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The Blue Shadow
March 13 – May 2, 2010

Illustration by Polina Ben-Sira

From the Chicago Reader

March 16, 2010
By Lawrence Bommer

Like Silk Road Theatre Project's The DNA Trail, this high-spirited, hour-long kids’ show by Nambi Kelley is all about our search for origins. Shadow, a Native American girl, discovers her connection to the world by finding out who she is and where she comes from. Multiple, edifying source stories (Russian, African, Chinese, and Mayan) are exuberantly depicted by Ilesa Duncan's hyper cast and Ian Zywica's tradition-lite props, masks, and shadow puppets. The very predictability of the tale-spinning delivers a kind of organized wonder, and Joe Plummer's songs are instantly infectious--their goofy fun keeping it, if not real, at least not pretentious.




From chicagotheaterblog.com

March 15, 2010
By K.D. Hopkins

There are so many tests in life. As children, some of the first we have occur on the play lot and then later in school, ranging from how to make friends to how to make it off of the playground without being teased. Back in the day, there weren’t many guides for this kind of stuff; if a child was not popular then the dice often fell the same way your entire life. These days, we are encouraged to celebrate our differences and somehow find common ground. It was from this premise that I took my niece Lexie and my nephew David to see The Blue Shadow at the Lifeline Theatre.

I grew up on shows like "Captain Kangaroo" and "Garfield Goose." Questions of national origin were never addressed (although I suspected something subversive about Mr. Green Jeans). By the time "Sesame Street" and "Zoom" came along, I was well into junior high and getting plenty of doses of cold reality thanks to the world seemingly getting smaller via the evening news.

The Blue Shadow, by playwright Nambi E. Kelley, is lovingly adapted for the stage from a book written with her nephew Xavier Kelley. When walking up the to theatre, there was a gaggle of excited kids racing us to the door. I got the book and CD for my young guests (which I recommend as a fine way to continue the positive energy of the production after going home). I introduced Lexie and David to Ms. Kelley and her nephew Xavier, who both autographed the book. It was a good example to set for the children - something to aspire to in perhaps writing their stories.

When we were ushered to our seats, it wasn’t long before members of the cast, in character, filtered through the audience. Dawn Pryor sat down in the aisle next to my nephew and introduced herself as her character Zuri. Her exuberant smile and bouncing braids immediately enthralled David. Ms. Pryor engaged him in a conversation and I admit to being charmed as well. When Miguel Nunez introduced himself as Ernesto, I scoffed at his claim of being ten years old. Mr. Nunez retorted with a very convincing "uh-huh I’m ten!" It was a clever means of involving the young audience and then focusing them on the stage.

Ben Chang plays the role of Wei - a cool kid wearing headphones who launches into an audience participation rap. Wei is joined onstage by Africa (Pryor), Meso-America (Nunez), and the European Roksana (Mallory Nees). A teacher is heard in a booming voice-over, telling the children to take their seats and welcome the new student Shadow (Susaan Jamshidi). Jamshidi plays Shadow with perfectly awkward rebellion and tentative shyness at the same time. Bursting onstage wearing a heavy metal tee shirt and dark glasses, the other schoolkids immediately make negative presumptions about her. But the students warm up to her as Shadow impresses them with her Wikipedia knowledge. As the children introduce themselves, they share their origins on a giant inflatable globe. Shadow does not know how to explain her ancestry so easily as the other kids and becomes quite blue. The song "Shadow’s Blues" is funny and forlorn as the audience is reminded that one does not have to get their heart stomped on to have the blues - the blues can come from a yearning to recognized and to belong. (The music and lyrics by Joe Plummer are a welcome respite from the bleating bubblegum drivel usually peddled to children.)

What follows is a colorful array of tales from the human diaspora. The cast brought my Rand McNally childhood memories to life, traversing the globe with folktales and songs familiar yet new. I admit to a love of the story of Baba Yaga featuring Vasilisa (Nees), the put-upon stepchild in the Russian version of the Cinderella story sans Prince Charming. The entire cast is involved in each tale but this was a wonder of identity switching and snappy dialogue with a great gross-out depiction of Baba Yaga’s meal request. I bow to the props department on getting an ‘ewww!’ from everyone.

Each story is told to discover Shadow’s origins. After hearing tales from around the globe, she recalls a tale from her childhood of how moccasins were fashioned from buffalo skins. It is a story of mud and bunions with a great cameo by a buffalo that will delight all age groups.

The performances are full of such childlike exuberance that one forgets that these are adults on the stage performing as children. The cast embodies a frenetic energy that sincerely enjoys the material. The musical performances are broadly drawn; designed to remain in a child’s mind well beyond the production’s close. The use of shadow puppets and great papier mache masks lends a wonderful live cartoon vibe that draws one further into each folktale; inspiring flights of imagination.

At the play’s conclusion, all sections of the globe are filled in and everyone has a story of discovery. The writing inspired curiosity for learning about other cultures for my niece and nephew. There is a trip to the Field Museum in my near future as well as a tour through the family tree and photo albums.

Ms. Kelley, the playwright, has an impressive theatre resume here in Chicago as well as on both coasts. I have fond memories of her performances and am very excited to see her coming accomplishments on the writing side. I’m also looking forward to following the blossoming talents of Kelly’s nephew, Xavier, who adapted "The Muddy Foot" - the pivotal story in finding Shadow’s cultural identity. Xavier is all of ten years old and quite an impressive young man.

Director Ilesa Duncan has staged a flowing and fast paced production with The Blue Shadow. Never once does the direction condescend to the young audience, which ranges from four years old and up. I am always amazed at the stagecraft of the productions at Lifeline Theatre. This is but one of the reasons that Chicago is America’s theatre leader.



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