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Along Came a Spider

Folk tales about a spider have traveled the world over.

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The spider named Anansi pops up everywhere he shouldn't be in African folk tales.

He's generally up to no good, setting a bad example and then getting his just desserts. But in "Anansi's Hat-Shaking Dance" (also known as "How the Spider Lost His Hair"), part of Theatre for Young America's African Tales of Anansi, the poor balding arachnid does elicit some sympathy. Although there is little scientific indication that spiders marry, Anansi is betrothed. And, as seems to be the case with a number of humans, he doesn't care for his mother-in-law.

When his mother-in-law dies, he's not sad. "Everybody knows he never liked her," explains George Forbes, who plays Anansi in Theatre for Young America's production. "But he must show mourning and grief out of respect for his wife. So he starts weeping all over the place." He gets carried away with the act and stages a fast, refusing food publicly for three days while privately chowing down. While shoveling beans into his mouth one day, he sees villagers approach his home, so he puts the rest of the beans into his hat. "The beans are real hot and they're burning his hair," says Forbes. "He finally takes off his hat, and he's bald. He's so embarrassed that he has to go in the tall grass and hide."

In Forbes' favorite tale, "Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock," Anansi comes across a stone and discovers that it has the magical ability to make anyone who says "moss-covered rock" in its presence fall asleep. Anansi uses this to his advantage. When his friends approach, he tricks them into saying "moss-covered rock." Then, as soon as they fall asleep, he steals their food.

Playwright Valerie Mackey was intrigued by the idea that the African diaspora was embodied in a devilish spider. "The stories come from the Ashanti people in Ghana, West Africa," she explains. "What's really interesting is that the stories traveled from Africa to the Caribbean and then from the Caribbean to the United States, where they came in through North Carolina."

While coauthoring African Tales of Anansi with her father, Mackey discovered "Anansi and the Gum Doll," the African ancestor of Joel Chandler Harris' "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby." The dialect written into the Brer Rabbit stories is actually a remnant of the oral tradition of Ghana, and the wiley Brer Rabbit is the descendant of a trickster spider who plays games with tar in South Carolina.

The story of the gum doll isn't included in the play because the Mackeys decided that they would focus on stories having to do with food. "I just love food. I guess that's my thing," Valerie says, laughing.

Like Mackey, Forbes is especially moved by the history of the tales' journey.

"Stories can go from being told one way to being told another way and still keep the same moral, even if the characters change," he reflects. "It was so cool to find out that this all came from the same place."

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