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Originally published February 16, 2011 at 6:44 PM | Page modified February 17, 2011 at 8:15 AM

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Denny middle-school students relive slave history

Students at Denny International Middle School are putting on the play, "The Stolen Ones and How They Were Missed," based on the children's book of the same name by Marcia Tate Arunga, of Renton, who is directing the play with assistance of several local artists.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Soul Jambalaya

"The Stolen Ones and How They Were Missed," will be performed as part of "Soul Jambalaya," a program to highlight African Americans' contributions to "the soundtrack of America," 7 p.m. Saturday, Chief Sealth High School Auditorium, 2600 S.W. Thistle St. Free admission, donations accepted to a scholarship fund.

Bringing 'The Stolen Ones' on stage

This artist-in-residence project at Denny International Middle School is funded by Giant Magnet and the International Children's Festival through a grant from the Washington State Arts Commission.

For more information about Giant Magnet at www.giantmagnet.org and about Cultural Reconnection at sites.google.com/site/culturalreconnection

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A young woman disappears on her way home from the market.

Worried friends and distraught relatives search for her — to no avail.

As time goes by, she is missed. She is mourned.

In fact, she has been stolen.

The essential elements of the play Denny International Middle School seventh-graders have been working on are simple, but their implications are profound.

"It talks about our history, our ancestors," said Justice Burwell, 12, cast in the lead role of Nia in "The Stolen Ones and How They Were Missed."

The production involves about 35 Denny students and is based on the children's book of the same name by Marcia Tate Arunga, of Renton, who is directing the play with assistance of several local artists.

On Saturday, Denny students will perform the work as part of "Soul Jambalaya," described as "a celebration of the contributions of African Americans to the soundtrack of America" at 7 p.m. at the Chief Sealth High School auditorium, across the street from Denny.

Arunga is the co-founder of Cultural Reconnection Missions, whose members travel to Africa annually on journeys to reconnect African Americans to their centuries-old roots. Not to track down specific relatives, but to learn more about the world and cultures that produced them.

It was during the first such journey, in 2000, that a community elder in Kenya asked Arunga and her companions what part of Africa they came from.

They weren't sure, they told him. The nature of the slave trade meant records of their ancestors were hard to track down — or simply nonexistent.

"Oh," the elder declared. "You must be the stolen ones."

"The stolen ones," the elder explained, were revered and remembered, mourned and missed. They included people who were talented in agriculture, metallurgy, navigation and other skills.

It was a powerful message, said Arunga, and it ran counter to accounts that slaves were unwanted or inferior — a version of events that had circulated in attempts to justify slavery and discourage black Americans from exploring their African heritage.

Arunga, who published the story as a children's book last year, said if she'd heard this account growing up, "My back would have stood a little straighter ... my self-esteem might have been stronger."

Patricia Rangel, an administrator at Denny, said the story of the "the stolen ones" strengthens the school's U.S. history curriculum.

At this point in the year, she said, seventh-graders are learning about the transatlantic slave trade. "We thought how great, how rich to bring this global perspective, the African perspective of that experience, to our students."

Arunga was invited to serve as artist-in-residence at Denny and to produce the play in a project supported by a grant from the Washington State Arts Commission.

At rehearsals, young students became African villagers carrying out time-honored traditions, such as a libation ceremony in which water is poured over the ground to honor ancestors before a feast.

Mikayla Delgardo practiced walking slightly stooped over as an aging grandmother — not the easiest task for a 12-year-old. Other students demonstrated how they'll search high and low for the missing Nia, and how they'll show the grief they feel over her disappearance.

On Friday, they'll perform the play at an assembly of their fellow Denny students, a final tuneup before Saturday's event.

Among those helping with the project are performing artist Olisa Enrico, coaching the youngsters in acting, and Lakema Bell of the Otunoba African Dance Theater, who taught the students a harvest dance from Senegal.

Arunga also has her three daughters assisting: Ebony, 25; Nia, 22; and Geneiva, 21.

Though the story resonates most deeply with African Americans, students of a mix of races and ethnic backgrounds are working on "The Stolen Ones."

Arunga hopes the experience offers performers and audience members "an insight into a multicultural table in the United States, where everyone has a bit of culture they are able to bring to the table, and celebrate about themselves."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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