“Show Way the Musical” at the Kennedy Center tells the story of a child sold into slavery

From slavery to the present day, Show the way transforms Jacqueline Woodson’s children’s book about ancestral matrilineal history, hope and freedom into a children’s musical. Commissioned by the Kennedy Center and a world premiere, this show is packed with wisdom, history, upbeat music and choreography inspired by African American and West African dance traditions.

show the musical tells the story of Sonni’s great-grandmother, who at age seven was sold to her family. Wearing a piece of muslin and red thread, Sonni’s great-grandmother initiated the tradition of using fabric, thread and needle to create not only quilts and garments, but also as a means of perpetuate family memories. Through textiles, the family stays connected and passes on family stories and history to subsequent generations. The musical crosses from the 19th century to the present day, highlighting salient moments in American and African-American history.

The Society of ‘Show Way the Musical.’ Photo by Kyle Schick for Elman Studio.

The musical score by Tyrone L. Robinson, who makes his debut as a composer at the Kennedy Center, with orchestrations by Wilkie Ferguson transforms the lyricism of Woodson’s poetry into songs delivered with a powerful vocal cast. Taylor Williams’ electronic music design makes it sound hip and engaging. Tiffany Underwood Holmes leads the band and plays the keys behind the backdrop, making the music sound like it was pre-recorded for the occasion.

Theresa Cunningham and Avia Fields in “Show Way the Musical”. Photo by Kyle Schick for Elman Studio.

Theresa Cunningham’s (Elder Mother) powerful, clear vocals convey the emotional trauma of having a child taken from its mother. Yet the musical never dies out; becoming joyless is not what drives this story. Music is what makes the intoxication of selling a child away from its mother digestible.

This tragedy that occurs not once but twice in this musical is subsumed in the joviality of song and dance. What keeps this intergenerational family of women together despite tragedy and loss are memories, hope and pride. Momentary relief from the pain of slavery comes with the song of freedom, which drew wild applause from the audience featuring Cunningham, Danielle Lee Greaves (Griot), Avia Fields (Lil Bit), Angela Birchett (Mama) and Danyel Fulton (Auntie) delivering captivating harmonies.

The shooting death of Emmanuel Elliot Key (brother), which takes place during the Civil War as his character – a slave – fights for the North, exemplifies Key’s ability to convey realistic motion as he drops dead from gunshot wounds.

Likewise, Key’s maneuvers, from buck dancing to juba to Charleston, are as much about choreographer Tiffany Quinn’s take on the diversity of African-American dance genres as they are about highlighting salient moments in history. African American dance. Quinn finds a suitable vector of her vision in Key.

Emmanuel Elliot Key and Danyel Fulton in “Show Way the Musical”. Photo by Kyle Schick for Elman Studio.

Scenic Designer Tony Cisek, Lighting Designer Kyle Grant and Projection Designer Jeremy Bennett score a big win with a Faith Ringgold-like quilt-like backdrop featuring images of Woodson, her daughter and six of their ancestors . The images first appear as silhouettes. The lighting reveals the features of each silhouette over the history of the ancestors. A timeline of events, names and iconography from African-American history is projected against the backdrop: the great migration, Jim Crow, highlighting Emmett Till, Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter and “I Can’t Breathe”.

Even though the history of slavery and the plight of African Americans in the United States is often forged and curated to downplay its horrors and trauma, this musical provides a compelling vehicle to engage in conversation with children about the American history and American slavery. Slavery in the United States is one of the most taboo topics of conversation, but nonetheless one of the most written about tropes in the American literary canon.

It helps to read Woodson’s book with beautiful illustrations by Hudson Talbott before seeing this show. Since the actors double as different characters and the poster doesn’t list all of their roles, reading the book will help discern who the characters are as well as their names.

Duration: 48 minutes, without intermission.

show the musical runs May 13 through May 29, 2022, Thursday through Sunday at 1:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., and 7:00 p.m., at the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($20), call the box office at (202) 467-4600, toll free: (800) 444-1324, or drop by in line.

The program for show the musical is online here.

This production is more appreciated from 7 years old.

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons, regardless of vaccination status, inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center, unless actively eating or drinking. As of May 15, 2022, the Kennedy Center no longer requires vaccine verification to attend indoor events and shows. The Kennedy Center’s full COVID safety plan is here.