Follow the Drinking Gourd

The light was shining brightly from the stage of the Heritage House Gym on Tuesday morning this week. Griff and his 16 classmates performed my adaptation of the story Follow the Drinking Gourdto a large audience of parents, students teachers and staff. They were marvelous. His kindergarten teacher embraced me after, tears streaming down her face: “I’m so amazed at what you got this group to do”. Griff’s class has been problematic. For a Quaker school which prides itself on peaceful interaction, Griff’s class has been, well, ornery. But in their excitement about and success with the play, I saw again the theatre’s vast potential for teaching things far beyond staging, projection and memorization. These kids learned to work together and cooperate, supporting each other even during the performance (“It’s the Barn now!” I heard them whisper to one another during a scene change). They each had a role, and each also brought to life inanimate objects, buildings, environments, bodies of water and the like through their work as an ensemble. They learned about giving and taking, listening, staying focused, and about working towards a goal while serving a higher purpose.

“Why are we telling this story?” I would ask them during rehearsals.

“Because slavery is evil!” one of them would invariably respond.

I did very little with them that I wouldn’t have done with a group of adult actors. We read the script. We tossed around ideas. We tried some out and kept the ones we liked best. They exhibited the same concerns about status and hierarchy as adult actors do, the same worries about the number of lines they have as opposed to so-and-so, the same anxieties about “getting it right”. They were similarly soothed when I said they didn’t need to fear my judgment. I occasionally intervened in crises and used my authority as director to steer the wayward boat. They rehearsed on book, then off book. Before they opened, I told them the show was theirs, not mine. Same process, different age. One variation I used with them though, was that we began each rehearsal sitting in a circle with moment of quiet. I wonder how that would go over with an adult cast. Here is an excerpt from the script, Griffen played James:

Georgiana: Grandma, I’m hungry.

Sarah: Me too!

James: Follow me into this forest.

The Grave Stones become pigs in the forest, snuffling and snorting.

Molly: Goodness! Look at all these pigs! (A Girl Farmer comes forward with bacon and corn bread.)

Girl Farmer: I have bacon and corn bread for my pigs. But you may have it if you’re hungry.

Georgiana: Are we ever! (The Family eats. The pigs look sad and walk away. They become a river. Peg Leg Joe comes forward.)

Peg Leg Joe: You’ve made it to the Ohio river. Get in my boat and I’ll row you across!

As they row across the river, all sing:

The river ends between two hills,
Follow the drinking gourd.
There’s another river on the other side,
Follow the drinking gourd.

3. The Barn

Ensemble makes barn with floorboards for Family to hide beneath. Master steps forward with Slave Catcher. Family is afraid of them.

Master: Slave catcher, my slaves went this way. Go get them back!

Slave Catcher: I’ll find them! (He begins to look for Family.)

Old Hattie: Oh Lord, what will we do now? (A Mom Farmer and a Dad Farmer come forward.)

Mom Farmer: Family, you have found the Underground Railroad! We hate slavery and we will hide you!

Slave Catcher: Who’s that talking!

Dad Farmer: Quick! Come and hide in our barn! (The Family and the Farmers go “into” the barn.)

***

I worked with this group of six and seven year olds for about a month, one to two hours per day, entirely as a volunteer. The head of the school liked it so much, we are doing it again for the Quaker retirement home down the road called the Quadrangle, the same place which served as inspiration for The Quad, Alice’s home in Actor’s Way.