Stories, imagination, and magic: 'Amazing Grace' at Soul Rep Theatre Company
by Cristee Cook
Adapted by Shay Youngblood from the popular children’s book series, Amazing Grace, and Directed by Soul Rep Theatre Company Co-Artistic Director Tonya Holloway, the children’s play Amazing Grace is a joyful reminder of the power of stories. The play is also a testament to the power of unstructured play.
The story begins with a song. In fact, Holloway has taken a short children’s play and transformed it into a musical. I thought going into the performance that I would be watching a straight play, but under Holloway’s vision, the story is a dance-filled song-scape. Together with composers La Bell, and Daylene and Dustin Carter, Holloway has included five original songs that guide the story in a passionate and heartfelt direction. I enjoyed the additions and thought the music brought a freshness to the entertainment value.
Grace, played with beautiful maturity by Harmoni Hampton, is an imaginative child who revels in the mythological stories from her Nana (Soul Rep company member Renee Miche’al). Stories like the myth of Anansi the Spider, Joan of Arc, Mowgli, and Hiawatha come to life under Grace’s crystalline visions. Together with an ensemble of friends, the stories are enlivened with simple elements like cardboard costumes, masquerade capes, and simple wooden boxes.
Watching the story unfold, I remembered my own childhood and the unencumbered freedom of creating a world with nothing but a sword and kitchen pot for my costume. As a society, we’ve moved away from this type of play. I see it in my own kids. As much as I try to govern their screen time and electronic stimulation, I’m aware that humans aren’t the same as we were since the onset of social media and smartphones. It’s not a new insight, but it’s an important one. Amazing Grace isn’t just a joyful celebration of story and lesson about self-esteem, it’s also a story that reminds us of the strength of innocence and imagination – that no-holds-barred magic of just being a kid.
Childhood can be magnificent when you’re supported the way Grace is. As Grace, Hampton is happy and strong. Grace has plenty of self-esteem at the beginning of the story. It isn’t until she’s told by her classmates that she can’t play Peter Pan in the school play because she’s black and a girl that she doubts her own potency. Maybe it’s too personal a lens to take in a theatre review, but I thought about those moments in my own life: the people who saw my light and tried to make it small, or the well-meaning grownups who had forgotten their own magic that tried to give me a “dose of reality,” only to leave me with the feeling that my dreams were impossible, silly, or unrealistic.
Surprisingly, Grace doesn’t fall to that. She epitomizes the magic of being a little girl. With the encouragement and unconditional love from her Nana and Mother, Grace bounces back from the disappointment. She maintains her own spark and the way Holloway’s production accomplishes that is heart-opening and dear.
Amazing Grace is a powerful and uplifting reminder that we can be whatever we choose to be, and it’s not wrong or silly to want to see our dreams actualized. It’s a simple story, but a crucial narrative for the confusing and disconnecting times we are in. I came home to my family with a bigger desire to connect to the simplicity of joyful play, and a deeper appreciation for my children’s innocent excitement. Now that I’m all grown up, think I’ll choose to be more like Grace.
Amazing Grace, Adapted by Shay Youngblood and Directed by Soul Rep Theatre Company Co-Artistic Director Tonya Holloway is performing through March 8, 2020 at the South Dallas Cultural Center. You’ll find the South Dallas Cultural Center at 4200 S Fitzhugh Ave in Dallas, adjacent to Fair Park. Soul Rep Theatre Company is hosting a special “clapback” post-show discussion panel on the topic of self-esteem after the matinee performance on Sunday, March 1, 2020. For tickets, visit www.soulrep.org. For additional insight into the production process, check out our conversation with Director Tonya Holloway on Dallas Art Beat.