A new take on the tales of Brer Rabbit

Brer Rabbit was a wily creature, but even he had trouble with the Tar Baby, a trap set for him by the dastardly Brer Fox.

“Brer Rabbit & Friends,” the sunny, clever and tuneful production by the Center for Puppetry Arts, which opens Thursday, is as wily as the rabbit himself, and sidesteps the minefield of sticky traps that dog the history of the Brer Rabbit stories.

The folktales on which the show is based, collected before and after the Civil War by Atlanta Constitution columnist Joel Chandler Harris, concern a trickster rabbit who, by his own wits, overcomes stronger creatures. They serve as children’s entertainment on one level, yet the tales also work as a narrative of an imprisoned people triumphing in the face of oppression.

But black stories retold by a white writer such as Harris can suffer from a suspect heritage, suspicions that were confirmed, for some, by the problematic 1946 Disney movie “Song of the South,” based on Harris’ writings. The movie is criticized for its racial stereotypes and is rarely shown today.

Disney’s interpretation notwithstanding, Harris was wildly popular in the 1880s, achieving Mark Twain-echelon status. He was a writer who appreciated a culture that was, at best, ignored by the mainstream. To his contemporary detractors, he’s a “nostalgic plantation romancer.” The stories themselves? They not only transcend these issues, they will probably outlast them.

S. Renee Clark is the musical director of this Center for the Puppetry Arts production. She also serves as the narrator, and pounds an upright piano with the gusto that Aretha Franklin brought to her keyboard work on “Respect.”

“These are our stories,” said Clark, whose high cheekbones and teakwood complexion call to mind some of the illustrations that accompanied Harris’ stories. “My mother brought me up on these stories.”

Clark is black. So is director Spencer G. Stephens, and half the cast. All are eager to reclaim the Brer Rabbit stories as part of their heritage, and the heritage of all Southerners. Especially black Southerners. “I wanted to put more of the African-American flavor in it,” said Stephens, a 10-year veteran of the Center, making his directorial debut. “I wanted it to be a little more soulful.”

Stephens says as Clark was developing arrangements of the songs, he kept telling her, “I want it more black!”

That soulful feel comes through in the voices of the characters and especially in the music, funkified by bluesy slide guitar and brightened by upbeat, gospel harmonies. But ultimately the clever rabbit and the persistent fox shake off the shackles of history, and escape into a different realm.

This is as it should be, said Sue Gilman, executive director of The Wren’s Nest, a house museum in Atlanta’s West End devoted to Harris’ memory. “The tales are utterly, completely classic,” she said. “These stories have universal appeal.”

Harris made his home in the Wren’s Nest until his death in 1908. The Victorian structure became a museum five years later.

This year The Wren’s Nest celebrates its 100th anniversary. Like Brer Rabbit and Harris himself, the museum hasn’t escaped the sticky traps of racial mis-steps. Until the 1980s, according to Gilman, the museum had an unwritten policy of excluding black visitors.

By that time it had become a marginalized attraction, heavily in debt and irrelevant to the mostly-black population in its West End neighborhood. In 2006, Harris’ great-great-great grandson, Lain Shakespeare, became the new executive director of The Wren’s Nest, and breathed life into its dusty interior, with vigorous fund-raising and active cultural programs.

Today Gilman is carrying Shakespeare’s efforts forward, and sees the Wren’s Nest as a teaching opportunity in a spot where black and white are deeply intertwined.

“I think this place is uniquely positioned to be the catalyst to have some conversations that still need to be had,” she said.

Akbar Imhotep, a long-time story-teller at the Wren’s Nest, will join the production at the Center for Puppetry Arts during the 1 p.m. Saturday, April 13 staging, to tell a few stories from Harris’ writings. In addition, patrons of the puppet show can receive a coupon for free admission to the Wren’s Nest.

“Brer Rabbit and Friends” was the first show produced by the Center for Puppetry Arts in 1978, the organization’s first year, and this will be the 7th time the center has presented the show. The current staging, which includes rod puppets, shadow puppets and full-body costumes, was adapted by puppeteer Jon Ludwig in 1984. Ludwig is now artistic director of the center.

“It’s always been very popular,” said Ludwig, “but that doesn’t make me any less cautious.” Ludwig’s production lets the fox, the rabbit, the turtle and the bear do the talking, and sidesteps any mention of Uncle Remus or Joel Chandler Harris.

But there is one sticky issue he confronts with each new version: “Tar Baby? Or no Tar Baby?” Ludwig says the play, and the stories, and historical reality, emphatically tell us that the Tar Baby is, in no way, a veiled racial reference, but simply a plot device, based on a trick farmers once used to capture pests. “You can find the same thing in the Anansi stories” from West Africa, he said — referring to the fabled spider who also runs into an adhesive trap.

So far, the Tar Baby wins. Brer Rabbit without the Tar Baby, says Ludwig, would be Romeo without Juliet.

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