Have you ever met someone you’re certain will be famous?
Listening to D.C.-born actress Marjuan Canady discuss “Callaloo”, her new play celebrating folklore from Trinidad and Tobago that debuts Saturday at the Ellington Theater, I can’t help thinking: “This girl’s gonna be huge.”
She’s beautiful but seems largely unaware of it, ambitious without being obnoxious and smart without parading her intellect. Unlike other young actresses who can’t stop talking about themselves, Canady’s passionate discourse concerns her Caribbean ancestors’ culture and traditions, and commemorating them with her work.
Canady, who performed her last play, the one-woman showGirls! Girls? Girls. off-Broadway and at more than 50 colleges and community
centers around the country, named her play “Callaloo” for the popular, collards-like dish. Originating in West Africa, callaloo--a staple of many Caribbean cuisines—is prepared differently in different regions, reflecting the diverse influences of the African, Indian, European peoples who traditionally prepared it. Caribbean folklore, Canady insists, is the much the same.
“Folkloric stories are part of our history, our culture, our oral traditions,” says Canady, 26. So a dish that mixes different cultures’ culinary traditions to create something new seemed like the perfect inspiration for a play celebrating the ghosts, demons and deities that evolved from the traditions of the African slaves, Indian indentured servants and European immigrants who populated her ancestral homeland. Canady, too, is a mix. “My mom is Trinidadian and my dad African-American,” Canady explains. “So my approach is to remember and honor their different memories through storytelling.”
The notion of creating a two-woman, 45-minute play examining ancient Caribbean folkloric characters hit Canady at a concert by Etienne Charles, the Trinidad-born jazz trumpeter, in New York. Listening to songs inspired by his native land’s folklore, Canady suddenly saw characters she’d learned about in childhood coming to life through the story of an American-born boy haunted by images of his parents’ native Trinidad. Visiting his grandmother on the island, the boy falls asleep and dreams of the funny, flamboyant and frightening spirits populating the island.
Last summer, I saw a snippet from “Callaloo” at a fundraiser at the 876 Cafe in Northwest Washington and was blown away. Playing the boy, Canady, wearing a leotard under jeans and a hair-hiding baseball cap, slipped into feigned sleep. As if in a trance, she rose--slithering out of her boyish attire and insinuating her curves into a lacy white dress, a huge black hat and the dangerously sexy persona of La Diablesse, the seductive demon that puts spells on drunken men with her beauty and then kills them as revenge for mistreating women. La Diablesse is one of six folkloric characters introduced by “Callaloo”; five are played by Canady, and two by her co-star Vanessa Evans, who also plays the boy’s grandmother.
“The more research I did on these folkloric characters, the more important I saw they were to all Caribbean people, and to everyone in the African diaspora,” Canady explains. “I saw how important it is to preserve these stories and traditions. In African-American culture, storytelling is part of everyday life--but we don’t necessarily recognize it as art form. Our folk tales are art, and they deserve recognition.”
“Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale,” is written by Marjuan Canady. Music is by Etienne Charles and is directed by Natalie Carter. Performance is at The Ellington Theater, 3500 R Street, NW, Washington DC. General Admission: $20. Students: $15. To purchase tickets go to www.callalootheplay.com
Donna Britt is a former Washington Post columnist and author of “Brothers (and me)”: A Memoir of Loving and Giving."