Haywood, Whittier’s science coordinator. “I get pride from learning my history, the history I didn’t learn when I was in school.’'
Since its debut before an audience of Whittier students last year, the play has been presented at a teachers’ convention in Washington and, recently, in a private performance at the Ghanaian Embassy. Now, Williams is soliciting grants to take the play on the road, to all the District’s schools and possibly beyond.
In many ways, Williams says, From Africa to America has become a mission. If all the children learn is the history of Africa, she says, that’s fine. But she believes there is a deeper message that is of singular importance to black children growing up in America’s cities.
“We tell our children, your ancestors were great,’' says Williams. “You can be great, too.’'
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Africa, In Words And Music