"Sing On, Ms. Griot," the current offering at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre, is a provocative variation on the East-meets-West theme. In this case, it's Africa-meets-Afro-America in a spirited contest of cultural pride and identity. At stake is the sense of connection between two cultures separated by a time of slavery and a search for the spiritual global village that exists between "those taken and those left behind." It's an eloquent and moving statement tying in to Black History Month.
The production opens with the impressive energy of drummer Bradley Simmons, whose percussive energies snake through the story, underlining and defining various scenarios. Enter Madame Griot, portrayed by Leonora Logan, whose wonderfully expressive body language has its own West Indian accent. Close behind is the wise-cracking Ananse the Spider, a classic West African folklore figure boisterously played by Joseph Wigfall. Ananse and Griot get into an argument over the worth and relation of African-Americans to the larger African family. It's a friendly argument inspired by each culture's chauvinism, but the conjured figure of Mansa Musa, a mythic 14th-century emperor, transforms it into an important battle of wit and emotion expressed throught the art of storytelling.
Griot and Ananse choose their respective, and somewhat reluctant, warriors: the American Kimanthe (who's been studying his roots "at the community center" but so recently that he "just turned on to Kwanza") and the African Efua, a dutiful daughter who is caught between modern ways and traditional values. They square off in a vital and amusing series of contests -- music, song, dance ("Although my movements may be different," Kimanthe says, "we still dance with the pulse of the African beat."). Deborah Adams and Nathaniel Ritch use the rivalry more to establish similarities than differences, an assessment that's reinforced as the contestants slowly evolve into a community of shared traditions.
The crux of the play centers on Mansa Musa's judgment of their skills in folklore (reflecting Africa's love of the spoken word) and tradition (making sure Africa's customs are implanted in their hearts). The cultural connections draw tighter as Ananse tells why spiders seek out darkened corners and Kimanthe recalls the tale of Br'er Rabbit and the briar patch: as the plots synchronize and the characters mimic each other, the communality of both sides is irreversably established.
The performance by the New Federal Theatre of New York is full of humor, contentiousness, pathos and the colorful imagery of two distinct cultures drawn out of one universal heart. There's also a great deal of call and response and other methods of involvement to effectively draw young theatergoers into the passions of the play; Friday's show was a cacophonous maelstrom of involvement. Happily, in the process of being entertained and excited, one also ends up learning a great deal about people and traditions, ritual and pride.
Performances at Discovery Theatre are Wednesday through Friday at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and Saturdays and Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. For information, call 357-1500.