LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
A new play at the Smithsonian's Discovery Theatre in Washington, D.C. is teaching children about the African-Americans who built and shaped this country. Lions of Industry, Mothers of Invention focuses on both famous and little-known black inventors and entrepreneurs.
NPR's Allison Keyes sat in on a rehearsal.
ALLISON KEYES: A movie screen stretches across the back of the stage. Steps run from the stage to the audience so the actors can get right in the middle of the students. From the front row you an nearly touch the actors, like the one playing Sara Breedlove.
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As Sara Breedlove) I am a woman from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub and from there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And then I promoted myself into the business of hair goods and preparation.
KEYES: She was born the illiterate daughter of freed slaves. But Breedlove took the name of her second husband and became Madame C.J. Walker, the creator of one of the largest black-owned businesses in the country. Students will also learn about the heartbreaking early childhood of artist-scientist-inventor George Washington Carver.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As George Washington Carver) I was born during the Civil War, you see, and when I was two Confederate Night Riders stole me and my sister and sold us. I almost died of whooping cough from neglect. I came out of that an orphan.
KEYES: In this exhibit theater, the actor-educators speak directly to the audience.
Unidentified Woman #2: Say it with me - entrepreneur.
Unidentified Man #2: What's that word again?
Unidentified Woman #2: Entrepreneur.
Unidentified Man #2: It's from the French.
Ms. JACQUELINE LAWTON (Playwright): I think for me what it means is theater that isn't specifically narrative driven or character driven or story driven even.
KEYES: Jacqueline Lawton wrote the play.
Ms. LAWTON: It's about history, it's about science, it's about walking as though - as if you were walking into any of the Smithsonian museums, and all of a sudden all of these objects and artifacts that you see come to life and start to tell you who they are, why they're important, why you should know me.
KEYES: Lawton hopes students who come to the play learn their role in history and that they're significant, that someone cared about them and created something that will entertain and educated them.
The show's director, Roberta Gasbarre, is also director of the theater. She loves helping to teach children about the stories that aren't being told.
Ms. ROBERTA GASBARRE (Director): We're targeting the late elementary and middle-school student because we feel that they don't get enough information about the kinds of history that they hear in their books, but maybe the hidden history of other Americans that aren't quite as well represented in those books.
KEYES: The play opens with a slide show of well-known white inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Then the actors stop in their tracks.
Unidentified Man #3: But who's missing?
Unidentified Man #4: We're here today to add African-Americans to the picture.
KEYES: Playwright Lawton's eyebrows furrow as she wonders why people aren't being told the stories of those she says teach us about who we are and where we came from.
Ms. LAWTON: I don't know if it's because we don't know that they're out there, we haven't found enough entertaining ways to tell these stories. 'Cause they can be told in film or a theater, song, dance. Is it that there is not enough arts funding out there? There's not enough writers out there? Enough theater companies that are interested in telling those stories? And I wonder if it's because the people choosing, the people who decide what children get to learn aren't necessarily interested in telling the bigger picture.
Ms. DANIELLE DRAKES (Actor): (As Madame C.J. Walker) I want to say to every woman and person of color present don't sit down and wait for those opportunities to come. Get up and make them.
(Soundbite of applause)
KEYES: Danielle Drakes plays Madame C.J. Walker in the production, among others. She thinks the play does a good job of restoring something she thinks the African-American community is missing.
Ms. DRAKES: 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.
Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) has it that George Crumb was a tough, crusty old man.
Unidentified Man #5: (as George Crumb) Crusty? Yeah, I'm crusty. I don't wear grease like Indians. I used to be a trapper.
KEYES: Crusty George Crumb invented the potato chip. There is also a rollicking on-the-spot exhibit of some of the 300 inventions George Washington Carver got out of the peanut, including ink, facial cream, and shampoo. The play uses humor and mixed media in hopes of engaging its target audience - children on a field trip.
But playwright Lawton says she and the others involved in this production are on a mission to reverse some of the damage she says is being done to the esteem and worth of young people of color.
Ms. LAWSON: It is damaging not to have your story told, not to see the people who look like you on stage, film, television, because then you're not seeing the validation of who you are, your role in history, your place in this country.
KEYES: There's a call to action at the end of the play, and Actor Brandon White says he wants kids to get this message loud and clear.
Mr. BRANDON WHITE (Actor): There are people who've done it before who look just like me.
KEYES: That, White says, means they can do it too.
Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.