A “show way” is a quilt that often contains coded maps or instructions for enslaved people escaping to freedom. Triangles of fabric frequently served as arrows to indicate direction, nested squares showed log cabin landmarks, and navigational stars were a recurring motif. Show Way The Musical at the Kennedy Center charts the path of one Black woman’s family history through this art, weaving a tale of resilience and hard-won joy.
The play is based on the children’s book Show Way by author Jacqueline Woodson, the Kennedy Center’s current Education Artist-in-Residence. Though it’s a slim volume, Show Way packs in an epic story tracing seven generations of Woodson’s ancestry, going all the way back to a girl who was born into slavery and sold away from her family with only a bit of fabric, a needle, and some thread. Her art and knowledge of quilt making is passed down to successive generations of women in her family, who eventually use this skill to show the direction (ways) that can lead enslaved people to freedom and start newly emancipated lives.
Individually accounting for all the multigenerational characters that are described would crowd the intimate stage fast, so the cast of six performers nimbly steps into various roles as the timeline progresses. Each gets a chance to stand in the spotlight and carry a musical number. Danielle Lee Greaves anchors the show as a narrator, filling the role of the author telling her relatives’ stories. Danyel Fulton is a particular standout as Auntie, singing a poignant ballad about being torn from her home and finding comfort in her sewing.
The songs by Tyrone L. Robinson take the audience on a historical journey of Black music, beginning with tunes influenced by field songs and spirituals, carrying on to the sounds of hootenannies and jazz halls, and arriving at group harmonies reminiscent of doo wop and 1960s girl groups. It can be tough to get kids interested in anything that looks or sounds old-timey, but while the choreography by Tiffany Quinn draws on traditional and era-appropriate moves, it also gets pretty feisty. The performers, in particular Emmanuel Elliot Key, aren’t afraid to be a little goofy with their movements, and one high-spirited number centered around household and farm tasks puts the “chore” in choreography.
The gorgeous illustrations of the original book are successfully evoked by a large quilt backdrop that serves as a crucial storytelling device. Projections and lighting changes illuminate different parts of the quilt at different times, so that imagery like portraits of ancestors seems to appear and disappear. One large panel at the center of the quilt serves as screen, behind which shadow plays are performed throughout. Other squares of fabric become doors that swing open or windows that the players sing from.
Though the story covers the era of enslavement of Black people and the struggles of the civil rights era, it’s not mired in suffering or trauma porn. The play doesn’t shy from the feelings of sadness and loneliness caused by slavery, but keeps those feelings tangible and appropriate for children.
The true horrors of that time are only glanced at, in service of focusing on the familial connections and the liberation later generations found. A song set during the civil rights era declares that “brighter days are ahead,” but lest it seem that those brighter days have already arrived, projections on the backdrop include messaging from the present day racial liberation struggle, like a plea to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and a remembrance of Breonna Taylor. “Every stitch tells a story,” according to the opening number, and though the show ends on a positive note, it reminds us that some threads can’t be so easily untangled.
Show Way The Musical, directed by Schele Williams, written by Jacqueline Woodson with music and lyrics by Tyrone L. Robinson, plays at the Kennedy Center Family Theater through May 29. kennedy-center.org. $20