The People’s Conservatory presents ‘KOLA: An Afro Diasporic Remix of the Nutcracker,’ a different take on the holiday classic

A scene from “KOLA” – the cast includes more than 500 Oakland students

by Wanda Sabir

In “KOLA: An Afro Diasporic Remix of the Nutcracker,” we meet Nzingha, an orphan, who lives with her grandparents. Actor Makeda Booker’s character doesn’t remember her mother and resents her abandonment. Though she knows that her grandparents – actors Dame Drummer and Jennifer Jones – love her, the child feels a sense of isolation at the family holiday party and spends time playing games on her phone.

“KOLA” directors RyanNicole Austin and Rozz Nash – Photo: Stephanie Lister, KQED

While everyone mingles, then dances, Nzingha moves awkwardly when her Uncle Victor (James “Banks” Davis), whom she hasn’t seen in a while, asks her to join him. Later, the next day, he seeks his niece out as she does her chores and shares with her stories of his sister, her mother.

Grandmother (Jennifer Johns) and Grandfather (Dame Drummer) with Nzingha (Makeda Booker) – Photo: Wanda Sabir

And so begins the journey where Nzingha, guided by Uncle Victor, transformed into Esu (the Orisha of the Crossroads) takes her on a Sankofa journey so she can learn about and grasp her historic past to better understand her present.

Set to music by lead composer Kev Choice and others, “KOLA” is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate African resilience and fortitude. How many orphans like Nzingha were nurtured by adults in the journey across the water? How many were adopted when parents were killed or died or were sold off?

The cast is superb, as lead choreographer Rozz Nash sets to work with this gifted ensemble. The battle between the Raccoon King and Capoiera King is a highlight as the masked Raccoons square off against the Capoiera posse. This dance is followed by the Resurrection, where Nzingha meets tiny mythical snow angels, concluding in a grand finale: The Pantheon. End Act 1.

Uncle Victor (James Davis) and Nzingha (Makeda Booker) talk while Mom (Karma Smart) dances. – Photo: Wanda Sabir

After a brief intermission where many in the audience go out to purchase “KOLA” bling, t-shirts and other swag, we see Nzingha on the shore where she meets fishermen and fisherwomen.

“Bahia” arranged by Baba Zeke, Yemanja choreography by Karma Smart – Photo: Wanda Sabir

Crossing bridges made from bones, Nzingah dances through Bahia where she meets Yemanja, goddess of the sweet waters, then into Cuba, where she meets Oshun, goddess of love, and Ayiti, where she dances Yanvolou for Ogou and the Ancestors Gede. It is a dance used to reinforce community and solidarity.

Nzingha grows in self-confidence, her leke or ritual beads earned after she dances through each divine portal. The next stop is Southern Spain where Nzingha, also named for a warrior, meets Oya, the goddess of change and transformation. This stop is the beginning of the “great (re)turn,” this time accompanied by Mamiwata, Obatala and Esu.

“The Shore” arranged by Calvin Holmes, Baba Tacuma and Baba Zeke, choreography by Asatu Hall, performed by Jennifer Johns – Photo: Wanda Sabir

The child carries her nkisi or juju with her. She is wrapped in literal rainbows as she alights in New York at the African Burial Grounds (Wall Street), dances into Congo Square in New Orleans then heads back to Oakland where the enchantment continues in Oscar Grant Plaza, where Nzingha meets young grandmother, young grandfather. Home again, she meets her mother again in the mirror and embraces her as she embraces this episode of her journey, now complete.

“Cuba” arranged by Calvin Holmes, Oshun choreography by Asatu Hall and Karma Smart – Photo: Wanda Sabir

For each leg of the literal journey, master percussionists and other choreographers join lead choreographer Rozz Nash and co-writer, theatre director RyanNicole Austin, who was running the sound on opening night. More than 500 students from over a dozen Oakland and other East Bay schools are involved as performers, composers and costume or set designers, including OSA, Anna Yates, Northern Light, Pear Tree Community School, West Oakland Middle School, Envision Academy Middle Grades, Park Day, Head Royce and Latitude High School.

Jennifer Johns is also co-writer and composer. She is both grandmother and Mamiwata. Ultimately, it is African divinity where Nzingha, orphaned, finds what she believes was lost. Once she steps into the chasm holding Esu’s hand or cane, it is trust that ultimately rewards Nzingha with the answers she seeks. Once she commits to the trip, she doesn’t let go until she reaches home sweet home.

“The Swipe” composed by Dame Drummer, choreography by Adriana Wilson – Photo: Wanda Sabir

It is a beautiful story, one of hope and love. “KOLA” continues at Castlemont High School, 8601 MacArthur Blvd, Thursday through Saturday, Dec. 19-21, at 7 p.m., and closes Sunday, Dec. 22, at 2 p.m. It is a family friendly production. For tickets, visit www.thepeoplesconservatory.org. Advance tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children; tickets at the door are $20 and $15. Online tickets for Sunday, Dec. 22, are sold out, but tickets will be available at the door on Sunday. The box office opens at 12:45 p.m.

There is free parking on the side of the school campus by the fence near the childcare center signage. Keep driving all the way to the back.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.