Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters at SteppingStone

Co-director Ansa Akyea chats with Minnesota Monthly about taking the script to the stage

Photo courtesy SteppingStone Theatre for Youth.
Kia Brown, Brandon A. Jackson, and Alaysia Duncan play Manyara, Mufaro, and Nyasha, respectively, in SteppingStone Theatre’s production of Mufaro’’s Beautiful Daughters

all Photos courtesy SteppingStone Theatre for Youth

For a folk tale full of new music, dance, and choosing to become who you were meant to be, SteppingStone Theatre for Youth’s production of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale should be on your February bucket list. Playing through Feb. 24 and based on the Caldecott-winning book by John Steptoe and co-directed by Ansa Akyea and Charla Marie Bailey, the Zimbabwean story follows Mufaro and his two daughters as they travel to the kingdom to answer the king’s call for a queen to serve with him.

“It’s a celebration of the best part of the African experience that doesn’t involve historical trauma that we had to relive,” Akyea says in SteppingStone’s press release. I chatted a little further with Akyea, a local and national actor, director, and playwright, so read on to hear how the story has evolved from book to play and how it is much more than a Cinderella story.

Five of the remaining performances have already sold out, so make sure to get your tickets soon!

Courtesy SteppingStone Theatre.Was there anything about the play that surprised you after diving deeper into it?

I have to say that the biggest surprise to me is the amount of original work that has come from it, inspired from the story of the two sisters. The music is original, and it kind of really freshens up more of the relationship and what they’re thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing and feeling what they’re feeling.

When you read the story, it’s like, “Oh, it’s Cinderella,” or any type of narrative with a good sister and a bad sister. We’ve adapted the characters to become more of what young people, young women are thinking going into these places where they’re figuring out themselves, the world, and how they belong and how they want to be seen. That’s been the biggest surprise: The story sparked a lot of those conversations for us.

You have some of your own experience with African culture, but can you tell me about the research that went into the play’s production?

I’ve been to West Africa and Ghana, lived in Rwanda and Liberia and throughout West Africa and in Central and Eastern Africa, but the story is set in Zimbabwe, and that’s more southern. They have a very distinct cultural palette in terms of rituals and traditions, and so we’re trying to honor that.

The costuming reflects all the colors of the flag; [costume designer] Rhiannon [Fiskradatz] really paid attention to that note. The lighting by Josh [Stallings] is absolutely meant to be reflective of that part of the world. It’s a lot of light, very bight, and also I think the music reflects that as well with an understanding of the soundscape. It’s modern, but not modern to the point where it’s 2019. It’s kind of fantastical and in the world of imagination rooted very much in the tradition of the [nation’s] music.

What does this story mean to you?

It’s about not being afraid of standing out and not being afraid of having your voice heard, and standing on that principle of being unique and being clear. That requires growth, and that requires failure sometimes.

Sometimes in the world, we’re looking of praise and affirmation, and it needs to start with you. You need to see yourself in a way that others don’t always see and don’t agree with, and that, I think, is specific to the African American experience here. So many times with systematic racism and sexism, young people don’t see themselves. We are at a place where African Americans especially are taking ownership of their narratives. We saw that with Black Panther and with the new Spider-Man movie. It’s not imagination only; it’s reality. That your voice matters, your place in the world matters, and you have to challenge the status quo, or else we’re repeating the same old traditions that have oppressed us.

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.