Taking a beloved children’s book from page to stage is a bit like picking up a hula hoop for the first time: seems simple at first glance but once tried, it can feel daunting and tricky. Only with practice and focus does it become fun, even second nature. This was at least playwright Gloria Bond Clunie’s experience adapting the book “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen” for its world theatrical premiere at Bethesda’s Imagination Stage (directed by Angelisa Gillyard). The original book of the same name is written by Thelma Lynn Godin and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and it even got media queen Oprah Winfrey’s ringing endorsement.
Fortunately, Clunie is a seasoned playwright with several children’s theatre book adaptations under her belt, like “Giraffes Can’t Dance” (Rose Theatre/Bay Area Children’s Theatre) and “The Last Stop on Market Street” (Bay Area Children’s Theatre) – but “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen” provided some unique and exciting challenges for her.
“Though I’m not a ‘hooper,’ when I first started this, I bought a hoop and tried it,” Clunie says. “I watched YouTube videos and did research but could never get that thing to go around even once.”
During rehearsals for the production, the playwright came together with the cast (via Zoom) and did two two-hour-long hula-hooping sessions with an expert.
“And I learned,” Clunie cheers. “I was able to do 40 rotations!”
Clunie credits the success to the communal support and nature of the hooping experience, an idea that permeates “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen.” While hula hooping seems like a solitary exercise, the real excitement and joy comes when hooping within a community of people.
“The Hula Hoopin’ Queen” is the story of Kameeka, a young girl in Harlem who’s determined to best her rival Jamara and take the crown as the hula-hooping queen of 139th Street. All she can focus on is her singular desire to practice her hooping and win the competition. Unfortunately, Kameeka’s mama reminds her that it’s their beloved neighbor Miz Adeline’s birthday and Kameeka needs to put down the hoop and do her chores to prepare for the party.
Kameeka can’t seem to think about anything else but hooping and that distraction causes her to ruin Miz Adeline’s birthday cake. Kameeka, disappointed in herself, must tell Miz Adeline that there’s no cake. To Kameeka’s delight and surprise, Miz Adeline understands Kameeka’s passion – she too loves to hoop! Young Kameeka and the older Miz Adeline grab their hoops and go outside to join the entire neighborhood, people of all ages, to hoop their hearts out.
Clunie really understands the sense of community that can come from hooping. She remembers as a young girl from a small town there was a town hula hooping competition hosted at her school.
“I was horrendous at it,” Clunie admits, “but what was exciting was the community. It was a lot of fun and was a big craze. That sense of community I like to call ‘the circle of love.’”
While hula hooping is popular, Clunie doesn’t see it as a fad whatsoever.
“Hoops have been part of world culture, whether rolling or spinning — a part of the cultural conversation.”
While it may seem like a child’s diversion, the enduring fascination and fun folks find in hooping reaches across all generations. It’s a joy that Clunie sees as essential in our post-Covid-19 lockdown community.
“We need that feeling,” Clunie says. “That we’re in a circle and we’re doing something together.”
This play of “The Hula Hoopin’ Queen” hopes to have the same appeal to audiences of all ages — from the young to the young at heart.
“The Hula Hoopin’ Queen” runs at Imagination Stage from February 15 to April 8, 2023. There will be an ASL interpreted performance on March 19 and a sensory-friendly performance on March 12. Best for ages 5 and up. To learn more and get tickets, visit here.