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Bilingual Play Teaches Children About Banjo’s African Roots

Actors sing along with Haydee Canovas she strums her banjo to the play's final song.
Actors sing along with Haydee Canovas she strums her banjo to the play's final song.

“G is for Gato,” a bilingual play featuring music, premiered at the Louisville Public Library Saturday.

It is the newest children’s play from Teatro Tercera Llamada, a dual-language theatre company in Louisville. 

With songs written by Haydee Canovas and dialogue by Kay Nilest, the play presents a cast of cat characters for audiences to enjoy.

Canovas and Nilest came together after Nilest sent a message to Canovas’ theater company, Teatro Tercera Llamada.She already had the banjo songs written, all inspired by cats she knows in real life. From there, the playwrights held monthly meetings through the pandemic to put the play together.

“G is for Gato” explores themes of connection — between human and feline characters, and Kentucky folk music with music from other parts of the world. 

That sense of connectivity between is a large part of what Nilest hopes people leave the play understanding.

“I hope that people take away the way that community is built. And how you don’t have to have a lot in common to have a community with someone,” said Nilest. 

Throughout stories about cats, the audience also learns about the history of the banjo. 

The banjo is believed to be the result of the ankonting, a string instrument made from gourds brought to the U.S. by enslaved African people. 

“It shows that the banjo wasn’t created in a vacuum. It was created because of the people who were brought to this hemisphere and you know, they’re not given credit,” said Canovas. 

The banjo is deeply ingrained in U.S. music, particularly in Kentucky, because of Bluegrass. Canovas, who grew up in Miami, learned to play banjo after moving to Louisville. 

“The American banjo is a staple of our country,” said Canovas.

For her, it was important to bring this history to people.

Kelton Wise,11, attended the play with his mother and little sister. He’s ready to bring the knowledge he learned about the banjo to school this year. 

“If I’m in class or something like that, and they ask if anyone knows about that, I can tell them I learned about that,” said Kelton.

All the children’s plays that Teatro Tercera Llamada puts on are meant to be as accessible as possible. 

Canovas used to rent out a space for each play and charge low admission, but realized that even then, people were being left out.

“I was charging only $5 a ticket, when a mother with three daughters came asking for a discount,” said Canovas. “That was it, that’s when I said I can’t charge for this.”

The move to Louisville libraries allows for audiences to see the plays free of charge, and the money saved on renting a venue goes to compensate the actors and others who work to produce the play. 

The play will run through August 28.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.