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Troubled History as Family Theatre Making Books Sing asks big questions with a children’s musical

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

How do you make family theatre out of terrible history?

If there’s anyone who can answer that question, it’s the team at Making Books Sing, which commissions new musicals based on children’s literature. The company has crafted shows about everything from homelessness to baroque music to Nazi-occupied France, and they’ve toured them to young audiences throughout the boroughs.

Still, there was hesitation as the company created Tea With Chachaji. Based on a children’s book by Uma Krishnaswami, the show follows Neel, an Indian-American boy who wrestles with his cultural identity after hearing his uncle Chachaji’s stories about India. Amid tales of Hindu tradition and Bollywood stars, Chachaji remembers the Partition of 1947, which displaced millions of people after the British divided India and Pakistan. Those memories are full of suffering, and they aren’t obvious topics for a musical.

“In the beginning, there was concern that the Partition might be too scary for kids,” says Barbara Zinn Krieger, artistic director and founder of Making Books Sing. “I said, ‘Kids don’t get enough credit. Make it real.’”

During the show, which is currently playing at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, the audience sees actual images of the Partition. “What happens is that the people onstage, the characters we meet, they overcame,” Krieger says, “The message is that, yes, there’s hardship, but you can survive.
 
For Krieger, this kind of detail not only makes the show more authentic, but also more accessible. “When you talk specifically about Indian culture, it brings up memories of other people’s cultures,” she says.

To succeed, Tea With Chachaji needs to walk that tightrope: It needs to honor Indian culture and history without alienating patrons who don’t know much about it.

To warm up the crowd for a show filled with Indian dances, images, and religious references, Krieger asks children to raise a hand if they have relatives from other countries who have told them stories about where they came from. She always sees dozens of hands. “That starts the juices flowing and gets them thinking about intergenerational stories that we all hear,” she says. “For kids in New York City schools, that’s especially true.”

Lyricist-librettist Gwynne Watkins and composer Denver Casado also strike a cultural balance. Casado’s score features Indian instruments like sitar and tabla, while Watkins’ script gives Neel a Hispanic-American friend (a character expanded from the original book.) “The fact that the friend becomes part of this family, I think and I hope it makes Indian culture seem more familiar,” Krieger says.

If Indian culture seems relatable, of course, then non-Indian audiences are more likely to see themselves on stage. “This story is about the push and pull of the home country culture and wanting to be American,” Krieger says. “That’s of interest to any anyone who is learning to accept this dichotomy, no matter where they’re from.”

 

 Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor