Many theater productions for children and families can, unfortunately, turn out to be cloying and tedious for the adult members of the audience. Fortunately, the new, original play “Rap Unzel” at Austin Scottish Rite Theater is the antidote to that — a funny, joyous show that is charming and nuanced for children and adults alike.
In “Rap Unzel,” co-writers Jeremy Rashad Brown and Deanne Belardinelli have loosely adopted the fairy tale of Rapunzel in a contemporary context, telling the story of Reginald “Rap” Unzel III, a black boy with a tall head of hair who is kept in his house because his mother, Maji, wants to keep him safe. Maji’s fear, we learn, comes as a result of the death of Rap’s father. Though we don’t know for sure why or how this death occurred, Maji’s concern for Rap’s safety outside of the house echoes the harsh realities many black families face in today's world.
“Rap Unzel,” though, only hints at this theme; the play itself is entirely kid-friendly, with Rap’s confinement symbolized by the balcony outside his bedroom, from which he interacts with both a group of mean kids who tease him about his hair and a vibrant girl named Kenzee who lives across the street and loves to dance as much as Rap loves to write lyrics and sing.
What “Rap Unzel” ends up becoming, then, is the story of (as the program and promotional material describe), “black boy joy,” and the importance of seeking true joy even/especially in a world of sadness and anger. Co-directors Delanté Keys and Megan M. Ortiz emphasize this feeling of joyfulness throughout, interspersing the fun, charming text with moments of music and hip-hop song from composer SaulPaul, who plays the role of a portrait of Rap’s father, turning a tragic backstory into a comforting memory and benevolent protective presence.
In the role of Rap, Keys is as charming as ever, with an infectious, goofy energy directed squarely at the kids in the audience. The same type of endearing sweetness comes forth from Hayley Armstrong’s performance as Kenzee, who literally bounces across the stage with child-like excitement.
Austin Scottish Rite Theatre’s premiere production of “Rap Unzel” is a show for families that entertains at the same time as it provides a vital message of joy, making it a nuanced fable about diversity and acceptance that goes far beyond just the fun antics of its surface.
("Rap Unzel" continues with Saturday and Sunday performances through March 3 at Austin Scottish Rite Theater.)