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An Ohio Kwanzaa performance uses an age-old folktale to look to the future

A group of girls flap their arms like eagles. They are standing in the middle of a bright yellow rehearsal space.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Deondra Kamau Means leads a group of kids through a song. They're practicing for a production of "The Eagles Who Thought They Were Chickens," an old African folktale.

“Places, places from the top!”

Standing in the middle of a bright yellow room decorated with African art, Deondra Kamau Means called out instructions to a group of energetic children.

“That means you go back to the spot you were with your group,” he explained to one child, as she scampered across the wooden floor of the rehearsal space.

This Thursday afternoon, the group is getting ready for a timeless holiday performance.

It’s not a rendition of the Nutcracker or a reenactment of Ebenzeer Scrooge.

Rather, it’s a retelling of an African folktale that’s been passed down through generations: “The Eagles Who Thought They Were Chickens."

As Means narrates the story, the kids act out his words.

“There once was a great king who ruled a vast kingdom,” the story begins. “Perched at the right hand of his throne was a great eagle.”

A man in a navy suit holds a script in one had and points with the other. He's directing a rehearsal for a holiday performance.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Deondra Kamau Means directs rehearsal for a production of "The Eagles Who Thought They Were Chickens."

“Let me see your wings,” Means called out.

Throughout the course of the story, this great eagle is captured, caged and sent on a ship to the Americas. She dies on the journey.

Her eggs are tossed into the chicken coop, and when they hatch, they’re raised to believe they are nothing more than ugly chickens.

“It's an age-old folktale about identity and recognizing who you are by nature and who you are in cultural reference,” Means said.

To him, that’s what Kwanzaa is all about.

“The story itself, in regard to recognizing true self, is so important to the principles of Kwanzaa and what was created in [the 60s],” he said, “to explore and to share the greatness of people who have been marginalized and objectified and told a false history instead of a true story of the existence of people of color on this continent.”

“The children are the future. We need to instill in them what they need to have in order to be able to lead.”
Leah Saho

Means said the children’s production embodies the meaning of Kwanzaa in a number of ways.

For one, it celebrates Black culture. The story is an African folktale told using traditional African instruments.

At the same time, it highlights a difficult part of Black history, using metaphor to depict the slave trade and the generational trauma it’s caused for so many Black Americans.

Leah Saho, one of the people who organizes Cincinnati’s citywide Kwanzaa celebrations, says recognizing this past is a critical part of the holiday.

Two drums sit in the sunlight in an open rehearsal space.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
This Kwanzaa performance celebrates Black culture. It retells an African folktale using traditional African instruments, like these drums.

“It’s very important to remember the ancestors,” she said, “those whose shoulders we currently stand on, those who have paved the way in order for us to have Kwanzaa.”

But, she said, Kwanzaa is also about looking toward the future. And that’s why this performance is perfect for the celebration: it features children.

“The children are the future,” Saho said. “We need to instill in them what they need to have in order to be able to lead.”

That means teaching them the seven principles of Kwanzaa, she said — principles like Kuumba, which is Swahili for creativity, and Kujichagulia, self-determination.

This play does just that.

At the end of the production, a new eagle comes into the scene. His wings are clipped, but very slowly, he learns to fly again.

As he does, he teaches some of the eagles in the chicken coop how to fly — lifting them up after they’ve been pushed down for so long.

The kids wave their arms and leap from side to side as they sing. They’re just pretending to be eagles, but in a way, they’re learning to fly too.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.