Saturday, August 25, 2007

Oda Oak Oracle

Oda Oak Oracle, this weekend at 7 p.m. at EastSide Arts Cultural Center, Thursday-Friday, August 23-24; and Mekane Selam Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 4100 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, August 25-26, and at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, September 8, 2 p.m.

There is so much we still don’t know about Africa, the dark continent—dark for its mysteries and it’s people; dark for it’s oil and land and deep cavernous places, dark for its enligtenment and ancient wisdom. Dark for its uncompromising blackness as the essence of all life. For these reasons and more, I have really enjoyed trekking down to Stanford University in Palo Alto over the past three-four weeks to see “African On Stage: Let Us Tell You a Story.” Last week eleven of us caravanned to Prosser Hall for the last play of the summer season, “Oda Oak Oracle,” directed by Aika Swai from Tanzania. Oda Oak is one of just two plays written in English by poet laureate of Ethiopia, Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin. The other plays are written in Amharic. This play is set in a fictional river valley where the son of the village, Shanka, is told he must sacrifice his first born to appease the ancestors. Shanka refuses to consummate his love for his bride, Ukutee. Ukutee and Shanka's best friend, Goa sleep together; she becomes pregnant. This dilemma lies at the heart of the play and is the basis of the last two acts. The Oda Oak Oracle world exists on multiple levels-- the world of the ancients or spirit realm in conflict philosophically with that of the west, exemplified by the formally enslaved Goa. This is portrayed well on stage in dance and musical accompaniment.

The range of work this summer has been thought-provoking and provocative both on and off the stage. Dan Hoyle’s “Tings Dey Happen,” kicks off the Stanford series. Tings is about the politics of oil in Nigeria’s Ogoni land, seen through the eyes of Fulbright scholar, Hoyle. He dons multiple characters in this work, which Yoruba natives have told me rang true, even though I had trouble with the presenter, if not the presentation when he portrayed black characters. The trouble was trying to stay objective when subconscious caricature polemics engaged almost automatically when confronted by Hoyle's white face. This did not happen when he portrayed Europeans or white Africans. This is one of the problems with color blind casting; there really is no such thing if one is aware of the context wherein the work was created. Certain characters have a look and a sound. When one disturbs or alters what culturally we know is true, this untruth is what we remember more than anything else. That said I was left with a desire to read the script so the physical distractions would be eliminated because the story was one I hadn't known.

Lorraine Hansberry’s response to “The Blacks” written by Bernard Jean Genet, with “Les Blancs” or The Whites was the second play in the series, directed by Harry Elam, Ph.D. This was another play where there is an intrusion; in Hansberry's case, her ex-husband's literary intrusion--he finished the play she left incomplete at her death. What one is left with here is more the story of the American journalist who is in Africa on assignment to write a book, than the story of two brothers at odds following the death of a patriarch and what the ancestors have decreed the elder brother to do. One wonders how much is Hansberry and how much is the ex-husband.

Yoruba playwright Femi Osofisan’s “Farewell to a Cannibal’s Rage,” a love story, directed by Stanford Ph.D candidate, Rachael Anderson follows. Ethiopian playwright Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin’s work, also a love story, this one fraternal love or that between brothers, is a wonderful way to end a summer.

After the death of so many beloved friends this month, a truly black August, in the worst sense, how refreshing it is to see two characters Goa and Shanka portrayed by actors, Howard Johnson and Cyril Cooper, embrace, laugh and cry together. Oda Oak rises above caricature of black man as hard and rough and brutal, especially toward one another. Even though there is conflict between the two men, the result of Goa and Ukutee's actions, one wonders in retrospect if this might have been avoided if Goa and Ukutee had asked the Oda-Man for advice before they gave into their desires. A friend of mine said sacrifice does not always mean someone has to die.
This play and others this summer presented an opportunity for guests to question what one knows about Africa—and realize that most of us are operating from a perspective far from the truth, that the tales we’ve been told are just that, tales far removed from the reality. A vast body of work never explored on the American stage exists and while one might quibble over the definition of “African play,” it is still a rare opportunity to travel on stage to these philosophical places it's hard to wrap a contemporary world-view around, especially an American view.
What makes an African play African, is a question Edris Anifowoshe-Cooper argued with a friend when I saw her at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival a few weeks ago. She said Hoyle’s play was not African theatre. The story was about an American experience in Africa, but African theatre is more than a “white boys experience in the bush.” (My paraphrase.)

Whether that implies content or character—are African plays the sole proprietorship of African people, anything else anthropology, remains unanswered in my mind. Yet there is something to be said for the indigenous interpretation. The last two plays had a lot in common-- all three wrestled with similar themes—love triangles, influence of Christianity on African society, slavery and/or colonial impact on individuals and society. “Oda Oak Oracle” questions traditions, while looking at how the woman is perceived in a majority patriarchal society, not just in the fictional Oda Oak, but most of the world.

I enjoyed Rachael Anderson’s direction and clever use of the chorus in telling the “Cannibal’s Rage” story, plus the fluid nature of characterization—men exchanged places with women and vice versa, even if at times it was distracting. The director of “Cannibal” told me that she’d never directed anything like this before and she nor anyone in the cast had ever been to Africa. I think the weaknesses were in the cast where the acting wasn't as strong. In a graduate program over the summer, I presume you take what you can get, thus the uneven production. Overall the writing carried the work and I loved the creative arch and resolution in the end.
Aika Masomi Swai, who also portrays the heroine, Ukutee, brought to Oda Oak an innate African perception and sensibility. She is from the region, so she knows the place, the people and the story. It’s one she’s lived. It also doesn’t hurt that she wrote her master’s thesis at Stanford on “Decolorizing the Mind” in 2004. Similarly, the actor who portrays the oracle, is actually a classically trained Ethiopian actor who knows Gabre-Medhin’s work. This is certainly a plus for the production.

The cast is huge (20) and includes musicians who double as villagers and elders and one who is a medium, Aika’s sister, Naike E. Swai, is everywhere at once. It's a dense world, one where the audience might need help traversing, especially a western audience not used to the nuances of African thought with all of its symbolism and thought, familiar, yet unfamiliar circumstances. There are very real consequences for disobedience to the ancestors in this world.

It would have helped the audience if Naike's role could have additionally been that of the narrator to give a recaps from time to time. (Hoyle employed this device to great effect in Tings Dey Happen.) I have so many friends who had to see the play more than once and even then missed key elements which would have explained so much. In the west we believe in individual freedoms and choice and romantic love, whereas in Africa one's duty is to the family and community first.

There is an authenticity present in the Siwa's production, present in Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin's writing, which grounds it in a tangible reality one can’t fake or imagine or conceive unless one has been or can go there—I’m speaking African spirituality. So no matter how close Hoyle got to that place, he is not African, and so one never forgets he is performing, whereas, with Oda Oak, by the time the play reaches its climax, we are there in labor with Ukutee, a labor the men also experience as the oracle tells the three—if they want to make the ancestors happy, they have to shed each other’s blood.

Photographs of ancestors resonate from the theatre walls –these photos pasted throughout the theatre above and below our heads. They surrounded us. In the center of the stage is a stool with the Sankofa bird on it, behind the low stool is a huge red tree with branches shaped like a man and women, hands reaching toward one another, fingertips barely touching.

The Oda-Man, Tesfaye Sima, appears out of the tree like The Wizard in Oz. He’s funny, but dangerous as he speaks this language most in the audience do not know, Amharic. The character Goa, who escapes slavery and returns home, tainted and ostracized by the people he loves is traumatized still from the experiences he can’t forget, those experiences which have scared him, those experiences his friend, Shanka is trying to help him heal from by loving him.

In Farewell to a Cannibal’s Rage by Femi Osofisan, the references to government intelligence and infiltration of black movements and the complicity of the indigenous Africans in granting this access echoes similar themes in all the plays. White supremacy and imperialism is the same on both sides of the Atlantic. In Les Blancs, rape is used as a tool of war, only the village doesn’t reject a child, whose face reminds his mother and her husband of the insult.

Farewell to a Cannibal’s Rage by Femi Osofisan, directed by Rachel Anderson, examines, as Oda Oak does blind obedience to tradition and one’s elders when the decrees take life rather than promote life. Clearly murder is wrong, and at some point Romeo and Juliet have to say enough. The symbol of hyena is one that eats the flesh of other living things. As a metaphor, people who have blood lust, who can’t forgive are beasts. Why were Sister Ayanna and Brother Shaka’s sons shot as they sat in a van August 4? When will black people stop selling lives for such a cheap price? It’s the cannibal mentality—blood lust. How does a person who is removed from traditional society as Goa was, as the two kids were who returned to the village to ask for their parents' blessings in Cannibal's Rage, serve as reliable guides when they were strangers to the ways of their people?
In “Cannibal’s Rage,” the mother tells her daughter how her father was set up by the government, so that he would kill his friend and they could in the confusion, take the fertile land the two men refused to sell. The government under COINTELPRO did the same to all the African Movements in this country starting with Marcus Garvey, whose birthday was last Friday, August 17, as was playwright Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin.

Aika Swai is a wonderful director and the way she interprets the ending of the play where the two men are ordered to fight to the death is a strange, yet loving tribute to one man’s love for his brother. Goa and Shanka, as prototypes recalled Africans in the Diaspora returning home and the various ways they are received by indigenous Africans—sometimes it is “welcome home,” other times it’s as if we are strangers. Visit

The four plays share a lot thematically; it’s too bad playwrights and artists don’t rule the world. Perhaps then a United States of Africa would be possible. Rush Rehm, director of Stanford’s Summer theatre series, is to be commended for the theatrical choices made this season. It was outstanding! I wish more people from the North Bay had been able to get to the theatre, see the free African films and the wonderful African and African American art in the museum this summer: Gordon Parks and now the Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World, featuring the jewelry, clothes, and dwellings of Tuareg people. It’s up through Sept. 2. There are artisans there now in the gallery making jewelry from silver demonstrations. See

Photos are from the Stanford production after the preview. The cast had an audience talk-back and then everyone was invited to have fruit. We left there at almost 1 a.m. Aika Swai is pictured in two solo frames, in costume and as a portrait.


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