When you go to see The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen at Imagination Stage, be prepared to spend 75 minutes bopping along in your seat the whole time, on 139th Street in Harlem. The atmospheric set, brilliantly designed by Natsu Onoda Power, immediately sets the tone of a vibrant and upbeat city. Some of the street signs indicate that it’s Saturday morning, and they cleverly change to alert the audience to the passage of time as the show progresses. Based on the book of the same name by Thelma Lynne Godin, adapted by Gloria Bond Clunie, play is the name of the game in this delightful performance directed by Angelisa Gillyard. From rhythmic wordplay (“swiggle, swish, switch”) to the hula-hooping competition, to turning chores like shelling peas and cooking into a game, the playfulness comes through at every moment.
The plot centers around three friends: Kameeka (Kalen Robinson), a bright-eyed middle schooler who wants to be the best at something, but isn’t quite sure yet what that is; Portia (Alana Thomas), who is dedicated to her flute and the peacemaker of the trio; and Jamara (Renee Elizabeth Wilson), who constantly boasts about her hula-hooping skills. She certainly does have the talent to back it up, though she annoys her friends because of it. Kameeka and Jamara agree to a hula-hooping showdown the following Saturday, and the plot unfolds as Kameeka works to practice, but also has to contend with the fact that she’s double-booked herself: her beloved 79-year-old neighbor’s birthday party is the same day, and she’s promised to help her mother get everything ready! Caregivers and children alike might recognize that feeling of being pulled in different directions and wanting to please everyone.
The music in this show is unique and peppy; instead of long musical numbers, there are short raps, rhymes, and ditties sprinkled throughout. In “Hula-Hoopin’ Itch,” the opening number, I felt as though I was watching an energetic and percussive step show and thoroughly enjoyed it. “Cake Making Day,” performed by Robinson as Kameeka and her Mama (played in the performance I attended by Phoenix Cross) was also catchy and fun; their foot-tapping rhymes and rap made cleaning and cooking feel fun. Imagine Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins crossed with Biz Markie. It may sound strange, but it worked!
The colorful costumes (designed by Alexis Chaney), brownstone-filled set, sweet story, and funky music all feel timeless and yet contemporary at the same time. Though set in today’s world, there is an idyllic quality to 139th Street that harkens back to a simpler time. It really does feel like an escape to join this carefree world for the duration of the performance. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that in The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen, the older adult characters, and the relationships they have with the young girls, are perhaps the most memorable and will stay with the audience long after they leave the theater. In particular, Miz Adeline, played impeccably by the gorgeous and talented Tamieka Chavis, was irresistible and lovable. Miss Evelyn, played by a hilarious Deidra LaWan Starnes, provided lots of comic relief and had the audience guffawing over and over. Miz Adeline does reminisce about bygone days, but the beauty of the show is that the innocent pep and earnest sass of hula-hooping are still present today, as evidenced by the trio of girls.
The final, joyous scene of The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen is Miz Adeline’s 80th birthday celebration, and indeed it does feel as though the audience is attending the shindig. It’s a party you don’t want to miss!
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen plays through April 14, 2023, at Imagination Stage’s Lerner Family Theater – 4908 Auburn Avenue in Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($12-$39), call the box office at (301) 280-1660, or purchase them online.
This party is best suited for ages 5 to 11, with, in this reviewer’s opinion, the sweet spot being between 6 and 10.
ASL-interpreted performance: Sunday, March 19 at 1:00 p.m.
Sensory-friendly performance: Sunday, March 12 at 10:00 a.m.
Click here for accessibility information at Imagination Stage, including sound maps, large print programs, and other resources.
COVID Safety: Audience members are strongly encouraged to wear masks while in Imagination Stage theaters. The company’s complete Health and Safety Protocols are here.
The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen
By Thelma Lynne Godin, Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Adapted by Gloria Bond Clunie
Directed by Angelisa Gillyard
Props Design by Pauline Lamb; Lighting Design by John D. Alexander; Sound Design by Kevin Lee Alexander; Stage Management by Luis Ramon Cordovez.