'OURStory: The Black History Musical' a celebration of Black culture, history, and joy
By Cassiopeia Guthrie, Feb. 14
It loaded in and then was gone in a flash, but the impact of the evening will live on... OURStory: The Black History Musical, written/produced/performed by Billboard-charting children’s rapper Griot B, brought big energy to San Diego’s Balboa Theatre on Feb. 13.
Nested under the School Yard Rap brand, OURStory features Brandon “Griot B” Brown, five actor/singers, and a dance troupe. These performers traverse a loose plot line in which Ms. K, a white high school teacher, introduces slavery and segregation as being the entirety of Black history, much to the chagrin of her class. The disappointed students summon Griot B (Beetlejuice-style), who arrives to explain how he: “just looked in the mirror; I’m Black! Even when it ain’t February… imagine that.”
Brown, shouldering the role of griot, or traditional West African oral historian, pushes past the 'February is Black History Month' boundary through song and dance, introducing history, inventions, scientists, and pioneers often overlooked in traditional classrooms. With numbers curated from the School Yard Rap albums and paired alongside new tunes, OURStory is not only vibrant and lively, but elemental in many ways.
While Griot B’s way with words is undeniable, he has additionally assembled a talented troupe of performers including an emcee and a real-time DJ for this inaugural tour of nine cities. Joining them are six actor/singers Haille Williams, Deidra Kathleen, Breayre Tender, Eric Blunt, Terry Wayne Jr, and Ryan Mckilligott, who embody each historical role throughout the show and engage the audience through call-and-response. Their work is well studied and charismatic. I particularly enjoyed Williams' and Wayne Jr.'s feature numbers during the San Diego production, which were beautifully sung. A troupe of dancers appear in each scene to execute choreography (Phil Garvin) integrating several dance styles. Stand-out numbers include a violent ballet representing enslavement in ‘Middle Passage’ which is both poignant and heartbreaking and spirited stepping in ‘HBCUs.’
Over the course of the show, the audience is treated to a wide variety of stories including those of Kemet in the Nile Valley, the Muslim Moors in Spain, the successful Haitian Revolution of Saint-Dominique, Shaka Zulu, Juneteenth, and a celebration of historically Black colleges and universities, among many more. They also learn about various contributions of Black inventors (among which are deodorant, baths, potato chips, schools, and three-course meals, for those wondering) and enjoy countless share-worthy lines which include: “Who am I to be brilliant?;” “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child;” “You pray you’re not his prey as you’re sitting at his fire;” and “We make something out of nothing.”
OURStory also features a vast number of colorful costumes and quick changes (each performer has a new costume for each number), all of which are beautifully curated and effective in their various scenes. Animations play out concurrently behind the performers as well; the large screen and video components are helpful for setting context for location and time frame, and are also used for occasional shadow and silhouette effects. Balboa Theatre’s acoustics, bright and intense alongside the amplified backing tracks, reward the participation of an enthusiastic audience. I noted that many were nodding, dancing, shouting, and enthusing in response to the production.
As the evening wrapped, I couldn't help thinking as I watched Griot B hug young fans and families post-show, that not only are these stories that need to be amplified, but also that this is an empowering, joyous way to do it. It seems inevitable that this production enjoy a future much like that of Griot B and School Yard Rap, who have traveled to 20 states and over 300 schools. I know I will certainly keep an eye on OURStory: The Black History Musical as they continue their inaugural tour (through Feb. 27); I've already downloaded the album on Spotify and I can't wait to see what comes next.