Play Celebrates Untold Stories of Black Inventors

Brandon White performs for a crowd of school children. i

Actor Brandon White performs in the new play Lions of Industry: Mothers of Invention for a crowd of school children during the opening performance. David Gilkey, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey, NPR
Brandon White performs for a crowd of school children.

Actor Brandon White performs in the new play Lions of Industry: Mothers of Invention for a crowd of school children during the opening performance.

David Gilkey, NPR
Patrick Doneghy plays George Crum, the inventor of the potato chip. i

Patrick Doneghy plays George Crum, the inventor of the potato chip. David Gilkey, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey, NPR
Patrick Doneghy plays George Crum, the inventor of the potato chip.

Patrick Doneghy plays George Crum, the inventor of the potato chip.

David Gilkey, NPR
Patrick Doneghy and Danielle Drakes perform. i

Doneghy, portraying Crum, is joined on stage by Danielle Drakes, who plays a waitress trying to restrain him from an unhappy customer. David Gilkey, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey, NPR
Patrick Doneghy and Danielle Drakes perform.

Doneghy, portraying Crum, is joined on stage by Danielle Drakes, who plays a waitress trying to restrain him from an unhappy customer.

David Gilkey, NPR

Museum exhibits are coming to life this month at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theater in Washington, D.C., as students receive an interactive education about African Americans who built and shaped the United States.

The theater's new play, Lions of Industry: Mothers of Invention, tells the stories of black inventors and entrepreneurs who created many of the products still in use today.

From the front row, the young audience can nearly touch the actors — like the one playing Sara Breedlove. She was born the illiterate daughter of freed slaves. But Breedlove took the name of her second husband and became Madame C.J. Walker, who built one of the largest black-owned businesses in the country, an empire based on beauty products for black women.

Students also learn about the heartbreaking early childhood of George Washington Carver, an artist, scientist and inventor of myriad creations derived from peanuts, including ink and shampoo.

"It isn't narrative driven, or character driven, or story driven. It's about history or science as though you were walking into the Smithsonian, and all of a sudden these objects come to life and tell you who they are, and why they are important, and why you should know me," Lawton says.

Play and theater director Roberta Gasbarre says Lions of Industry is important to her because she's helping teach children about stories that aren't being told. She says the play targets late elementary and middle-school students to fill in gaps in history books.

"We haven't found enough entertaining ways to tell these stories," playwright Lawton says. "Because they can be told in film, or theater, song, dance. Is it that there is not enough arts funding? Not enough writers out there to engage? Not enough theater companies interested in telling these stories? I wonder if it is because the people who are choosing –- the people who decide what children get to learn — aren't necessarily interested in telling the bigger picture."/P>

From the history of George Crum — inventor of the potato chip — to a rollicking on-the-spot-exhibit of some of the 300 inventions that Carver derived from the peanut, the play uses humor and mixed media to engage its audience.

Actor Danielle Drakes says the play restores something she thinks the African-American community is missing.

"What I found in our community is that we have lost that sense of carrying on the stories, and this is an interesting, a fun, playful way to sort of say 'We've not lost it -– here it is,'" Drakes says.

But Lawton says she and the others involved in the production are on a mission to reverse some of the damage she says is being done to the esteem and worth of young African Americans.

"It is damaging not to have your story told –- not to see people who look like you on stage, film, television, because then you aren't seeing the validation of who you are –- your place in history, your place in this country."

Lions of Industry: Mothers of Invention runs until Feb. 22 at the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C.

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