By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Folklore – no matter which part of the world it is from – tends to have a life of its own. While they take on new forms or iterations the message, lessons and timelessness remain the same. It’s why many of the stories and characters from way back then continue to exist today.
Such is the case with Ananse or Anansi, a well-known character in Akan folklore, who often takes on the appearance of a spider and who is known for his trickster ways. Ananse will be making an appearance in an upcoming production of “The Dancing Granny.”
The show, which is a collaboration between First Stage and Ko-Thi Dance Company, will be performed at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 W. Walnut St., starting Saturday, Feb. 12 through Sunday, March 6.
In the story, Ananse wants to take Granny Anika’s vegetables. As he attempts to trick her into dancing away from her garden, he finds himself caught up in the rhythm of the dance.
The show is directed by Samantha Montgomery, Ko-Thi’s director of artistic inclusion and community engagement, and choregraphed by DeMar Walker, Ko-Thi’s artistic director. Walker also plays the role of Ananse and the Old Man.
“I think what makes this story special is that it provides families and the audience with an opportunity to interact and to engage with the story,” Montgomery said. “It allows them to have an opportunity to hear the voice of African folklore and to also be able to move with the rhythm of the piece.”
It teaches the value of community, she said, and shows that when the community works together everyone’s basic needs will be met.
The theme of community resonates throughout the entire piece and extends to the collaboration between First Stage and Ko-Thi Dance Company.
“It’s given us a chance to share what we do with each other, and to see how we connect and how we teach other different things throughout the process” Montgomery said. “As a result, there’s build and there’s growth in both areas. We’re helping each other grow, learn and build.”
Collaboration is needed to create good art, she said.
In his role of artistic director, Walker strives to be mindful how Black dance and Black bodies doing Black dance can run in tandem with storytelling. The collaboration with First Stage has allowed him to see how much more depth there is for Black art and Black performance, he said, noting that this marks his return children’s theatre.
“I want to stay in this realm,” he said. “I feel like it really stretches and expands who we are as artists and as performers. That’s all I want really; I just want to do dope stuff.”
As the show’s title suggests, the story is filled with dance and music, but there is a beat and rhythm to the words and storytelling as well, Montgomery said. Analyzing the story and determining where the beats are helped Montgomery find a way to show that the story takes place over the course of three days. It’s not one big day, she said.
She also looked at the story from the various character’s points of view, which in addition to Spider and Granny Anika, include Wind and Earth and Brother Sun, and of course the audience. The storytelling isn’t flat, it’s three dimensional, she said.
During rehearsals, Montgomery has taken care to make sure that no matter where a person sits, they are seeing some sort of action on stage.
When it came to the choreography, Walker took a cue from Ananse’s heritage. Ananse appears in folklore that originated from Ghana and West Africa, Walker explained.
“I pulled a lot of movements from that region, from countries like Guinea and Senegal,” Walker said.
He incorporated social dance and modern movements along with dance moves from the 80s and 90s such as the new jack swing and social jazz. A lot of today’s dances take cues from traditional West African dance and Caribbean dance, he said, noting that a lot of up-tempo music from the new jack swing era shares a similar tempo with typical West African dance.
The end result is festive and kinetic, he said. The cast has various skill sets and expertise, he said, and he’s worked hard to create something that highlights everybody and their strengths. He’s using the acronym K.I.S.S. (Keep It Sweet and Simple) to guide his choreography.
It’s easy to dream big, when looking at the space, Walker said, but he’s trying to remember the core audience is children.
“Sam has been really supportive in terms of letting me create on the spot,” he said. “We have us a good time. Rehearsals have been amazing; we have a great young crew that is eager to learn and soak up information.”
Together the two are creating a show that pays respect to Walker’s choreography and to Montgomery’s vision as director.
“I think one of the important things, when you are collaborating, is a lot of give and take,” Montgomery said. “You have to have respect for each other, you have to be willing to listen and you have to realize that both people are creative individuals.”
Sometimes collaborating means giving up on one’s vision to make way for the other’s, Montgomery said. But the two of them are open with each other, which is key, she said.
“Sam and I have done a good job of tapping into each other’s energy,” Walker said.
Every member of the ensemble from the drummers to the dancers to the actors plays a key role in the story. And Montgomery and Walker have worked to ensure that each character complements the other.
Earth and Wind are the protectors of the garden and Granny’s supporters, Montgomery said, but they also inspire audience engagement. They help shape the story, while providing focus and depth to the story through their actions and physicality, she said.
The young performers are doing an incredible job, Montgomery said. They have a hard work ethic just like Granny Anika does, she said. And while Granny shows the importance of a hard work ethic, the Spider Ananse also teaches a valuable lesson.
He teaches importance of human nature and human response, Montgomery said, adding that in every story he appears in there is a lesson to be learned.
He’s seemingly a trickster, who uses his wits to overcome his adversity, Walker said. The folklore of Ananse has shown up in African diaspora and in pop culture, he said, adding that it’s a story that connects with a lot of people.
“Dancing Granny” centers the importance of oral tradition and storytelling, Walker said, which are culturally important for African descendants’ people. There’s a simplicity to this story, that showcases and celebrates the beauty of everyday experience, he said.
“It’s just about storytelling and honoring the importance of storytelling,” Walker said. “I feel that’s the way lives are changed and impacted. I think the audience is going to have a really good time.”
To purchase tickets, visit https://www.firststage.org/ or contact the First Stage Box Office at 414-267-2961 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The pay-what-you-choose performance will take place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 20. Tickets can be pre-ordered at 414-267-2961.