A Minneapolis-based theater company that the Los Angeles Times claims is "the finest children's theater in the country, perhaps the finest in the world," will be making a one-night stand in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 6.

When "theater" and "Minneapolis" come up in the same conversation, most folks generally think of that city's internationally renowned Guthrie, which began in 1961.Not many people, at least around these parts, realize that the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis traces its roots back to the same year - and some very humble beginnings.

It started with a $100 loan and a rent-free room in an Italian restaurant, with a lot of volunteer help.

Since then, CTC has grown into a $4.5 million structure that is one of the most comprehensive performing arts facilities in the country devoted primarily to children's and family theater. The complex includes a 700-seat proscenium theater along with dance and rehearsal studios, instruction facilities and its own motion picture studio.

In addition to presenting six to eight original productions during its September-June season and providing a wide range of training, CTC also sponsors touring productions.

Which brings us to "Two African Tales: Rumplestiltskin and Kalulu."

The two one-act plays, presented in a traditional style typical of those in the storytelling cultures of Africa, will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, on the main stage of City Rep's Utah Theatre, 148 S. Main.

Director Richard D. Thompson, interviewed via telephone from his office in the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., said part of what he hoped to accomplish by directing this latest version of "Two African Tales" was to give audiences an overview, an introduction to the continent of Africa.

"Africa is a mysterious thing to most of us in this country," he said, explaining that "Two African Tales" uses an entertaining approach to teaching audiences of all ages something about the culture of the continent.

Although his job as managing director of the Penumbra Theatre, a black professional theater company, keeps him busy, he also has the flexibility to work with other projects as well - such as directing the touring production for Children's Theatre Company.

("Penumbra" is Latin for solar eclipse - technically the area between the light and the dark. This theater's goal is to enlighten audiences about African cultures through all styles of theater - musical-comedy, drama, new works, etc.)

Thompson, who is a native of the Minneapolis St. Paul area, finds that the Twin Cities encompass an exciting, thriving theatrical community. We mentioned that one of our Utah theater professors - Gary Bird of Utah State University - is currently on sabbatical leave studying musical theater at the University of Minnesota, and Thompson replied that Bird would probably have a stimulating experience, not only on campus, but with access to some of the finest regional theater inthe country.

Thompson has been affiliated in one way or another with the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis for more than 20 years. When he took on his assignment as managing director of the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul it was with the stipulation that he'd have some leeway in working with other projects, too.

"I tend to get bored if I'm in one place too long," he said.

He first got hooked on theater when his mother took him and a younger sister to audition for a play. He was 10 years old at the time and has been involved - off and on - with the Children's Theatre Company, ever since.

Thompson played the role of Kalulu, the rabbit, in the world premiere production of "Two African Tales" in 1972. He was about 15 years old at the time.

Now, 16 years later, Thompson has had a unique chance to look at the plays (adapted for the stage by playwright Timothy Mason) from the director's vantage point as well.

Members of the mixed cast, comprised of both African-Americans and Caucasians, "believe in the work they're doing," and the experience has been "very exciting."

During the rehearsal process, Thompson said, the cast and crew were involved in a lot of research to make the production as authentic as possible. The cast includes a dozen men and women, ranging in age from 17 to mid-30s, along with a crew of about seven.

The entire production is self-contained. Criss-crossing the nation from Maine to California, the bus-and-truck company is flexible enough to set up its scenery and equipment in any type of building available - from proscenium theaters to school gymnasiums.

Although the dialogue and lyrics are in native Swahili - the most commonly known African language - the performance also has a narrator to help the audience along. He describes what is happening on stage and invites those watching to learn some Swahili names.

Thompson also helped produce an 11-page teachers' guide that provides not only an introduction to the two one-act plays, but also offers plenty of helpful suggestions for schoolroom activities in order to make "Two African Tales" a learning experience.

One tale, "Kalulu and His Money Farm," is based on an old African legend from the Shona people and passed down orally from generation to generation. It's about a swaggering rabbit who brags, boasts and bullies his way through life. He promises the king that he will grow a very strange crop on a very peculiar farm.

The second of the two plays is probably more familiar: the story of "Rumpelstiltskin," which has been adapted to the African style of storytelling.

Two of Thompson's younger siblings are in the touring production cast - Audrey Thompson, who plays Mrs. Kalulu in "Kalulu" and a daughter of the kingdom in "Rumplestiltskin," and Bruce Thompson, who portrays Ju Ju Man in both plays.

Tickets for "Two African Tales" are priced at $5, $7 and $9. For reservations, contact the City Rep/Utah Theater box office at 532-6000.