Message of Bob Marley is basis of new children's musical
By Lou Fancher
The late Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley is not the first person to spring to mind when thinking about a new children's theatrical production.
After all, the masterful songwriter and guitarist, who died in 1981, was well-known for his politically progressive -- even revolutionary -- music and his commitment to a Rastafarian lifestyle that included smoking marijuana for meditational and spiritual purposes.
But Marley was also the bearer of messages about the universality of love, fear, hope, and other human emotions that make perfect sense as the foundation for Bay Area Children's Theater's upcoming "Three Little Birds, A New Reggae Children's Musical."
The production, based on a story by Marley's daughter, Cedella Marley, opens Jan. 24 and runs through Feb. 15 at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., before traveling to San Francisco, Mill Valley and San Ramon.
Injecting Jamaican culture into mainstream America is arguably Marley's legacy.
The musical's contemporary fairy tale, adapted for the stage by Michael J. Bobbitt, tells the story of Ziggy, a boy whose fear of the unknown is tested when his best friend, Nansi, tricks him into leaving his "safe place" home.
Nansi helps Ziggy see the world and all the fun things he's been missing -- the lively spirit and colorful culture of his small Caribbean town that transcribes into unimagined connections and newfound confidence.
With a "don't worry, every little thing's gonna be all right" sound score filled with irresistible rhythms and six-part harmonies, Marley's honest messages about overcoming racial and economic inequality are gently embedded, appropriately proportioned for young audiences. One character responds to a line about African slaves being forced to come to America, saying, "The world didn't make any promises to us." The point is made simply, without embellishment or heavy-handed lecturing.
Director Michael Mohammed, who is on the faculty at San Francisco Community Music Center and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, said in an interview that race is an element, but not a centerpiece of the show.
"It's not part of the immediate story because everyone is a person of color in the West Indies," he said.
But here, in 21st century America, Mohammed said having a cast with people of color was essential. Bringing together actors from multiple ethnicities kept the focus on the musical's universal theme.
"The idea of one spirit connecting everyone and sharing hope that there's a big world filled with adventure for everyone is central," Mohammed said.
Marley's daughter, in a Feb. 7, 2014, NPR interview, said seeing bullying happening in schools -- including one of her three sons falling victim to bullying -- inspired her to sing her father's "Three Little Birds" to her children at bedtime.
"In my family, it's our happy song," she said.
Mohammed said his connection to Marley's music began in the Indiana home of his parents, who are natives of the Caribbean.
"Since my mother is Jamaican, Marley was like an ambassador, an icon," he recalled. "I grew up listening to his music as a part of our household."
In directing the play, he said, Marley's politically driven ideas about poverty and inequality are put into a kid-friendly context.
"They're not "dumbed down" or reduced: They're chosen for messages like breaking out from fears. 'One Love' is the centerpiece. It's the touchstone because we keep going back to the meeting of different people and ideas," Mohammed said.
The song's lyrics -- "One love, one heart, Let's get together and feel all right" -- carry a message Mohammed said all audiences, young and old alike, will find relevant.