By Bridgette M. Redman
Contributing editor of the weekly Pasadena
For seven days, celebrants will light candles, share stories, and contemplate the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. Starting December 26, the celebration draws inspiration from African harvest and diaspora traditions and emphasizes community and life.
The Robey Theater will contribute to the festival with the unveiling of a new work, “Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Unity”. Like the festival, the play opens on December 26. This is an online production and will have daily Zoom performances until January 1.
The Robey commissioned the play, written by Marie Y. Lemelle and Barbara Bullen, after an open submission competition. The playwrights worked with Ben Guillory, Robey’s artistic director who served as the playwright for the work.
“In 2020, I wanted a holiday piece other than ‘A Christmas Carol’ or the regular fare and that was more African-centric,” Guillory said. “Kwanzaa was the answer to that. We asked for submissions from different playwrights for a scene for a play idea.
Several playwrights submitted, but the Lemelle and Bullen scene stood out. The Robey asked them to turn the stage into a full-length play to be performed during the 2021 season.
They were hoping to present the show live, but with COVID-19 variants still active, the theater decided it couldn’t do it responsibly. Instead, it switched to streaming the piece from December 26 to January 1, traditional Kwanzaa days.
The story of the play centers on an American professor of black studies, Dr. Agu. In search of his personal history and ancestral roots, he traveled to Ghana, only to be confined to his hotel as the country enters an abrupt and total pandemic closure.
Dr Agu must then teach his students at home via Zoom. Its aim is to provide a more complete version of American history and it teaches the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa as a model for leading responsible, productive and ethical lives.
Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, president of African studies at Cal State Long Beach, in response to the over-marketing of Christmas. Karenga makes appearances in the play, a role played by Guillory. Karenga will make a live appearance in a question and answer period after the show, the date to be determined.
Dr. Agu’s students in the play include black students, a young white woman, a Latino, a Chinese-American rapper, and a white supremacist nationalist who is skeptical of anything taught.
Both playwrights have extensive writing experience, but “Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Unity” is the first time either of them has written plays. Lemelle is a journalist, casting director, film producer and screenwriter. She is the CEO and founder of her own companies, Platinum Star Public Relations and Platinum Star Media Group Inc.
Bullen is the author of 49 children’s books and 15 screenplays. She is the owner of Andersons Screenplays and Dreamworld Literature.
Guillory described the creation of the piece as a step-by-step process. After being chosen based on the initial scene, the playwrights submitted a plan to Guillory for review. They then went back and forth through four drafts.
“We always wanted to move the game forward,” Guillory said. “In this case, moving the game forward meant staying on track in celebrating, identifying and talking about Kwanzaa and the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa.”
He said that although they had a lot of two-way conversations, his job was made easy because the work of the playwrights was awesome.
“Their imaginations are that of storytellers,” Guillory said. “They had a subject, and the subject is the Kwanzaa principles, which are based on Afro-centric consciousness. These sisters, being African American, and Dr. Karenga had a sensitivity for Kwanzaa. We had a good guide. The idea was to fashion a story with a beginning, middle, and end with serious conflict that would illustrate how the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa could support those in need of support, namely all of us.
The cast are Jermaine Alexander, JC Cadena, Christina Childress, Garret Davis, Matt Jennings, Nate Lovell, Terry “Tes” Scott-Mitchell, Mona Mohamed, Crystal Nix, Amara Phelps, Ke Shi, Kyle Sparks, William Warren, Jess Weaver and Guillory.
Guillory praises the ensemble of 15 members, who for him are a mixture of veterans and new actors. He said they agreed with the themes of the play and recognized the importance of the work.
“They recognize that this is substantive work and not frivolous,” Guillory said. “These artists have recognized that it is important. They dove in with their hands and feet and brought this baby home. It was a pleasure to work with them.
Although this production is virtual, they hope to make it a live production next December. They also hope to reopen their theater on April 9 to celebrate the birthday of Paul Robeson, the artist and civil rights icon whose theater is named after.
“Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Unity” is a play which Guillory believes is worthy of Robey’s conscience and his mission to develop and produce plays about the global black experience and reinterpret black classics.
“This piece has to have that kind of awareness,” Guillory said. “He must also be imaginative and be of a high theatrical level. “
Guillory hopes the audience will gain a better understanding of how the story was edited after seeing this play. The protagonist of the play tries to show that the truth has not been honestly reported. There has been a battle over the past 40 to 50 years to make the history of our country better known.
“I hope the audience will leave asking questions, looking for more truth,” Guillory said.
The Robey Theater
“Kwanzaa: a celebration of unity”
WHEN: Various hours From Sunday December 26 to Saturday January 1
OR: Zoom links will be sent to audience members who
register in advance at therobeytheatrecompany.org
COST: Free, but a $ 10 donation is welcome