It was pretty exciting to find a version of the Nutcracker that featured a non-white cast. But I really wasn’t at all prepared for The Harlem Nutcracker. Rather than illustrations, author Susan Kuklin uses photographs of a dance performance to adorn the pages. But the story of the Harlem Nutcracker is not the story of the Nutcracker Ballet. An interview with the choreographer, Donald Byrd (found at the back of the book), sheds some light on this derivation. Byrd was inspired by a Duke Ellington interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and commissioned Billy Berger to write enough additional jazz music to extend Ellington’s work (which only included the section known as the Suite) to a full performance length piece. Byrd then reworked the ballet around African-American tradition, changing Clara from a young girl to a grandmother to fulfill the role of family storyteller. The Nutcracker is none other than Clara’s deceased husband and she is attacked not by the mouse king, but by death. It’s a hugely different interpretation, which was created to draw a black audience to the theater. I can see the cultural and artistic merit of this work, but I believe that some will be thrown for a loop if they take out this book expecting the traditional Nutcracker story with a more diverse cast. For some families, this will be something best saved until children are older, or used in concert with a viewing of the actual Harlem Nutcracker performance.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – Clara had a husband. A male dancer is bare-chested.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – Clara’s husband has passed away. Death comes instead of the mouse king and brings a battalion of ghouls. Death shows Clara various points in history, including men losing their lives in WWII, the children who died in the Birmingham church bombing. Clara dies at the end.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – As part of Death’s walk through the ages with Clara, she is show the 80s when many in Harlem turned to crack.
Frightening or Intense Things – Pretty much all the aforementioned death stuff.