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One-woman play brings 11 characters to life

Sonja Parks portrays 11 diverse characters in “Seedfolks,” which will be performed 3 p.m. April 21 at the Sheldon Theatre. Submitted photo

If you go…

Who: Children’s Theatre Company

What: “Seedfolks”

When: 3 p.m. April 21

Where: Sheldon Theatre

How much: $18 adult, $10 student, Kids Play Free

More info: www.sheldontheatre.org, 651-388-8700

One little girl with a handful of seeds sparks the transformation of an immigrant neighborhood in "Seedfolks," a one-woman play based on the Newbery Medal-winning book by Paul Fleischman.

Sonja Parks transforms herself into 11 diverse characters in the play, which will be performed for the public 3 p.m. April 21 at the Sheldon Theatre. This is her first visit to Red Wing.

When the Children's Theatre Company began looking into transforming "Seedfolks" into a play, Parks said, director Peter Brosius envisioned more than 20 actors on stage telling the wide-ranging stories that make up the book.

Brosius later told Parks that it just was not working, so he took a break and walked around the theater building. Among photographs hanging on the walls in the hallway, he spotted a picture of her.

"Sonja. That's who I need," he said. The IVEY Award-winning actor came to "workshop" the production, and it worked to have a single actor play all the characters, from an 8-year-old Vietnamese girl to a lovesick bodybuilder, a school janitor, an elderly Eastern European busybody and others.

"They figured out that one person playing so many people and cultures drove home a point," Parks explained. "Underneath all the differences, we're really the same. We're just people."

In Brosius' words, "We are all part of a whole, and together, we can create something beautiful."

Parks took on the challenge, calling it "kind of an actor's dream and an actor's nightmare at the same time."

It's a dream, she said, because "It's so much fun. It's our job to portray different people, different lives," but usually an actor only has to focus on one part at a time. "In this show, there are 11 different people" with stories to share, Parks said, plus several others with just a line or two.

It's both a dream and a nightmare, she added, because "You get to play a bunch of different people at the same time."

Parks does it without any costume or set changes. "It's all done with me, lighting, sound, projection and music. That's it," she said.

Her performance, which has been described as "an extraordinary theatrical odyssey," relies on speech, posture and gestures to migrate from character to character.

"Seedfolks" begins when 9-year-old Kim plants six lima bean seeds in a derelict lot next to an apartment building in Cleveland, Ohio, in honor of the father she never knew. Slowly the other members of the community find reasons to plant their own seeds, resurrecting the lot and uniting a fractured neighborhood — turning an eyesore into a jewel.

One of the 11 characters was her toughest challenge: a guy named Curtis who reminds her a lot of her own brother. Grasping the role isn't the problem, Parks said. The hard part is coming up with Curtis' boundless energy more than halfway through the 58-minute performance when she is starting to cope with "the exhaustion factor."

Although the story is set in an urban, diverse community, she has found that it reaches children — and adults — in all sorts of settings.

In cities, Parks has found that audiences respond to the setting. They recognize a "junk" lot, a place with little greenery. In rural areas, kids are more apt to respond to the characters and the different cultures they represent.

She gives credit to the Children's Theatre Company for successfully reaching young audiences.

"What I love about CTC is its respect for children as the intelligent little people they are," Parks said. Too many adults condescend to children, treating them as though kids cannot understand complicated topics.

"They absolutely get it in a visceral, real manner," she said. "They really connect."

Following the performance children will be invited to comment and talk about their favorite characters in a post-show discussion.

"Seedfolks" debuted in 2014, and Parks returned to the play for CTC's current tour. In Red Wing, she will perform a school show for an all-student audience as well as the public performance on April 21.

"I love to perform for kids," she said. "They're such an honest audience."

But she also enjoys an audience of parents and children together. "It's nice to have families share that experience."

Theater encourages conversation, Parks pointed out. An artist/activist committed to improving society for all people, she is a fierce believer in the power of art to encourage social change.

When the current tour ends in May, Parks will be traveling to Texas, where she studied, to direct a play. In the fall, her first book will be published; it focuses on her theater experiences and is intended as a teaching tool.

Tickets to the April 21 performance are $18 for adults, $10 for students. It is a Kids Play Free event, which allows free admission to one child 14 and under with each paid adult ticket. For details, call 651-388-8700 or go online to www.sheldontheatre.org.

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