A lot goes into a 10-minute play with 20 fourth graders – it flew by on Tuesday morning in the G.W. Childs Elementary, 1599 Wharton St., auditorium but not without stunning its audience. Enchantment Theatre Co. is a well-established, 15-year-old Philadelphia-based children’s theater entity that has a robust educational element to its mission with a small army of teaching artists visiting six schools in the area. Funding support in the way of $25,000 every year for three years comes from an Independence Foundation grant, which supports its “Enchantment Everywhere” performance outreach. Its 20-week residency at Childs is made possible because of a Picasso Grant from Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), which gave them $4,800 to pay their teaching artists and help facilitate Tuesday’s production of “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters,” a charming tale that Enchantment’s artistic director of literacy and education described as an African folktale that combines elements of “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
“We don’t want to just entertain kids, we want something that has dramatic value and humanly tells a good story,” Jennifer Blatchley Smith said. “It’s kind of a moral story that has humor in it – kind of about how to be, but it’s sweet and fun. It’s always good to reinforce, in a creative way, that there are good ways to be in the world and it feels good.”
John Steptoe’s tale, ideal for first- to fourth-graders, features Manyara and Nyasha – two very different sisters. The former is ill-tempered, selfish and eager to find her way to the king’s hand in marriage; the latter is virtuous, generous, and kind and ends up marrying the king after he reveals he’s been observing their behaviors on their journey to the palace.
Dr. Eileen F. Coutts, Child’s principal, loves Enchantment’s presence in her building.
“Each year the student performances get better and better, largely due to their exposure to the shows they have seen. It’s amazing to watch children that are shy and quiet suddenly come to life through acting,” she said. “I was so proud of the children today and proud of our audience, too, because they are very supportive of their classmates’ hard work and bravery.”
Rashaun Carter, a fourth-grader who lives on the 1500 block of South Bancfroft Street, said “at first I was frustrated. ‘Oh my god, is this going to be crazy?’” he asked at first. “Then it wasn’t crazy. They were strict but they wanted the play to be perfect.”
“Nobody was the star of this show,” chimed in Rashiayah Dennis, who lives on the 1500 block of South Hicks Street and who portrayed Manyara. “To be perfect, you have to know everyone’s part,” she added, stating that she intends to be a model, dancer and actor.
Enchantment specializes in physical theater, focused on dancing and movement, and also masks, puppets and props. In fact, it’s a part of its identity that necessitates master prop-makers and mask-makers, and these grants allow professionals to bring beautiful props into Childs.
“We’re really lucky with these kids; they saw the parallels in this story very quickly,” Adrian Plascencia, a Queen Village resident and Enchantment teaching artist set to move to the 1100 block of Mifflin Street next month, said. “They get to use props that have been used in a real show and masks that have been worn on stage by professional puppet-makers and theater craftsman. It’s almost like a direct investment in these kids in a very real way.”
In addition to its partnership with Childs, Enchantment has worked with the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown, General George G. Meade School in North Philly, William H. Hunter School in Kensington, Henry W. Lawton Elementary in Northeast Philly, and also at our own F. Amadee Bregy School, 1700 S. Bigler St., in Marconi. It’s worked with nearly 7,500 kids through 40 performances around the district.
“The work that we do has evolved because of all the changes and what the schools aren’t getting,” Smith said, and urged that a passion children can hold on to in school can keep them there and working hard. “Whatever turns you on, it can keep you in school. If you feel like school’s a bunch of rules and it’s boring and it doesn’t relate to me – it’s hard to get your foot in the door and get excited about it. We hope that by putting these stories on stage, it’ll spark an interest in reading and performing and they’ll want more of it. The arts saved me in school; it made school tolerable. I worry about kids not having that at all.”
One of Smith and her husband Landis Smith’s fondest memories of youngsters soaking up their magic and running with it is Jose Tirado, a senior at Muhlenberg College on a nearly full ride studying performance. They found him in fourth grade at Pollock Elementary in Northeast Philly. With the Smiths’ guidance, Tirado found his way to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, 901 S. Broad St., whose audition they coached him through.
“Being a part of Enchantment made it so much easier to audition for CAPA. They get to expose people at a very young age to professional, quality theater and that helped me,” he said. “I think I am where I am today because of Enchantment. I was blessed,” admitted Tirado and says he’s Puerto Rican, low-income, and a first-generation college student, something he’s very proud of.
“I always wanted to do art. I always wanted to make art, but I never had the tools, resources, teachers or programming,” he said and laughed at what Smith and Plascencia characterize as a predominant infatuation with movies, fame and celebrity. “The idealization of fame and glory,” he said with a smile.
That’s what Jada Slutter, a 10-year-old who calls the 2200 block of Reed Street home, is after.
“It was really exciting. When I grow up I want to do this for a living. Mr. Peter [Danzing, the other teaching artist] and Mr. Adrian taught us how to move, to express ourselves,” she said and admitted that, before the curtain’s rise, she was shaking and sweating. “I came out of my shell. This is the beginning of my career and I’m going to be famous,” she added, before laying out her plan – CAPA, then Temple, then theaters and fame.
At that moment, it didn’t seem out of the question.
Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 117.
Fourth-grade students at Childs capped off their experience with Enchantment by performing John Steptoe’s “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.”
Mount Airy-based Enchantment Theatre Co. focuses on physical theater, puppetry, and mask work, and its grant-funded
residencies in six area schools allows the entity to bring artisan-crafted props to student productions.
Staff Photos by Tina Garceau