In stories from cultures around the world, the rooster, nature’s eager alarm clock, has symbolized bravery, pride, diligence, new beginnings, and family. And given roosters’ vocal talents, it’s no wonder they have often been cast as entertainers, including Disney’s narrating Alan-a-dale in Robin Hood and Chanticleer in Rock-a-doodle.
This month at the Kennedy Center, a new avian artist will make his debut in the world premiere of Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Boogie: Starring Indigo Blume. The new musical is a duet of sorts between two characters from award-winning author and educator Kwame Alexander’s shelf, co-written with his frequent collaborator, writer, and artist Mary Rand Hess.
It tells the story of Indigo Blume, a young girl who must overcome a case of stage fright so she can perform at her community festival. Can the characters from her favorite book—Acoustic Rooster, Chickee Minaj, Miss Dairy Parton, Mules Davis, and Duck Ellington—help her to find her voice?
Bringing this barnyard band to melodious life is DMV-native writer and educator Randy Preston, Alexander’s regular collaborator and long-time friend. Preston, who also grew up in England, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, not only composed the music; he’s picking up his guitar for a turn as the eponymous poultry. He shares his thoughts about the creation process and message of this inspiring new musical.
How did Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Boogie: Starring Indigo Blume begin?
Randy Preston: Mo Willems invited Kwame and me to come and check out his play [Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus at the Kennedy Center, 2019]. We watched the workshop of it, and I was like, “This is crazy cool. I love this. We should do something.” And the Kennedy Center asked if we were interested in working with them. We thought about some ideas, and Kwame said, “Let’s mash up a couple of my characters and put them into one musical. It’ll be fun” [laughs]. So that’s what happened. We recruited Mary Rand Hess to co-write the script, and I started working on the songs.
What was the writing process like?
I’ve been writing music my whole life as a hobby, and with Kwame I’ve written a lot of kids’ music based on his bestsellers [Rebound, Solo, and Swing]. I grew up with musicals—I sang all the words to West Side Story when I was eight or nine—but I’ve never actually written a musical. I was like, “I want to do it. I think I can do it. But I don’t know how. So let me read a book” [laughs]. So I read a book and I talked to family members and one of my mentors, Dr. Geoffrey Newman [Dean Emeritus of the College of Fine Arts at Montclair State University]. He’s a theater guy and an amazing person. He helped me conceptually understand what I needed to do.
The coolest part is I was forced to write really short songs. The show is an hour long and we have around 32 songs. Songs are like puzzles to me: “How can I make this idea, this paragraph of thought, into four lines of a verse, and then four lines of a chorus, and then maybe another four lines of verse?” That became really fun. And they’re all driving the narrative and helping us move from these emotional spaces where words don’t suffice and we have to go into song.
You mentioned the show has 32 songs.
Pretty much every other minute there’s another song, and some of the songs are 30 seconds. I put in as much music as I could because I feel that kids need to be exposed to as much good music as they can. Having access to a wide variety of genres opens the mind. And the parents, at the same time, can enjoy some really high-quality music too.
What styles are we going to hear?
Go-go, obviously. My mom’s Piscataway and this is DC, so I’m going to rep DC hard. We also have jazz, blues, and hip hop. We have a kind of vocal choir thing. I wrote a waltz. Soul, R&B. We’re doing pretty much any genre you can find, especially within the African diaspora.
You’re also in the show as Acoustic Rooster. How have you experienced being both one of the show’s creators and a performer?
I had to play and sing all the songs early on because no one else really knew them, so I really got to experience them. The challenge was living with having created a song and then having to change it, having to sit and think, “This is crazy. We’re going to change the key of this song because nobody can sing it. It’s too high. Or these lyrics are too fast” [laughs]. So, I think performing actually helped me create better songs.
I have enjoyed being able to hear ideas that I created in my head developed by Mark Meadows [music director/orchestrator] and these amazing musicians in the band. I wrote a couple of songs a week and a half ago, and now I’m listening to people sing them. It’s beautiful. A couple of times I just had to get myself together because I couldn’t say my lines. I was choked up emotionally. To see something develop is always gratifying for any creator.
And I was just planning on writing. I did not anticipate being in the show. One of the producers was like, “You can do this. We need your voice.” I don’t think I’ve ever worked in an environment that was so supportive, so inclusive, and so affirming.
What do you hope audiences will see in the show?
I think it’s a really beautiful piece, and I think art is meant to be beautiful. The cast and crew are making something amazing.
One of the things we try to promote is Indigo’s relationship with her parents being very strong. In representations of Black families, you don’t see that very often. They’re together, they love her, and they don’t force her into anything. They help her make choices for her. And she’s a small, pretty, happy brown-skinned girl. I’m super happy about that because we don’t see that character in many of the representations that are available.
It’s a hopeful show. It’s about conquering stage fright or whatever fear you might have. Allowing kids to have the autonomy to decide things is important. It’s okay to try, or not try, or fail. Growth is not a binary process. It’s not an either/or. You’re in the process of moving toward something. So giving children choices, letting them say, “This was my decision and I’m glad I made it” is a powerful place to be.
Running Time: One hour with no intermission.
Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Boogie: Starring Indigo Blume plays through November 28 in the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets ($20), call (202) 467-4600 or go online.
Best enjoyed by children 5+.
COVID Safety: The Kennedy Center Vaccination and Mask Policy is here.
Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Boogie: Starring Indigo Blume
A Kennedy Center World Premiere Commission
Adapted from the books by Kwame Alexander
By Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess
Music by Randy Preston
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown