Mandinka legend comes to Charlotte in ‘Sunjata Kamalenya’

On a continent brimming with mythic cultures, the Mandinka people of West Africa are sometimes overlooked. At Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, the “Mande” people and their fabled founder will come to life Saturday in the Experiential Theater Company production of “Sunjata Kamalenya.”

Based on the legendary story of Sundiata Keita, who in the 13th century founded the Mali Empire, the play recalls the mythic life of an anointed yet outcast youth who rose to unite his people in peace and prosperity.

Christopher Parks, director and playwright, said he chose the story precisely because it is so little known in the United States. He said the story also proved to be a perfect fit for his brand of “experiential theater,” which invites audience members to play key roles in each production.

Parks spoke recently about the play’s one-day stop in Charlotte and the concept of audience participation. This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. How did “Sunjata Kamalenya” come about?

A. I knew that I wanted to do a production that involved dancing and singing – traditional singing. I’ve always been interested in African griots, who are storytellers, so I was looking for a West African piece. After looking for a very long time and coming up with nothing, I spoke with a friend of mine at Princeton, and she said, “You’ve got to do Sunjata. It’s a great story and one of the greatest epics of West Africa.” Another reason is that I’m a father of two daughters, and I believe in an equitable view of the world and the importance of women as much as men in our society. That’s one of the great things about Mende (Mandinka) society – men and women are viewed equally.

Q. Is this a performance that adults will appreciate?

A. We’ve done our shows for adults and for kids. We were just down in Maryland, and we had an almost entirely adult audience. What happens with the adults is, in some ways they are more apprehensive about participating. But … once they are up there, it’s like the acting bug bites them and they become so immersed in the work and so excited about participating and coming up with their thing to say. Every show that we have, even if it’s created for kids, has roles built into them that are intended to be played by adult audience members.

Q. What do you hope audiences will take away after seeing “Sunjata?”

A. One of the great things about this show is that it celebrates a culture that is mostly unknown to Americans. It sends a great message to kids and adults, which is that we are all the same as one another. We all have the same passions and hopes and desires as one another, everyone here on the planet. So for kids to be able to take a look at African culture, and not just the generalization of the entire continent of Africa but a very specific area and a beautiful people who have a wonderful, rich cultural history, is a great opportunity.