Footlights

Illuminating the local stage scene.

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Jesus in the House

For decades, playwrights in Richmond have been developing original works for young audiences. Heck, Swift Creek Mill presents a new holiday musical every year with its revered “Drifty the Snowman” series, and Virginia Repertory Theatre recently had a smash hit with the locally developed “Croaker: the Frog Prince Musical.”

Even so, the Heritage Ensemble Theatre’s “Sweet Chocolate and the Seven Christians” stands out as unique. The modern retelling of the Snow White story, with black characters and a faith-driven message, was written by the company’s artistic director, Margarette Joyner.

“There’s just not that many fairy tales specifically geared for African-American audiences,” Joyner says. “I think it’s important that children see stories like this on stage that have characters that look like them.”

Joyner laughs when asked why she put a religious spin on the story. “You have a female living in a house with seven men,” she says. “In a situation like that, I just thought Jesus needed to be there.”

Joyner had some fun reworking the classic character names -- Sleepy is now Dozey and Happy goes by Jubey, short for “jubilant.” Her cast won’t be peopled with little people, though. “It’s almost exactly the opposite,” she says. “All of the men in the cast are 5-feet-8 or above.”

Tackling such a classic story wasn’t particularly daunting for Joyner but coming up with music was more of a challenge. She ended up turning to Keith Wallace, a member of the Quintessential Jazz Ensemble.

“I came up with the lyrics and some simple melodies but Keith really came to our rescue,” Joyner says. “He arranged all of the music.” The show also includes some traditional hymns such as “Peace Like a River” and “A Little Talk With Jesus.”

As a fledgling theater company, Heritage Ensemble requires its principals to wear many hats: Joyner not only wrote the book and lyrics for “Sweet Chocolate,” but also designed the costumes. “I’m knee-deep in fabric right now,” she says by phone. “Our little company has our struggles but we are hoping what we do is good and we know it is necessary.”

“Sweet Chocolate and the Seven Christians” will play through April 30 on Virginia Union University’s Belgian Theatre stage.

By the way:Virginia Rep opened “Summer and Smoke” this weekend, marking director Bruce Miller’s final show as artistic director. Also, if you go to the Richmond Triangle Players’ “Body Awareness,” budget some extra time to check out the incredible images captured by local photographers Hayes and Fisk.

Running:The goddess still reigns in “Venus in Fur,” the co-production of TheatreLab and Yes, And Entertainment, while the alien Audrey invasion continues at Swift Creek Mill’s “Little Shop of Horrors.”

On deck:Cadence Theatre Company, in partnership with Virginia Rep, rolls out “4000 Miles” this weekend, starring local favorite Irene Ziegler as a feisty grandmother.

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