Indianapolis, IN – Asante Children’s Theatre, a 26-year old youth theater company premiered an original musical production “Genius to the Beat of Soul” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and it was nothing short of its title. The production features youth, alumni and local Indianapolis talent but, it exemplifies the brilliance and excellence any theatre-goer might expect from a Broadway show or touring production.
Bursting with sparkles, Afros, hand clapping, soul singing and hip-dips, its theme is about a family struggling with feelings of inadequacy throughout several generations. The heart of the story takes place in the present day. The main character Anika (Kathryn Council), a teenager, whose mother is an alcoholic, is sent to live with her grandmother after getting into trouble with her only friend, a teenage boy named Jahbee (Joshua Short). Kathryn, a seasoned vocalist, debuts as an actress of star quality, in the role of Anika. Bullied at school, Anika is looking for the power to defend herself from her antagonizers. Dreams and nightmares are entangled and reveal glimpses of the family’s history. Deborah Asante, Founding Artistic Director of the company and the playwright is also a storyteller who shares spoken tales often. Through a present day narrative with a single protagonist, she manages to interweave significant moments over a 300 year history into 90-minutes, just as a West African griot might sing in an epic fable.
“Genius’” director and choreographer Jeffrey L. Page, is an alumni of the Asante Children’s Theatre and has since toured the world creating work for film, television, and stage, receiving numerous awards to include an Emmy nomination. Pages direction is illuminated by bold directorial choices. At the ensue of the conflict between Anika, her mother Deah (Ashlee Baskin), and grandmother Vierra (Katrina Kenny), a heated discussion breaks out between the characters. The three of them spew words to each other, while shifting to separate spotlights, facing the audience. Confusing at first, the directorial choice ultimately amplifies the scripts distinct storytelling style, serving the imaginative overlay. Those three women could be each other, their ancestors, or generations to come at any moment in the scene. Clever.
Reverend Rock (Chad Pervine) and his entourage of back popping, neck turning, singers served as narrators. Chad fluctuated between smooth and fiery adding depth and complex nuances of swag, preacher-man howls, and batting eyelashes to the role. Most scenes were accented by Mr. Page’s choreography: bubbling with energy, sharp, and clean movements flavored by youth and varying body types. Other scenes, however, used choreography to tell chapters of the story and subtly interwove imagery and textures into the narrative. The music, composed by Richard Trotman laid a tone of astuteness from the rhythms of Africa, to the foot stomping shouts of a soul-filled sanctuary.
Anika’s journey reveals outright social injustices and surprisingly, delivers a balanced male perspective. The in-your-face scene of men declaring “I’s A Man,” encapsulates a period in history and the immediacy of movements like Black Lives Matter at the same time. This kind of layering is present in several scenes and reflects the ingenuity of the collaboration between Ms. Asante and Mr. Page.
The show deals with pertinent issues youth are facing today and offers cultural pride, faith, and perseverance as a solution. For Mr. Page, returning to Indianapolis from his New York home to work on the production has been a long awaited labor of love and an opportunity to sew seeds into the place where he started. Ms. Asante reflects on the process as fulfilling. “This is above and beyond anything we’ve ever done… I am so proud of Jeffrey [Page]. It is my hope that we develop more artists of his caliber.”
Genius to the Beat of Soul is playing at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Sunday, June 19th.