For the last month, the cast and crew of
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters
rehearsed five days a week at Rutgers-Camden's Gordon Theater, transforming it into an African village and bringing a little bit of Broadway to Camden.
Led by Desi Seck, director and president of Camden Repertory Theater, and Jamal Dickerson, musical director and composer, the company's show opened Thursday and will run through Saturday.
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, based on an African folk tale about two sisters, one selfish and one kind, both in line to marry the king, is a fantastical Cinderella story set in an African village. The fable was made into an award-winning illustrated children's book by John Steptoe and then adapted for the stage.
"Everybody reads this book to their daughter," Seck said. "It's about the conflict of sisters, one patient, happy to stay home with her father, and the other one who says things are never good enough - who can't see the value in her home, a dilapidated hut, but it could be a rowhouse in Camden," she said.
Seck said the show provides a unique opportunity for young women to see an underrepresented heroine.
"Sadly, there are very few places an African American mother can take her child to see an African princess on stage. You'll see it here," she said.
The show is the fourth collaboration between the repertory theater and the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble of Unity Community Center in Camden. Professional sets, costume, and choreography transform the children's book into a living adventure. The show is supported by the Dodge Foundation and the New Jersey State Arts Council.
Camden native and University of the Arts graduate Lamar Baylor choreographed the show. Baylor is in the New York cast of The Lion King and has balanced performing eight shows a week with driving to Camden to run dance rehearsals.
"We're providing quality art right here in Camden so people can come to Camden and feel like they left and came to Broadway," Dickerson said. "They can see directors who look like them, who live around the corner from them, and who composed a show with some real sophistication to it."
Dickerson, the musical director at Creative Arts High School, has an orchestra pit of mostly high school students. Dickerson also composed the score - his first - for the show, which was not originally written with music.
His favorite song, one sung by the father of the two daughters, he wrote alone at his piano this summer.
"It came to me sitting there plucking, tinkering, and it's really the perfect holiday theme, about riches meaning more than money. In the song, he says, 'I'm filled with riches - not silver and gold - but filled with family, love, spirit and soul.' "
And interested theatergoers don't need to pay Broadway prices to see the show. It's $10 for the remaining performances, Friday at 10 a.m. and 1:30 and 7 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m.
The cast, ranging from age 7 to adult, some amateurs and some with professional experience, most from Camden, gathered for their final rehearsal Wednesday night.
"I want to see energy," Seck coached her actors. "Be big, I want the people who showed up late and borrowed $5 to be able to see you feel your energy in the back row."