Play's meaning big for young audience

Large-scale props, acting convey story to English and Spanish speakers alike

Staff WriterNovember 17, 2005 

The largeness of it all was an appropriate fit for the audience.

Pumpkins as big as beach balls and a red book so thick that metal clasps had to hold it together helped create a world that was larger than life for the children of North Chatham Elementary School on Wednesday morning.

Joseph Henderson, who runs Walltown Children's Theatre in Durham with his wife, Cynthia Penn-Henderson, brought to life "El Libro Rojo," "The Red Book," an original play based on a Mexican folk tale.

And the dialogue was entirely in Spanish, accompanied by music from a harp.

Senora Fábula, or Mrs. Fable, narrates the tale of a farmer who tends to his pumpkins constantly. His wife doesn't understand his passion, but he keeps at it because it makes him happy. It is a simple yet satisfying life.

Then, a man comes along and steals the farmer's pumpkins. This thief is a character who likes to take shortcuts. But in the end, the thief is caught, and the farmer and his wife walk off happily together.

Henderson directed, though he does not speak Spanish and his four cast members do. But he said that's not a problem. He just had an interpreter translate his script.

"What we do is make the acting clear enough so that you can understand it without knowing the language," he said.

Cultural bridge

Henderson had several reasons for staging "El Libro Rojo," which was funded by a grant from The Duke Endowment.

He wanted Hispanic children to hear their language being used in the arts. He also wanted native English-speaking children to understand the struggles that native Spanish speakers sometimes go through.

The props weren't the only exaggerated aspects of the play. The actors' wide-arcing motions and facial expressions made the story clear to children of all cultures.

"Even though they can't understand your words, the children can see your expressions, hear your voice, watch your movements," said Rita Gonzalez-Jackson, a Durham resident who portrayed Senora Fábula.

"It's just awesome to be able to present this to the [Spanish-speaking] children ... so they can hear their language in a beautiful way," she said.

Jesus Queriapa, who played the farmer, said he enjoys seeing the Hispanic children's eyes light up when the actors speak to them and they can respond confidently. About one in five students at the school is Hispanic.

"El Libro Rojo" was Queriapa's first acting gig. Gonzalez-Jackson and Reza Salazar, who played the thief, and Anays Ponce, the wife, all appeared in Henderson's "Romeo y Julieta" two years ago.

Gonzalez-Jackson, 48, and Salazar, 20, are professional actors. Queriapa and Ponce are both 17-year-old seniors at Durham School of the Arts.

Henderson wants to produce more folk tales -- the reason for creating Senora Fábula and the large red book she reads.

And Gonzalez-Jackson can't wait.

She predicts, "Senora Fábula has many, many stories in that red book of hers: el libro grande rojo [the big red book]!"

Staff writer Meiling Arounnarath can be reached at 932-2004 or meiling.arounnarath @newsobserver.com.

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