Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Cape Coast or Elmina?

Spent a great deal of today (Tuesday) in internet cafes, so thought I might as well finish the day as it's been for some hours. This is down to having gone out of town for the weekend, and then failing to find anywhere I could actually get a server thatworked on Monday. Finally got online this morning to find a vast stack of email, including some crucial final tweaks to the SYT contract, and the photos from Friday's shoot to look at. The team did a beautiful job - some amazing images of Loan in a mauve Chinese-opera costume, looking sad and lost in the modern city. The central ideas of the play conveyed in visual form: lovely.

In The Dilemma of a Ghost, the ghost's dilemma is whether to go to Cape Coast or Elmina. It's a pretty grim choice, even for a spectre, since these are the two huge slave castles that tower over Ghana's coastline. Not one for dilemmas, I visited both of them over the weekend. Video camera in hand, I was able to shoot some amazing images, which may or may not appear in the final production: especially on Sunday morning, when getting an early taxi out of Cape Coast got me to Elmina before 9am, and I was the only person in the castle for a full hour. Being in the total darkness of the slave dungeons, and walking to the "Door of No Return" is an intense experience. I twice got genuinely frightened - once because I really couldn't see where I was, and once because I was suddenly surrounded by bats. In the dungeons of both castles, there are wreaths which have been laid by African-Americans, who return here to see something of their history. The messages are very sad, but also strangely beautiful. The guide at Elmina (who arrives a bit after 10) says that the Castle must be preserved so that people can take from it a renewed humanity. I like that.

Fears of being stranded on the coast (I arrived there on Saturday to discover the last bus back to Accra on Sundays is at 3, and is already full) are allayed by the appearance of a school bus from takoradi, containing none other than Rebecca and Kate from the Theatre Royal in Plymouth: here to work on their three-year link-up project. Over dinner back in Accra, we meet up with one of their students from last year; a young man called Williams. Shooing them away with a "some things are for men only", he takes me in to his confidence, and tells me how mcuh he admires these two women and their work. Last year's production was clearly the best experience of his life, and has changed him profoundly and positively. It's incredibly heartening to be reminded of theatre's power to do this.

There was another reminder this morning, when I (horribly late - thank you email, thank you Accra traffic) was able to see something of Theatre for a Change in action with the fishing community in James Town. In a delapidated shack (the James Town Community Theatre), a group of about thirty people of various ages were improvising stories about domestic violence, and looking at ways to deal with them. Between these scenes, they play silly games and sing songs which involve a lot of bottom-wriggling. It's all strangely playful, and yet they are clearly talking about things which matter very deeply to them. Theatre at its most paradoxically beautiful again. Amongst the group, there was a young girl who could really perform. She is absolutely tiny, and has crooked bones in her back and limbs. She also moves extraordinarily, and radiates joy from her face. I kept thinking of Abey Xakwe from Third World Bunfight. I began to wonder ifI shouldn't do something really extreme in the casting of Dilemma.....

The ideas are slowly working themselves out. I had a rash of meetings breaking out all over yesterday and today, spending a Ghanaian fortune in taxi fares and a lot of time stewing in the perpetual traffic jams. But some key contacts have now been established. Osei Korankye, who plays me his seprewa (a sort of harp) and sings in his strong, high tenor: this is music of contemplation, which was traditionally played to chiefs by a sort of bard or troubadour as an aid to meditation - ideal for transporting an audience to a plane of ritual and spirituality. Mohammed ben-Abdullah, who wrote a play called The Slaves, and is full of fascinating insights into the Ghanaian theatre, and is deeply generous with his advice on performers and companies. Evans Oma Hunter, a Falstaffian figure whose finger is in many pies, and significantly works with UNESCO here, touring work to rural communities. George Hagan, director of the National Commission on Culture, who listens to my ideas with a constantly repeated "Wnderful", and promises that crucial thing, official endorsement, as well as making some helpful suggestions about outreach and even funding! And, perhaps most helpfully of all, the amazing Dzifa Glikpoe: former director of the National Theatre Company and a truly inspiring performer. With this woman there is an instant rapport, and she understands exactly what I want to do. She also reads the text superbly. We talk about how, with George's endorsement, this could be a co-production between Border Crossings and the National Theatre, in which case it would make sense to rehearse here in Ghana, perform and tour (?!) before transplanting to the UK. Done like this, with Western-trained actors in the Westernised roles, the culture-clash will be so real.

This afternoon Dzifa came to meet me again at Legon, bringing two performers she recommends. The three of them together are a riot: we talk in depth, but we also laugh a lot, and they perform songs and dances for me. Or maybe it isn't for me - maybe it's for one another and for themselves. Song seems to emerge from the conversation of these women totally naturally. One of them is called Agnes: she's very intelligent and very aware of the play and its political meaning. The other, who speaks far less English, is an older lady called Aunty Ama. I'm not too bothered about the language issue - and neither, it seems, is she. What matters is her rootedness in the culture, her demeanour, her grace, and her incredible energy. As we talk, I realise exactly who she is. She came from a village background, and started performing as a teenager, where she was spotted by the late, great Efua Sutherland. Since her parents were not around, Efua contacted the grandparents, and told them that she would like to adopt her as her own daughter, undertaking to educate her at the same time as nurturing her performing talent. Even today, she lives in the same house as Efua's daughter Esi Sutherland.

I thought before I came that the key aim in this trip would be to find somebody who was talented enough and sufficiently rooted in the culture to play Nana. I think that's been accomplished. Now all we have to do is make it happen.

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