‘Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters’ inspired by beloved picture book, family legacies

The Randolph Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale” will become an original musical at Synchronicity Theatre, bringing author and illustrator John Steptoe’s words and artwork to vibrant life onstage for audiences of all ages.

Collaborators Taryn Janelle and LeRell Ross created this new version of the project after Synchronicity Producing Artistic Director Rachel May sought to include a staged version of the story in the theater’s ongoing Family Series — but found that no musical version existed.

Credit: Courtesy of Synchronicity

Credit: Courtesy of Synchronicity

Steptoe’s picture book, a variation of “Cinderella” told in the style of an African folktale, centers upon two sisters with wildly different personalities. There is Nyasha, who is kind and good-tempered, and Manyara, a bully with a mean attitude. As their father prepares them to meet the king, who seeks a wife, the girls approach their journeys differently and both learn valuable lessons.

May reached out to the author’s daughter, Bweela Steptoe, who says she inspired both characters in her father’s work as a girl and proposed the creation of this new version. Next, May contacted Janelle and Ross, who had previously worked on several of the theater’s shows — including the rock musical “Wonderland” and the Bob Marley-inspired “Three Little Birds” — about the idea.

Credit: Courtesy of Bweela Steptoe

Credit: Courtesy of Bweela Steptoe

Janelle and Ross were both excited about adapting the book and began writing the music in August.

“We both knew this book and read this book, and it was a part of our lives growing up,” Janelle said. “So having the opportunity to put new material to it and tell it in this different way was really attractive. Also, this was Rell and I’s first opportunity to write together. We had worked together before and became friends over that process. But this was our first opportunity to really create something together.”

Ross said the work was a family favorite when he was growing up.

“I come from a big family with four sisters, and, in our house growing up, we had a huge, huge bookshelf,” he said. “And my mother had a lot of different books for us to read. And one of the books she had, specifically for my sisters but for all of us, was ‘Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.’ So when Taryn and Synchronicity came to me with the idea of creating this production, I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible!’ There’s a level of nostalgia attached to it for me.”

He said that his family immediately purchased plane tickets when they found out he was working on this adaptation.

“I think of this work as a way to honor my mother and some of the things she instilled in me and my siblings,” he added. “To be able to create something that puts those things into the world, it’s a huge honor.”

Bweela said in an interview that she is always encouraged to see how her father’s story inspires other artists and new audiences.

“I love anything ‘Mufaro’s’,” she said. “Anything that keeps my father’s legacy alive, sharing the book, sharing the story and history, I love. The book has been in print for over 35 years. For a book to have that shelf life is amazing. The fact that everyone loves the story, the artwork and the message my father was conveying makes it even better.”

Bweela said the message of the story still resonates.

“I’m looking forward to coming to Atlanta and meeting the audience and the kids because we always need to see us,” she said. “Black girls need to know that they are beautiful just how they are, no matter what, and they’re always going to be. ”

Bweela said she still sees herself in both main characters and that the book shows her that her father thought a lot of her.

“Kids always used to ask me, ‘Are you the mean one or the nice one?’ And I would tell them that it depends on which day you get me,” she said with a laugh. “You can grow. You can sometimes be loving and kind or sometimes be cruel and evil. The energy you’re going to put out is what you’re going to get back. Everybody has the potential to be more than what they think they are.”

Janelle is also directing and choreographing the musical, which will star Kendra Nicole and Ja’Siah Young as the sisters. She said that she is a bit intimidated by the process, which has developed very quickly.

Credit: Courtesy of Synchronicity

Credit: Courtesy of Synchronicity

“It’s one thing to write a play or musical,” she said. “It’s one thing to write some music. It’s one thing to direct. It’s one thing to choreograph. And I am doing all of those things in this production. This is the first project that I’ve been on where it is so much of my vision, not just from the directing standpoint but also just from the tone of the piece, as a writer. If there’s pressure, I have put it on myself.”

Janelle made sure that John Steptoe’s artwork inspired the set design, using colors and even his pen strokes from the book to influence the look of the show.

Credit: Courtesy of Bweela Steptoe

Credit: Courtesy of Bweela Steptoe

“Because of our conversations with Bweela, it’s very important to me to highlight that her father did have so much influence over every aspect of the work,” Janelle said.

May said this show is representative of Synchronicity’s mission.

“We have constantly told stories that come from different cultures,” May said. “It’s very important to us that our family series is as rich and theatrically complex as our adult shows. They are not dumbed down or simplistic or easy. They are complicated, beautiful and come from lots of different voices and perspectives.”

Janelle said she’s excited to share the important themes of the story: that beauty is within, that being a good person starts in your heart and that you must be willing to make new discoveries to find your potential.

“The first thing I hope that people get from this show is the importance of John Steptoe,” Janelle said. “It’s important to me that creators, especially Black creators, get the recognition that they deserve. This is a story that I grew up with, and I think that more people should know about it. Now my own children have heard it, and every child past this should hear it too.”

THEATER PREVIEW

“Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters”

Jan. 27-Feb. 19. $15-$40. Synchronicity Theatreat Peachtree Pointe, 1545 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. synchrotheatre.com.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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