Head First: The Other Cinderella

Oulahan, Amalia

I grew up watching Disney’s version of the Cinderella story, and I used to think it had everything I could want from a fairy tale. A king’s castle, an elegant ball with a midnight curfew, Prince Charming and an enchanted sparkly dress are all great – I even had the official Cinderella Barbie doll when I was a kid – but now I know how much the Cinderella of my childhood was actually missing.

When I attended the opening of the Black Ensemble Theater Company’s musical The Other Cinderella, I realized it: I was not in Disneyland anymore.

The Other Cinderella sets the traditional fairy tale in the “Kingdom of Other” where, as the play is billed, “everyone has soul.” The show was written and produced by Jackie Taylor, Black Ensemble Theater’s founder and executive director. Since its debut in 1976, with Taylor starring as the original “Other Cinderella” it has run during about half of the theater’s 31 seasons.

The songs reflect the flair of the decade in which they were written, allowing the actors to show off their vocal talent and ability to wake up the crowd with a tune. But Taylor has updated the show since the ’70s, adding pop-culture references from text-messaging to shopping at Payless – even a Flavor Flav joke thrown in for good measure.

When my boyfriend and I entered the theater a few minutes before the performance, the crowd was buzzing. We climbed up narrow, wooden steps to sit on the platform built to elevate chairs above the stage. The stage floor was painted in rainbow colors, and almost every seat was filled. The 160 attendees, mostly black, spanned all age groups and all manner of dress, from casual to stylish and flashy.

The performance was a family event. Grandparents, groups of friends, men, women and young girls greeted each other across the aisles and from opposite sides of the theater. The Other Cinderella is a tradition for some audience members, many of whom return again and again.

When the play began, we were welcomed to the Kingdom of Other by characters singing loud solos to introduce themselves. The “Stepmama,” who works at the post office; the stepsisters who shop for trendy clothing, never having worked a day in their lives; the brothers from the ‘hood who attend the prince’s ball and ensure that the royalty never forgets its people; a Cinderella who was born in the projects. The “fairy Godmama” is from Jamaica, and does her magic with voodoo and a biting sense of humor.

The characters wore contemporary clothing, and the stage was sparsely set. The backdrops (curtains and one wall), along with the two chairs, two end-tables, a stool, a couch and a few props were enough to create different rooms in Cinderella’s house and the castle.

Comedy kept the play light. Dancers at the prince’s ball “cranked that soulja boy” and Cinderella squealed when a car with Cadillac and Lamborghini parts showed up with T.I. and Denzel Washington acting as chauffeurs. Even Dorothy (yes, the one from the Wizard of Oz), the only white girl to ever try joining the Kingdom of Other, was welcomed after she boogied down on stage, tasted greens and watermelon, and sang “The White Girl Blues” to an amused audience.

But the play’s real highlights were the songs that delivered its message. Fairy Godmama prepared Cinderella for the ball by teaching her that she could do whatever she dreamed as long as she, “never said goodbye to the goodness inside of her.” Two characters who worked in the palace prepared for the ball by finding love. Their duet, “Look at Me,” was a touching story about light- and dark-skinned black people crossing color lines within their own community.

And the prince, who had been too timid to fill his father’s aggressive kingly shoes, found confidence in the support of his strong mother, the queen. Finally, the show proclaimed, “What’s fair is fair, what’s true is true.” Cinderella’s step-family work in the castle to pay their dues for mistreating Cinderella, while the over-worked heroine gets her chance at a happy life.

At the end of the show, the house manager called Taylor to the stage to discuss the future of the theater company. She asked audience members to advertise the show, which is running at the theater until New Year’s Eve.

The Black Ensemble Theater is fundraising for capital to build two new auditoriums in a building it has just purchased a few blocks from its current location, Taylor says. The new theaters will be part of the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, a realization of one of the group’s ultimate goals.

It wasn’t until Taylor’s speech that my boyfriend and I realized we had been sitting next to her during the entire show. Before she stepped on stage, her presence was unremarkable, like Cinderella before the fairy Godmama’s visit. She wore plain clothing and scribbled notes during the performance. We thought she was another reporter. With the plans for the Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center underway, Taylor’s vision is on its way to becoming its own “happily ever after” – with plenty of soul, of course.