To reveal a more in-depth and extensive look at African-American history, African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) founder Don Williams chose to direct “These People Can Fly.”
The production will focus a number of scenes on Africa prior to colonization and slavery — a period which has been a lesser-observed aspect of African-American history.
In conjunction with the UCSC Theater Arts Department, the AATAT — now in its 18th season — will present the historical and culturally insightful performance next Thursday, Feb. 18. The show will run until March 6, with performances beginning on campus and eventually moving to Santa Cruz High School and Seaside. UCSC students will get free admission to on-campus productions.
“These People Can Fly,” written by Deborah Ferguson, is adapted from a short children’s story written by Virginia Hamilton. According to Williams, Ferguson “hit the home run with it.”
Williams chose the “home run” adaptation because of its relevance to AATAT, as the troupe “serves to enhance the climate of cultural diversity on the UCSC campus and in the community.”
“I chose this play because of the historical value and the aspect of being able to enlarge a history that many students are not familiar with,” Williams said. “We are basically telling a story about yesteryears.”
The story is told by a griot, who in African tradition is the storyteller. In “These People Can Fly,” fourth-year Allison Bell plays the griot and narrates the production, beginning with African marketplaces and village raids. The production progresses through time, following a particular tribe from Africa: the flying mountain people.
The production examines historical slavery in America, continues to the present day, and eventually looks to the future. This progression portrays African-American history in a new light, providing a better understanding of that history.
“The griot fills in that gap. You see the human before the slave,” Bell said. “We haven’t heard the pre-slavery story. Now that we are here as Americans, it starts with slavery, because that is where our history starts.”
By showing the journey from slavery to freedom in such a way, African-American history is illuminated. Williams describes how past and future are intertwined in the context of African culture.
“There is an African word, sankofa, and the saying behind it is ‘In order to have an understanding of the future, you must understand the past,’” Williams said. “This story is meant to give you an understanding of our past and give hope to the future.”
The production utilizes African music to further drive the message and story of the play. Dandha Da Hora, a dance teacher at Cabrillo College, choreographed the production, employing the Afro-Brazilian style she specializes in.
Williams hopes for an impressive turnout because the production offers such a unique angle.
“I’m hoping that we fill it up every night,” Williams said. “It is a great opportunity to learn our past and, in a conscious way, work with each other as a whole.”
The production opens Feb. 18 and will run through Feb. 21, with performances at 7 p.m. nightly and a Sunday matinee at 3 p.m. To earn money for their scholarship fund, AATAT will be charging $14 for adults and $11 for non-UCSC students.
The production will then travel to Santa Cruz High School, performing on Feb. 26 and 27. The admission prices will be the same, with the exception that UCSC students will not receive free admission.
Finally, “These People Can Fly” will show at the Oldemeyer Center in Seaside on March 6. Admission at the Oldemeyer Center is free, due to donations from Monterey Peninsula College and the city of Seaside.