Ty Allan Jackson's 'Danny Dollar, Millionaire Extraordinaire' brought to life by Berkshire Theatre Group
PITTSFIELD - This fall, Berkshire Theatre Group has helped transform a popular local youth novel into a touring play, spotlighting both young actors from the community and teaching the value of family and financial literacy.
City man Ty Allan Jackson penned the book, "Danny Dollar, Millionaire Extraordinaire: The Lemonade Escapade" about seven years ago for his own son. He said to see the story come alive as a stage play is just another fantastic chapter in the book's history.
Typically, BTG's annual touring show is only seen in schools and community centers that book it. But for the first time, due to the book's familiarity in the Berkshires, the approximately hour-long production will be staged for the public for one night only, starting at 7 on Thursday at The Colonial Theatre, with a Q and A session afterward.
"It really has been an amazing journey," said Jackson.
After his "Danny Dollar" manuscript was rejected by some 150 agents, Jackson decided to self-publish by starting his own company, Big Head Books LLC. Since its 2010 debut, the book has been purchased for reading and instruction in a number of local schools, as well as for schools, banks and youth projects from Boston to the state of Florida.
In Spring 2013, the book's chapters were published over the course of 16 weeks as part of a serial story project in the publications of New England Newspapers Inc.
About a year ago, Berkshire Theatre Group Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire called Jackson to talk about the potential for turning the book into a play. They all felt it was a natural fit for the company's annual touring educational production, so Jackson began working with the group's associate artist of education, Travis G. Daly, and playwright E. Gray Simons III to produce a script and envision the look and feel, and determine the best cast members to tell the unique story.
"To have this book transformed in this way ... it's just such a humbling experience to see this thing take a life of its own," Jackson said.
Jackson said he felt confident that he was turning "Danny Dollar" over to capable stage-minded hands.
He did have a few request that certain aspects not be changed.
"Danny is a smart kid. He comes from a great African-American family. And financial literacy has to be a component. Gray did a masterful job of doing that," said Jackson.
The author added that while the book and the play are "both two remarkably different entities," the play remains "very, very true to the book."
From Daly's perspective as the director, his approach to adapting an original book into an original production is to work with each segment of the production team and listen to their expertise to let the show take its best possible course naturally.
"In this process, we were trying to be authentic to [Jackson's] work ... and make the best story and representation that it could be," Daly said.
"I think people can expect to see a show about a kid who dreams big, works extremely hard, and who has a plan and a vision so that it's not just a wish - he's really planning to turn his dream into a reality. I think it's also about a family and how they can support each other ... to be involved in their child's life and encouraging them to take positive risks at all times."
What both Daly and Jackson say is particularly unique about the story is that in addition to introducing to audiences some basic financial vocabulary, like "savings," "interest," and "investing," it also introduces to them a family dynamic not often portrayed in mainstream entertainment.
The Dollars make up an African-American family with values intact who display a deep support for each member.
In his introduction, Danny says, "I'm eleven years old, and I live in the Eastchester section of the Bronx, New York, along with my mom, dad, and older sister." He loves music and basketball, and above all, earning money from doing odd jobs like mowing and raking neighbors' lawns and walking dogs. He puts all of his money into the bank to save up to become a millionaire, his ultimate dream being owning his own basketball team.
Danny's parents support his dreams, help him when he's in a jam, and encourage him to not bicker with his sister. They also have dinner together and go to church together.
"Having this [story] turn into a play is arguably the most empowering thing for a character like Danny," Jackson said, noting the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry as a whole. In recent years, there have been significant protests and campaigns in Hollywood due to a lack of characters of color and strong female protagonists.
Data collected by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates a long history of a disproportionate lack of books being created by authors of color or featuring characters of color. According to multicultural children's publisher Lee & Low Books, while 37 percent of the U.S. population includes people of color only about 10 percent of contemporary children's literature contains multicultural content.
Said Jackson, "I can't name another child of color featured in a theatrical play as a protagonist." He also observed how black children especially now face a stereotype in society in wake of national media attention to instances of police brutality and movements in the Black Lives Matter campaign.
"For me, it's also been important to have Danny be just another kid - not the black kid who teaches us about money - but someone that everyone can relate to ... Danny is a great kid who's entertaining and educating us. His color should be secondary, if not irrelevant," the author said.
Daly too said he sees Danny as a role model, both for children and adults alike.
"The story itself is so educational in a really interesting and accessible and creative way. When I first read it, I couldn't put the book down and I went away learning stuff, wishing that when I was a kid I had a book like this that could teach me financial literacy," the director said. "I think Danny's journey could be such a great thing to share all across the community and inspire many more Dannys."
Daly added that, "When it comes to entertainment, stories with people of color and people like female protagonists should just be there, and I want to help make that happen."
Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239 or @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter.
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