By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Author and activist Sandy Holman has made cultural work her life’s work. She’ll see her first book adapted for the stage this week at the Veterans Memorial Theatre in Davis. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

Local author and educator Sandy Lynne Holman is inviting local audiences to check out the debut of Sankofa, the stage adaptation of her 1998 book “Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?”

​​Sankofa, opens at Veterans Memorial Theatre in Davis on April 1 thanks to Holman’s The Cultural C.O-O.P. and Bike City Theater Company.  The action, adapted for theater by Holman, J.R. Yancher and Jordan Brownlee, follows Montsho, a young Black boy who does not like his Black skin. At his grandfather’s house for his first Kwanzaa celebration, Montsho’s eyes are opened as he embarks on a journey to “go back and fetch the past.” 

“I published the book after working with some kids who didn’t want to be Black,” Holman shared. “There’s thousands of them across the country. I wrote the book just for them.”

Whether on a page or a stage, Holman says her message is still as necessary today as it was two decades ago.

“I meet babies all the time and when I say babies, I mean 30 and under. They all have various gradations of hating themselves, even as they’re trying to embrace themselves. It’s so deep. They don’t like their nose, they don’t like their skin color.

“It’s often happening at the subconscious level, but it’s impactful because I see it in the kids around the world where they’re bleaching their skin and everything, trying to lighten their skin, and literally using bleach, not just those bleaching creams. This anti-blackness stuff is designed to be destructive,” Holman said.

She wants audiences to walk away better educated about how history has been distorted to paint Black people as negative and inferior. 

“This play is deep,” she said. “My ancestors taught me about the importance of that Sankofa principle — go back and fetch your past history so we can navigate, we can see where we’ve come from, how it’s affected us today and where we really want to go.”

Holman always envisioned the “Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?” book, her first,  becoming a holiday classic in the same vein as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” or “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It is being brought to life in stage form by cast members Caleb Collier,  Preston Collier, Jasmine Washington, Corey Winfied, Brooklynn Solomon, and V’santi Tobey. Local theater icon James Wheatley also stars as the Grandpa character, fashioned after Holman’s own grandfather, Rufus X Holman. Wheatley even added her grandfather’s Southern drawl to add authenticity to the role.

Sandy Holman discusses how she could not have done this without the support of co-writer J.R. Yancher and producer Joseph Fletcher of Sandy Holman, right, credits Sankofa’s co-writer J.R. Yancher, left, and producer Joseph Fletcher, of Bike City Theater Company for giving her work new life. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

“James Wheatley is someone I have respected from afar for years. He’s brilliant,” Holman said of the veteran performer.

Holman also credits co-writer J.R. Yancher and producer Joseph Fletcher. After viewing Holman’s documentary, The Cost of Darkness, Yancher and Fletcher became interns with Holman and made turning the book into a play their graduate theses. 

“Sandy’s work made me stop and reflect,” Yancher said of his involvement. 

“I found that for myself, being an ally wasn’t enough. I needed to become an accomplice, and put what privilege, resources and skills I had into direct action,” he continued.

Yancher also spearheaded the casting search and fundraising efforts. 

“Sandy has a story that needs to be heard, so I decided to put the focus of my MFA into helping her and budding playwright Jordan Brownlee tell that story in this medium. This play is focused on empowering people of color, but it was critical to us that it connect with White audiences as well. This play invites them to dig deeper, understand the systemic issues we are confronted with, engage in the conversation, and hopefully act to make a difference. With support from a diverse group of people, we hope that this message can be spread to a wider audience,” Yancher shared. 

Sankofa is a workshop production. Holman calls it a work in progress. Things are still being fine-tuned for opening night.

Caleb Collier, left, who plays the grandson Montsho, and V’santi Tobey, who plays aviator Bessie Coleman rehearse their lines. Five shows are set to run April 1-10. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

“Even though this is not a full production, I think they do it justice and they make it engaging. And when I was doing the altar on site the other day to honor our ancestors and elders, honestly, I just wanted to bawl because this has been such a journey.”

Showtimes are April 1, 2 and 9 at 7:00 p.m. and April 3 and April 10 at 2:00 p.m . The cost of tickets is “pay what you can” at the door. Veterans Memorial Theatre is located at 203 E 14th Street, Davis. 

COVID-19 safety protocols will be enforced. All audience members will need to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test at the door. Audience members are asked to wear masks while indoors watching the performance. While actors will be performing without masks, there will be appropriate spacing from the audience and there will be ample space for playgoers to spread out and be socially distanced. 

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