The official launch party for “Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale” is underway at the Anacostia Community Museum. But like the traditional Caribbean leaf vegetable dish from which the book takes its name — made with vegetables such as dasheen root, amaranth and spinach, often with okra and coconut milk — this Sunday afternoon reading is anything but ordinary.
As a musician plays the steel pan drum, author Marjuan Canady reads the story to several dozen children. The book’s illustrator, Nabeeh Bilal, operates a rod puppet of Winston, the main character, and performers from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts act out the parts of mythical creatures from Caribbean folklore.
Actress and playwright Canady, a D.C. native of Trinidadian descent — and an Ellington alum — wrote “Callaloo” as a play after receiving a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2012. It tells the tale of Winston, a Brooklyn boy who is magically whisked to the island of Tobago to gather ingredients for his aunt’s callaloo. On the island, Winston meets characters from Caribbean folklore, including Papa Bois (the forest’s protector) and the Lagahoo (a werewolf-like creature). The story follows Winston through his journey back to Flatbush Avenue and his grandmother.
The play was performed at Duke Ellington in 2012 and at New York’s Lincoln Center last year. “I never thought I’d do a children’s book,” Canady said.
But D.C. artist Bilal, who attended Ellington with Canady, persuaded her to adapt the play as a children’s book with him; the two self-published in November.
“There’s not a lot of children’s books about the Caribbean American experience,” says Canady, who received a first-time-author award at the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago last month. Bilal and Canady plan to stage the readings throughout the District’s public library system in the coming months.
The standing-room-only crowd in the museum’s meeting room attests to the support of friends, family and the local Caribbean American community, including Stacey Greene, the reigning Miss St. Kitts & Nevis, and Canady’s seven aunts. Von Martin, host of Caribbeana’s weekly three-hour radio program of Caribbean news and music on WPFW (89.3 FM), came to speak briefly on the importance of the book in preserving Caribbean American folkloric traditions. Petworth’s Trinidadian Crown Bakery, whose owners Canady calls lifelong family friends, provided savory and sweet pastries for the audience.
“It’s great to have our community behind us. They’ve been so supportive,” Canady says. “Living in L.A., I can come back and know that I have roots here in the Caribbean American community in D.C.”
In researching the original play, Canady followed the trail of Caribbean folklore through word of mouth, collecting variations on stories by taking oral histories. Some, like the Soucouyant, a creature from Trinidadian folklore similar to a vampire, were characters Canady recognized from her childhood and the bedtime stories her mother told her.
“The children have been very receptive and positive about it,” Canady says. “They could be from Southeast or New York City, and they know about the Douen, they know about La Diablesse now. And they compare it to ‘Snow White’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Some of these characters are very similar to them.”
Canady is working on a series of continuing stories about Winston’s travels among the islands of the West Indies, with plans for future books and, potentially, a television series.
“In my mind, the main character, Winston, travels throughout all of the islands of the Caribbean, where he learns of the culture and the storytelling. Because for me, this story is really my story: growing up here but still being connected [to a heritage outside the United States], feeling like you belong here and you belong somewhere else. I think that’s an experience for a lot of kids.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.