Thursday, July 13, 2006

Ama Ata Aidoo

I'm writing this in what has to be the slowest internet cafe I've ever been in, just down the road from James's house in Madina. I'm making liberal use of the refresh button, as all around me young Ghanaian men are chatting to girls in America through chat-rooms. I guess it's miraculous enough that in a place this poverty-stricken we can sit here and connect with the world. At any speed at all.

Today began with a taxi ride through distinctly more salubrious bits of Accra than I saw yesterday, down to the coast and the Labadi General Hospital, next to which Theatre for a Change has its office. I've been keen on this organisation ever since I met its British mentor Patrick Young a few months ago: and today the general manager, Daniel Attrans, and the full staff of six are sitting round a table, notepads poised, waiting to meet me. Their work is very community-based (without being Theatre for Development, or in any way indoctrinating). They tell me about the Boal-style techniques through which they deal with issues like HIV and domestic violence: if a man performs the role of a woman being beaten, he starts to get an idea of what it might feel like. So this is a theatre about opening up imagination,and empowering people to take decisions in the social space. They're planning a workshop in James Town in a few days, working with the fishing community there. Apparently, research suggests that this community thinks of HIV less in terms of condoms and more in terms of witchcraft. I'd be excited to see this.

I only wish there was something more I could do towards this group from my end - but they're not finally doing the sort of work which we do, although I feel really supportive of them. I give them a few new ideas about funders, and promise to make a bit of a noise for them (here I am doing some of it). As our chat ends, their latest volunteer walks through the door: a young man called Ryan from UCLA, where his Professors include none other than Peter Sellars. Ryan was inspired to come here by (amongst other things) Peter's classes on human trafficking - which has been his subject in Zaide and will be ours in our Ghanaian project. A small world, or a Jungian moment?

Kofi has got me a Ghanaian mobile, and I phone round as many of the contacts I've got from James and Amanda as I can. As I sit in the shade outside the Hospital, playing ball with a little boy around Hari's age, one of them hails into view. His name is Nii, and he runs a group called the Tima' tuma Theatre Project. In translation, this means "well done", because, he explains, theatre in Ghana tends not to be a full-time job, and people deserve a proper reward as they get for work. I ask if he's managed to make it a full-time job for himself. No, he's also an advertising executive. I tell him he's in good company: lots of the best theatre-makers in India are also advertising people.

Nii's work is largely in plays about African history: they've just made one called Nkurmah-Mandela, which is about parrallels in the lives of the two leaders. This is intriguing for me, with my on-ice Mandela piece stirring into occasional life. Sadly, they're not in production at present. However, he is the first person to come up with a name of an actress who might be suitable for what I'm doing. I should be able to follow this up tomorrow, since she has links to the University Performing Arts Department.

We're still chatting when a driver arrives in a blue pick-up, which Ama Ata Aidoo has arranged to bring me to her office. We take another dis-orienting trip through various bits of Accra, and eventually I meet her. Smaller than I'd imagined, leaning on her stick and feeling a bit the worse for a recent bout of asthma - but bright with energy and excitement, and very funny. She takes her agent (a young man called Eli) and myself for lunch - my first taste of Fufu. I give her a copy of The Handmaid's Tale as a present. She knows it backwards, of course - having taught it as part of a course in post-colonial literatures: but this fact in itself gets us onto interesting ground. The idea of Canada as post-colonial was apparently considered very radical by students and colleagues. Only the "Third World" was post-colonial.... We are happy to agree on the absurdity - if the post-colonial is to mean anything at all, then it has to be about a history which is global: it has to be about understanding where we are right now as the aftermath of a colonial past which isn't only the affair of the poorer nations (to say that it is simply to marginalise them again). The inheritance of the colonial period, of slavery, of economic exploitation, is still with us, and the post-colonial discourse has to be about how the globalized world which is the direct result of that inheritance can be inhabited. Which, of course, is exactly what The Dilemma of a Ghost is about. Certainly what it will be about in 2007 London.

I talk about some of my ideas for the production, none of which seem to phase her at all. She's actually quite humble about the whole thing, as writers often are when you want to do their work. She talks about when Anowa was done at the Gate in 1992, and about how brilliant the actors and director were. But she was also very disappointed that the production didn't "go anywhere". Sounds familiar. The other production she remembers very fondly is the first production of Dilemma, which was staged in the open air at the University in Legon, when (astonishingly) she was still a student. I find it incredible that this should be the work of a 22 year old: the play really should have been in the BITE Young Genius season last year! The open-air thing is interesting: this relates to my sense that we may be looking for unconventional, non-theatre spaces (don't hold me to this!), and to my sense that the play is (amongst other things) very like a Greek tragedy, with its Chorus of women surrounding and commenting on the central action, and its language which moves so subtly from naturalism into poetry.

Most importantly, for me, Ama Ata doesn't seem to think it odd that a white British male director should want to do this piece. Good - she also talks in terms of a shared history, an awareness that the political problems we face require dialogue, require a cultural solution. So the idea of collaborating with Ghanaian actors who can bring the sense of the spiritual and of the cultural depth the play needs makes sense to her. But she doesn't know who either. "I'm only a writer", she says.

She's keen to come over when the play is on, which will be a good publicity boost (as well as moving and powerful in itself). We leave it that I will phone her again early next week - by which time I hope she'll be feeling fit enough to talk in more depth about some of the details in the piece. But the key contact has been made. We connected.

We come out of the restaurant after a two and a half hour lunch. Eli hails me a taxi and does the haggling over price. As he does so, Ama Ata reaches up an arm, and we embrace under the burning sun.

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