A parent's review: 'Mwindo' at Seattle Children's Theatre
Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, and … Mwindo? A list of characters from the Grimm Brothers might have included all of those names if the brothers had collected fables and fairy tales outside of Europe. Lucky for us, Seattle Children’s Theatre and acclaimed playwright Cheryl L. West are bringing the story of Mwindo from the Congo to audiences here in Seattle.
While it may not be a familiar story, it has all of the components of stories we love: a hero, a conflict, a choice, a happy ending and, of course, the requisite comedic sidekicks.
Mwindo follows a newborn who is not a regular newborn but rather a full-grown, walking and talking boy. He is rejected by his father and exiled from his village. During his time away, he makes friends with some interesting characters – Spider-Cricket and Cha Cha the Hedgehog – but carries the bitterness of his father’s rejection with him.
When he returns to the village, he must choose between revenge and forgiveness. While the characters may be new to us, the themes are not. Amidst the fanciful costumes and magical puppets, we are reminded that people everywhere have the same choices in how to respond to hurt and rejection. And even if we are not magical children, born of Kahindo, Goddess of Good Fortune, we can still choose love over hate, forgiveness over revenge.
One of the best parts of seeing a new play is that you don’t bring with you preconceived ideas about how things are supposed to look or not look. The story of Mwindo is woven with many magical elements but centered on the real world of the Congo. The authentic elements included in the sets, costumes and staging brought a true African flavor to the show.
The sets, which my 10-year-old daughter kept whispering that she wanted to climb, consist of a series of arching ladders and platforms, almost like a giant jungle gym. They were covered with lianas, a climbing vine found in rainforests. Indeed, some playground designers should take note of these sets.
The show also included puppets that were manipulated by live actors in costume on stage. The animals moved across the stage in a manner somewhere between gliding and dancing. The effect was mesmerizing. Time and time again, my eyes returned to the hawk, controlled by Yesenia Iglesias. Its movements were so lifelike that it exuded emotions and a sense of wisdom. Equally captivating was Iglesias’ obvious connection to her puppet and her earnest expressions, almost as if the hawk were an extension of herself.
One of the things I love about SCT is their ability to adequately demonstrate how big and scary a creature is without making it terrifying for children. Along his journey, Mwindo encounters a giant water serpent, Kuti. He is huge and it requires five actors to control and move this puppet. Yet, the design of the puppet allows us to see the actor inside the head as well as the four actors moving his appendages. While our imagination can travel with Mwindo and fight Kuti, our eyes can reassure us that the monster is not real. It requires a careful balancing act to bring the monster to life while still keeping it palatable for children, and SCT does it beautifully.
My daughter and I heartily agreed that our favorite parts of the play were the hijinks and fun brought to the story by Spider-Cricket and Cha Cha. While the program tells us that these characters are straight from the imagination of Ms. West and not in the original fable, I can’t imagine the story without them. In addition to humor, these animal characters bring a very real sense of humanity to the show. They have their own struggles and their own dreams. As it is so often in life, the best nuggets of truth are often found in humor, and that is what Spider-Cricket and Cha Cha bring us.
While it may seem like a leap of faith to go to a new show, one that portrays an unfamiliar story, this jump is one you should take. In over a decade of taking my kids to shows at SCT, I have never been disappointed. Now I just wish I could speak enough Swahili to know the meaning of the song they sang in the show.
Photos by Chris Bennion.
Kelly Rogers Flynt is a freelance writer based out of Lake Forest Park and the parent of two budding thespians, ages 10 and 13.