It's 9:25 on a weekday morning in August. Billie Jackson, Lee Raines and Dennis Angulo sit on a bench in a city park. City parks have begun to look alike to them, but this is Monday so, according to the schedule, this must be Stanton Park at 4th and C Streets NE. Two National Park Service employees are setting up the Showmobile where Jackson, Raines, Augulo and other members of the Library Theater will perform "Jazz Theater for Children," part of the Summer in the Parks program.
"We always get a good audience here," says Raines.
Celia Clark, dressed in overalls, crosses the street from the Stanton Market, carrying several cups of coffee and a carton of fruit punch. "Does anyone remember which show we did the last time we were here?" she asks, distributing the coffee and sipping the punch."
The consensus is that they did the "red" show last time, so they will perform the "orange" show today. There are two slightly different versions of "Jazz Theater for Children," which is an introduction to children's stories through jazz, dance, mime and narrative, Clark explains. Since some parks are visited more than once during the summer, the group tries to avoid doing the same show twice in a row.
"Work time!" shouts Clark. The group, which has been joined by stage manager and technical director Larry Redmond and players Mark Martino and Susan di Rende, unloads equipment from a battered maroon van.
By 10 o'clock most of the musicians have arrived and are setting up their instruments. "Orange show today?" asks Olaive Jones, the musicial director. The audience is arriving, too, although the show isn't scheduled to begin until 10:30. About 40 children from the Greater Mount Zion Church Day Nursery, across the street from the park, are jumping rope and tossing frisbees while they wait. Several children gather around drummer Paul Dean. "Everybody relates to drums," says Dean. "The first instrument anybody ever played was a drum."
Eugene Little, 12, of 2009 11th St. NE, beats out a creditable time.
"Play the drum, don't beat it," says Dean to Stefan Lunsford, 7, of 1125 Park St. NE.
"Enough. The drums have had enough," Deans says good-naturedly as more kids converage. They move toward Olaive Jones, who shows them a hollowed-out guida, or gourd, which is played with a metal pick.
"Put your fingers in these holes," she explains to a little girl.
Retrieving some castanets from a toddler who has walked off with them, Jones explains how the show was put together. The cast, directed by Ron O'Leary of the University of Maryland Theater Department, works out the action in the mornings. In the afternoons, Jones and another jazz musician, Danny Bowens, compose music to suit the action. "We're still making changes. We still improvise," says Jones.
"Everybody finished dressing?" asks Clark. Billie James, now in a red leotard, is bending over to limber up and, at the same time, reading the morning paper, which she has spread out on the grass. Martino, Raines and Angulo who, like most of the cast, perform in dinner theaters at night, are on stage. Raines is standing on his head, and Martino and Angulo are tap dancing. "They're rehearsing their evening routines," jokes Clark.
"TWo minutes, Susan," shouts the stage manager. "Ladies and gentlemen," he announces, "in just two minutes the show will begin. Please sit back from the stage and give the actors room." The audience, composed of about 70 people, most of them under 8 years old, crowds the stage. "Get back, little kid," growls a huge puppet.
The music starts, and Clark James, Raines, Martino, Angulo and di Rende dance onto the stage. "We're 'Jazz Theater for Children,' and we're about children's books," says Angulo, inviting the audience to clap along to the Library Theater song, composed by Danny Bowens.
If you have a problem you can't solve yourself/You can find the answer. Go to your bookshelf/Open those books. Open those books . . .
"The first book," says James, is about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It was written by a man named Robert Southey, in case you want to read it for yourself."
Goldilocks is followed by a jazz version of Old MacDonald, who kept on his farm a hippopotmus, an armadillo, a minnow, a ladybug and other unconventional animals.
The kids are on their feet, clapping, dancing and getting closer to the stage. A man from the National Park Service tries to get them to sit down, but an Irish setter, who runs in front of them, has more success in driving them back.
Next comes the story of Henry Possum, played by Mark Martino. While all the good little possum are learning to play dead. henry learns to play the flute. In the audience, Kim Wall, 5, does almost perfect imitations of the good little possums, clapping, dancing and rolling over dead.
"Our next book is 'The Golden Goose,' by the Brothers Grimm," announces di Rende. It's a complicated tale about Simple Son, played by Lee Raines, who eventually gets to marry a princess. The highlight comes when the cast dances through the audience, pulling some of the kids along with it. At the end, the cast shouts the moral: "Sharing isn't as silly as it sounds."
"Now, we have a sit-down story," says Clark. "It's called 'Cinderella,' and it's by Charles Perrault."
The kids sit sown, but the tension mounts as the prince tries the glass slippers on the step-sisters, and they rise to their feet and edge closer to the stage.
After Cinderella and Prince Charming live happily ever after, the cast goes into the finale.
You can live with pirates, or rocket to the stars./Sip pour tea in China, or sweat in Madagascar./Open those books. Open those books . . .
By 11-15 the audience has dispersed. The musicians have packed up their instruments. Clark is stuffing costumes and props into the orange and yellow trunk, and the rest of the cast is loading the van. The National Park Service people are dismantling the Showmobile.
"See you tomorrow," waves Olaive Jones. At Fort Dupont Park. Or Anacostia Pavillion, or Malcolm X Park, or Lincoln . . .