by Sandy Moore
photos by Marcy Hairston
The girls are swathed in silks the colors of a Sephardic stew: cumin, turmeric, paprika. A few boys in tunics are sprinkled into the richly textured mix. With words and song they rehearse a scene entitled, “Seven Ways to Cook an Eggplant.”
In early December the young actors will take to the stage at D.C.’s Lisner Auditorium when the curtain rises for the annual Washington Revels performance, “Andalusian Treasures,” a winter solstice celebration.
“It’s like we’ve done time travel and arrived in a different world,” said 10-year-old Elena Rubens Goldfarb, herself transported by a medieval velvet gown and the ornate brass water jugs that surround her.
To bring the exotic Andalusian world of southern Spain alive, the young performers had to learn songs in three different languages: Arabic, Ladino (an ancient form of Spanish), and Hebrew. Jewish kids who grew up singing “Shalom Haverim” can now switch confidently to the Arabic translation. And they’ll all lead the audience in the Latin hymn “Donna Nobis Pacem,” a Revels tradition. Although the foreign language was a challenge for some, a number of cast members are students in Silver Spring’s French immersion program, and are quite adept at cross-cultural travel.
The Revels full cast (14 tweens, 15 teens, and 47 adults) has become more diverse since its initial performance in 1982. Several young actors in this show have at least some familiarity with the cultures represented — fourth grader Anna Hosh, whose father immigrated here from Palestine and fifth grader Emelie Jarquin-Manegold, whose Dad is from Madrid.
Like all the Revels company’s young actors, Pria Dahiya was assigned to a stage family early in the rehearsal process. Her stage Mom (Lisa Grosh) and Dad (Charles Blue) look out for her in the months leading up to Lisner. On stage they act as a family: laughing, hugging, and dancing together.
“They develop friendships with people, including adults, outside their own family,” and Lynette Mattke, mother of 11-year-old Revels actor, Aiden Mattke. “Revels is about family: nuclear family, stage family and the larger audience, a family that grows around the Revels from year to year.”
Kids find their way to Revels in a variety of ways: some begin as audience members and are bit by the acting bug, others are encouraged by parents who participate.
“I’d acted in school plays, but my mom thought I was ready for a big production,” said fourth grader Brianna Frost, from Silver Spring. However they find the Revels, they must compete for a spot in the production, said Children’s Stage Director Jennie Swanson Voorhees, who auditioned 60 kids, ultimately choosing just 14. The cadre of 3rd to 5th graders is augmented by 15 high schoolers as well – but there are no middle schoolers. “We’ve learned there’s too much going on in their lives at that age,” said Voorhees.
The stage director gives a few final instructions as the kids prepare to move into the giant circle of older actors in the rehearsal gym. “Stay in character. Don’t slide in your shoes (though it’s tempting). When the Mummers come on, bearing presents . . . look amazed!” A costumer adjusts one young girl’s veil as she listens.
In addition to carefully researched period costumes, the Revels pride themselves on the use of original music. This year’s “tradition bearers” (a Revels term), include the musical groups Trio Sefandi and Layali El Andrus. Though ancient, the music’s appeal transcends time.
“He’s singing the Revels music while I make dinner,” said Aiden’s mother, Lynnette. “I love that.”