Long before Bugs Bunny hit the big screen, even before Beatrix Potter made Peter Rabbit a household name, there was a lovable, lop-eared, scamp of a critter named Brer Rabbit.
With his eternal enemies, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, Brer Rabbit found himself in all types of predicaments. Probably the worst of all was being discredited as racist propaganda.
Today, that opinion has mellowed. Scholars agree that Brer Rabbit is a descendant of both African and Cherokee legends about trickster characters who succeed through their wits instead of their strength, bending the world to suit their goals, instead of the other way around.
The tales were already hundreds, probably thousands, of years old by the time Georgia newspaper man Joel Chandler Harris retold them as the Uncle Remus stories. For a time, Harris lived and worked in Savannah, so it is fitting that his characters return here to perform.
GOOBERS! The New Adventures of Brer Rabbit will be presented April 17-18 by the Chattahoochee Shakespeare Company of Columbus. The company received a grant from the Georgia Grassroots Arts Program to update the characters and have them tell stories from Georgia history.
Some things never change, though, and once again, Brer Rabbit finds himself in the claws of Brer Fox and Brer Bear. To avoid being stewed, he tells them tales and sings songs based on modern Georgia legends, which keep them so entranced they forget all about the stew pot.
The legends include the stories of Eddie Owens Martin, an artist/performer/eccentric, also known as St. EOM; Lulu Hurst the Electric Girl; Bigfoot; and the state's favorite porker, Hogzilla. The script was written by Chattahoochee Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Troy Heard, who co-wrote the music with Alyssa Farmer.
The show is being brought to Savannah by Cardinal Rep. Executive Artistic Director Ryan McCurdy says the Chattahoochee Shakespeare Company is very similar to Cardinal Rep.
"The cool thing is they've taken Brer Rabbit and tell it like it's happening now," he says. "It's like Scheherazade's 1,000 tales. Brer Rabbit is kept alive by Brer Bear as long as he tells stories of Georgia."
The show is intended for people of all ages, unlike most productions presented by Cardinal Rep, McCurdy says. "The content is bad-word free," he says.
"This is a type of story that's being threatened with antiquity," McCurdy says. "They've mixed in Gullah legends, which are very similar in tone to the Brer Rabbit stories, and legends from St. Simons Island. This is a Georgia-made, Georgia-bred show we can be proud of."
Heard says the idea for GOOBERS! sprouted when he and some friends were sitting on a porch, chatting about stories and various projects. "Someone pulled out a copy of the book Weird Georgia and said ‘Why don't we adapt this?'," he says.
When the show was first staged, it attracted people of all ages. "I was surprised at the diversity of the audience when came to age," Heard says. "We had 20-year-olds on dates, senior citizens and small children. Some wanted a bit of nostalgia, some wanted to hear a Brer Rabbit story. Everyone left after enjoying it."
But don't expect something you've already heard. "It's not Uncle Remus per se," Heard says. "The closest we come is Brer Rabbit. This is a musical with four original songs."
There are four actors in the cast who play multiple roles. "They take on roles within the stories within the story," Heard says.
Heard earned an MFA in performing arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, graduating in 2005. While at SCAD, he met McCurdy, also a SCAD alumnus, and they recently touched base.
"It was one of those Kismet moments," Heard says. "We had the show designated to go on the road. Ryan said he had some slots open, so we said, "Let's take it over to Savannah.'"
Audience response to GOOBERS! has been nothing but positive, Heard says. "It's been well-loved," he said. "Someone said, ‘You need to take it to schools,' so we did some school performances.
"I hope next year to gear it up for a larger tour, take it to more cities in Georgia and possibly theater festivals," Heard said. "It's so episodic, we can switch out stories if need be.
"I approached it when I was writing as, ‘If I were a kid now, what show would entertain me, and if I was 33 years old, what show would entertain me?'" Heard says. "The stories are amazing."
The administrators of Pasaquan, a seven-acre compound created by Eddie Martin, came to watch a performance of GOOBERS! "They're very protective of Eddie's image," Heard says."They liked it so much, we've been invited to perform the story at Pasaquan."
GOOBERS! is "a whole mass of fun," Heard says. "I hope Savannah is ready for it. I know we're ready for Savannah."
Heard says his stint at Cirque de Soileil in Las Vegas was "life-changing."
Heard returned to Columbus in 2007 because there was a need for a theater company such as his. "Columbus State University has moved all of its arts departments to the downtown area, and buildings are being restored," he says. "The city has grown in cutlural awareness. It was a good time to establish a theater company."
And to create musicals like GOOBERS! The most common question Heard is asked is, "What is a goober?"
"It's a peanut and also a crazy person," he replies. "Georgia is full of goobers."
GOOBERS! The New Adventures of Brer Rabbit
Brer Rabbit returns with some new stories.
When: April 17 at 7pm and April 18 at 10am and 7pm.
Where: The Freight Station, 703 Louisville Rd.
Cost: General Admission $10; Military/Senior/Student/Younguns $8.
Info: http://cardinalrep.org, 631-3773, email@example.com.