'Scrooge in tha Hood' reimagines Dickens for modern day

The struggling Scratchit family
The cast of "Scrooge in tha Hood" rehearses in Minneapolis, Minn., on Dec. 19, 2012. The play is a modern take on the classic tale "A Christmas Carol." Here, actors portray the struggling Scratchit family, a twist on Charles Dickens's Cratchit family.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Ever since its publication in 1843, "A Christmas Carol" has been a staple of the holiday season. The Charles Dickens novella has sparked countless adaptations, including a unique reimagining by a Minneapolis theater company. The show swaps the Victorian-era backdrop for a modern-day, inner-city setting.

Gary Peterson won't be the only actor taking on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge this holiday season. But as most don the classic character's iconic top hat and long, dark coat, Peterson will sport a bright red zoot suit and white platform shoes.

"Ooh, boy. It's more or less Scrooge to the fifth power," laughs Peterson. He plays the lead character in CrossRoads Panorama's production, "Scrooge in Tha Hood."

Actor Mike Dreams describes the telling as an "urban revision of 'A Christmas Carol.'"

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"Think of 'Wizard of Oz' and 'The Wiz.' It's kind of the same thing," said Dreams. "'A Christmas Carol' and 'Scrooge in Tha Hood.'"

At the last rehearsal before opening night, the members of the Minneapolis acting group are still perfecting their scenes.

For the last eight years, the company has presented its own twist on Dickens. The show revolves around Scrooge, a greedy moneylender who despises Christmas — and people.

Gary Peterson plays "Scrooge"
Gary Peterson plays the title role in "Scrooge in tha Hood," which is described as an urban reinterpretation of Charles Dickens's novella "A Christmas Carol." Peterson acts out his character's anger during a dress rehearsal in Minneapolis, Minn., on Dec. 19, 2012.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"I hate people," snarls Scrooge from the stage.

Like in the original tale, explains 15-year-old actor Kevin Nash, Scrooge is visited by spirits who try to show him the error of his ways.

"They basically tell him, 'You need to shape up because what you're doing is not only affecting you, but it's going to be affecting other people,'" Nash said.

In this version, the traditional cobblestone streets are replaced by graffiti-covered alleys. And instead of Tiny Tim, a sickly boy on crutches, there is Little Boo who is hit by a stray bullet on the neighborhood basketball court. His mother's screams fill the theater.

Actress Mary Whitney
Actress Mary Whitney runs through a scene from "Scrooge in tha Hood" on Dec. 13, 2012, as cast members watch. Whitney plays one of the spirits that comes to visit Scrooge and tries to show him the error of his ways.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A sugarplum fairy kind of show, it's not, says dancer Joy Groce.

"It's not just a happy-go-lucky Christmas play. It makes you think," Groce said.

It's this kind of work that inspired director Joyce Marrie to start the non-profit CrossRoads Panorama theater program two decades ago.

"Just showing the reality of true life, that's what it's about," Marrie said during a rehearsal Wednesday evening.

Cast member Saleemah Shabazz Crenshaw
"Scrooge in tha Hood" cast member Saleemah Shabazz Crenshaw rehearses her role as Scrooge's mother on December 13, 2012, at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis, Minn. In this scene, Isaac Karron, 12, plays a young Scrooge, who witnesses his father hitting his mother.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Marrie often recruits actors from local community centers. Many have never set foot on a stage. Some have struggled with alcohol or drugs, others with abusive relationships. For all of them, CrossRoads Panorama is part acting troupe, part therapy group.

"I want to mirror the people's lives so they can see themselves and begin to make some changes," Marrie said. "When you do plays, they are done in a non-threatening way and people come to grips with themselves and they can start thinking, 'Wow, I need to change this behavior.'"

At the beginning of "Scrooge in Tha Hood," the title character is transported back to his childhood. He sees a home filed with domestic violence and drug abuse.

It's not just a powerful moment for the fictional character, but also for cast member Saleemah Shabazz Crenshaw.

Cast and crew gather for prayer
At the end of rehearsal on December 13, 2012, "Scrooge in tha Hood" cast and crew gather for an evening prayer. In addition to putting on plays, the Minneapolis theater group, CrossRoads Panorama, strives to improve its members' lives.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"It's the life that a lot of us live," Crenshaw said. "I think it's important that even though our parents might have been dysfunctional, we don't have to live that life. We don't have to inherit that life. We can be set free with love and giving and sharing."

In the end, the previously self-centered Scrooge learns to look at life in a new way.

It's a moving scene, stage manager Josephine Jackson said. But, to her, what is more dramatic is watching the change in the show's actors.

"I just enjoy getting people to see what it is like to be in somebody else's shoes for the moment, when you realize, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so grateful that I'm not this person,' or, 'I used to be that person but look where I am now,'" Jackson said.

"Scrooge in Tha Hood" runs through Sunday at the Capri Theatre in Minneapolis.