An African storytelling production in an Asian setting

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Kwadwo Addeah Prempeh

QFWF 3, December 14th 2018

Introduction

Picture 1: Certificate of Appreciation from the Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia

While I was a student at the Sunway University in Malaysia I was being tasked with the leadership role to organize and execute a Multicultural Performance as part of the annual cultural activities of the Government of Malaysia for international students through their Ministry of Higher Education in 2008. This was something which I never expected, given the fact that I was still very new to the University and the country entirely.

As I was given the freewill to plan and stage any performance of my choice, I felt it was my duty, as a Ghanaian from a conservative cultural background, to stage a performance that would enlighten the students and people about the ancient Ghanaian culture of storytelling.

Following this tradition the children would gather around an elderly person in the village under a tree in the soothing radiance of a bright moonlight night and the elderly person would entertain them with many stories that existed before the 14th Century. Since that age – the dawn of Western Colonization of Africa – the old stories and the tradition of storytelling have been totally lost and have given its glory to modern civilization. So I started working to stage one of these performances.

Picture 2: storytelling in the soothing radiance of a bright moonlight night

However, I was fascinated to know how the new culture will respond to old. Many of my friends and the people I met on daily bases, upon learning that I am Ghanaian, became very curious and eager to gain knowledge of my culture.
I found encouragement in the different questions they asked me. These questions centered on the geography of Africa and more about Ghana in general.

Tolerance happened to be one of the motivating factors for staging my play because I was expected to work with different people from different backgrounds.
Sunway University has taken a keen interest in diversity, of which I am a beneficiary.

In an effort to expand and build a strong multicultural environment and to improve tolerance within the Sunway community, the University seeks a more global community.
The various programs the International Office of Cultural Diversity collaborates with the Government to sponsor for the student community are worthwhile and worthy of support.

Picture 3: working with a typical Malaysian community

Being an international student and staging an African play gave me the opportunity to contribute my efforts to promote and educate others about diversity.
In the wake of these motivating factors, directing was still a challenge. Learning about, becoming familiar with, and participating in Malaysian environment was a challenge to me as an instructor to such a performance for a big occasion like this.

The Sunway audience, which also represents a typical Malaysian community, was even more challenging because the majority of them lack knowledge in West African culture and for that matter, Ghana.
Based on my observation, it is dissatisfying to learn that the number of Malaysians who read African plays was very minimal. However, globalization deems it necessary to keep abreast about the issues of other worlds.
“It is important, therefore, that educational institutions encourage students to learn about different cultures globally.”

Apparently, the genre of every drama does not only spotlight issues of meaning to its audience, but also educates its audience about something new. The genre of drama makes sure the message it carries is clear and understandable to its audience.
Meanwhile, this observation implies that the audience can make reasonable meaning of a performance if what they see on stage is familiar to them.
In other words, I was reminded of the fact that something new might result in a lack of response from the audience and that any performance that I came up with must be culturally familiar; otherwise the performance might be less meaningful to the audience. This is what challenged me as an instructor – to work hard to make my vision for the production as clear and meaningful as possible, and to bring something culturally “new” to my Malaysian audience.

How the Performance was designed

My original intention was to use storytelling as a means of production to Ama Ata Aidoo’s play on “Anowa” and if possible Efua Sutherland’s “The Marriage of Anansewa.”
These stories are based on Ghanaian folktales and regional legends respectively. Both playwrights offer folktales that feature the predicament of the disobedient daughter.

In such stories, a young woman refuses to marry a suitor, resulting in a disaster. Such is the case of Anowa. She refuses to accept tribal norms, marries the man of her own choice, and these choices resulted in tribal conflict and the perpetrators are forced to live with the consequences.

The Marriage of Anansewa

Sutherland’s “The Marriage of Anansewa” tells the story of Ananse’s problem of poverty and his determination to solve it. Ananse writes four letters to four suitors who all happen to be prominent Chiefs he has chosen for his daughter Anansewa.
He has promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to each one of these chiefs and anticipates that they will respond by sending him gifts that will solve his financial problems.
What these suitors do not know is that he has set a competition between them to enable him to choose the most loving and dependable husband for his daughter.

Ananse succeeds with his plan and becomes rich, but tension begins to mount.
Each of the suitors indicates his intention to honor the head drink ceremony. Ananse convinces his daughter to fake her death as a solution to the crisis.
In the final scene, the rehearsed and fake death of Anansewa goes a long way to reveal the intentions and the level of commitment of the chiefs.

While there are obvious differences among these two plays, they share commonalities. These are two witty social dramas embellished with traditional folk music and dance. These are dramas that are true to the Ghanaian culture and are honest explorations of the conflicts between the individualism of westernized culture and the social traditions of Africa.

Anowa

Picture 4: Staging the Ghanaian play Anowa with the Malaysian community

After considerations of time, casting, and the play’s density, I rested my thoughts and decided to stage “Anowa.”
“Anowa” reflects Ghanaian culture in a way which is beautiful and dense. The majority of Ghanaian and African plays utilize large casts, which in essence reflects the African culture with regards to the extended family.

Although “Anowa” is successful and popular in Ghana and throughout Africa, I anticipated that the large cast in this play might cause confusion among the audience who are cultural outsiders, such as the Malaysian audience who might find the extended family on stage a new phenomenon.

They might know nothing or little about the culture and traditions the play was presenting to them. Therefore, I thought quickly that this could hinder the understanding of the audience and so I came up with a plan that perhaps cutting short the cast list can ease the problem of large cast. However, my cultural experience disapproves executing this option.

And I also knew that reducing the number of characters in the play is subject to culturally weaken my production. The characters in African plays are dependent upon each other and each character has a significant role to play.
For instance, a drunkard is a very important character in the African community, yet he is disrespected because of his behavior. In spite of his drunkenness, he holds facts of what is going on in the community that no one may know except him. In this regard, his character is very significant. Hence the role of the drunkard can contribute to the overall understanding of the audience.

As an instructor, I knew including every detail in a script is very important to the success of a production. However, I was also aware that the number of performers in a play can be reduced at the discretion of the instructor.

These casting factors propelled me towards storytelling. Besides the cultural dilemma mentioned, there are also certain practical issues that need to be discussed. These can be realities of any production. Working with multiple actors can be challenging. For my production, correlating student actors’ schedules for rehearsals alongside their classes was troublesome. This was a challenge I knew I would face.

To minimize this challenge, I decided to “story tell” Anowa, thus, the idea of doing a storytelling performance was born. This was a substitute to the staging of Anowa and also a solution to the challenges that could have presented itself in the Malaysian setting.
To execute the perfect storytelling performance in a Ghanaian narrative drama, an Anansesem approach was imperative to my production.

Brief History of Anansesem

Picture 5: Griots, traditional storytellers[1]

Anansesem originated from Ghana, West Africa. It is an art form passed on from generation to generation and can be traced to ancient times. Anansesem forms part of a body of traditional oral literature that includes praise poetry, riddles, proverbs and dirges.
These art forms are usually accompanied by music, drumming and dance. Anansesem is usually told by adults in a dramatic and creative manner and enjoyed immeasurably by children, adolescents and adults.

Anansesem is essential in the social life of the people in Ghana. It brings the community together and unites them as one people. Since the major occupation of the people is farming, they listen to Anansesem after the hard day’s work for entertainment and to pass time when they come back home from the farm or fishing.
More so, young people in the community learn public speaking through Anansesem and finally, it serves as a means to safe guard the community from enemy forces.

At the storytelling session, usually in the evening, a gathering of families in the community assemble under a bright moonlight or around a low burning fire. This provides the right atmosphere for the performance. The gathering constitutes the audience who sit on the floor and on stools for the storytelling.

The success or failure of the Anansesem rests on the shoulders of the storyteller who is largely responsible for the enjoyment of the story. Nevertheless, the attention and response of the audience is equally important to the success of the storytelling. The story is successful when the inherent moral is fully realized by the audience.

The Storytelling Performance Strategy in my Production

Using the traditional Anansesem approach for my production required me to modify it into a more accessible one for the Malaysian audience.

Nonetheless, the storyteller must have the ability to capture the attention and the interest of the audience throughout the story.

The telling of the story must transform the audience from their natural world to the world of the story. This is normally achieved by establishing a close relationship between the storyteller and the audience.
A relationship cannot be established if there is an excessive amount of distance between the storyteller and audience.

This is a defect that could hinder the success of the production; therefore, individuals in the community take turns in the telling of the story. This gives rise to competition among young individuals in the community with each person wanting to be the best storyteller.

Picture 6: Modifying the traditional Anansesem approach to make it more accessible for the Malaysian audience

Through this they learn how to speak in public as they narrate their story to the community when it came to their turn. Tribal wars were rampant among African communities in the olden days. Therefore, the community divided themselves into groups and took turns each in a storytelling performance on certain days.
Through this they guarded and protected the community from enemy forces. They raise alarm to summon the other community members when they sense danger. There were no electricity in those days when Anansesem evolved hence the use of moonlight and fire light provided a sound atmosphere for the storytelling performance.

The thrust stage gives a picture of the nature of distancing that can develop between the storyteller and the audience. The audience is seated semi-circularly around the stage and the storyteller sits at the center of the stage and tells the story.
To establish a relationship, the storyteller must be close enough to the audience. Eye contact ascertains intimacy between the storyteller and the audience

The audience responds to certain issues in the story with comments, songs and dance.
In this case the Malaysian audience, who this production was meant for, might not know how to respond to the story, hence subject to a poor performance.

The Introduction of “Anansegro” to enrich the production

After thorough dramaturgical research to solve the issues of anticipated poor performance for the production, I came across the experimental works of Efua Sutherland.
She worked hard to transform the traditional storytelling from the backyard of a Ghanaian village to the theatre. She discovered in her experimental research what she called Anansegro, an approach which she found suitable to transform the traditional storytelling into the theatre.

Anansegro is not any different from Anansesem. Anansegro is a term used to describe the traditional Anansesem that has been transformed from the back yard of the communal setting and enhanced with theatrical conventions for a stage performance.

They have a common name, Ananse, in them. Anansegro was coined out of Anansesem. Anansesem is a domestic activity and it is this activity that has been shaped into a theatrical performance. This is how Sutherland states it in the forward notes of her play, The Marriage of Anansewa: …

This story telling (Anansesem) is usually a domestic activity; there are in existence some specialist groups who have given it a full theatrical expression with established conventions. It is this system of traditional theatre which I have developed and classified as Anansegro.”

For further clarification to understand Sutherland’s Anansegro and the traditional Anansesem, Biodun Jeyifo’s article gives a clear distinction of the two.
He states:

Anansesem is primarily the body of tales about the exploits of Ananse, but the term also embodies the storytelling tradition, the conventions of narration and performance through which the Ananse stories are relayed across the generations. Anansegro on the other hand, is the modern art of theatrical performance that Sutherland creatively extrapolated from the more traditional base of Anansesem.”

Picture 7: Efua Sutherland [2]

This makes Anansegro more stylized and more precise in the elements of performance like poetry, music and dance sequence. He reveals that, in Anansesem, these elements are more loosely or informally enacted, while in Sutherland’s reconfigurations of Anansesem into Anansegro, the elements are made more precise, more polished and at the same time more expansively suggestive. a major theatrical convention known as the Players in her Anansegro experimental process. The Players and the storyteller are what shape the narrative drama or the storytelling.
The Players are a representation of the traditional Anansesem audience on stage. Their presence on the stage establishes a rapport between the storyteller and the audience in the theatre.

While some Players are given costume, others are not. This technique is utilized to make the natural theatre audience feel part of the Players. The Players contribute to the story by singing, drumming, dancing and clapping at certain times in the storytelling performance.
This is referred to as Mboguo (literally meaning call and response).

A brief History of Mboguo

Mboguo is an embodiment of the story itself and is performed in context led by the storyteller. As a theatrical convention, Mboguo is required to be performed by the players, including the larger audience.
It is required that the players and the audience interrupt the storytelling session where necessary to make contributions to the story.

However, their interruptions are prompted by an inspirational situation in the performance. These interruptions are good signs of their keen interest in the storytelling.
This raises the morale of both the storyteller and the audience, and as a result, establishes a mutual relationship between them.

The storyteller also uses the Mboguo as a resting moment; he may be tired because of the intense dramatic actions in the narration or he might take this moment to enjoy a drink of water. Most of all, the interruptions help awaken those in the audience who might be dozing.

Picture 8: Ama Ata Aidoo[3]

The importance of Mboguo is conceivable in the works of most Ghanaian playwrights such as Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa, Efua Sutherland’s The Marriage of Anansewa, and Martin Owusu’s The Story Ananse Told, and many others.

Mboguo may be performed in various dramatic forms such as miming, dancing or even a thought or a statement from any member of the audience.
More importantly, it must be in relation to the subject of the story being told.

Storytelling is a vital means Ghanaians employ to bring communities together on a regular basis. It embodies ideas about the community and expresses the ways in which people approach their lives.
In view of this, storytelling is carefully enacted by the storyteller who can either be a male or female. He is considered the owner of the story and the success of the whole story session rests on his shoulders. His success is attributed to the fact that he is able to instantly create the story as he continues to narrate.
As the master of the story, he uses various theatrical devices such as proverbs, imagery and even poetry to dramatize his story to make it more interesting. He is able to imitate different characters and behaviors through gestures. This is what makes him humorous, popular and the number one actor in the Akan community.
The audience’s response to the narration of the story is desired. Enthusiasm, attention and inquisitiveness are needed from them to make the story attractive and successful.

Conclusion

After I explored the issues and components related to storytelling in Anowa and The Marriage of Anansewa in my production, I have come to the following conclusion about the artistic process.

Picture 9: The Anansesem approach was greeted with success

Anansesem is simple and can be performed at any given space one may find him or herself. However, it requires a more technical approach when it becomes a stage performance. Sutherland’s experimental research, Anansegro, is paramount as an aesthetic resource tool for a staged performance.

For my production, it proved beyond all doubts the best approach for the production which was greeted with success at the end of the day.

Notes

[1] Source: Griots
[2] Source: Efua Sutherland
[3] Source: Ama Ata Aidoo

Kwadwo Addeah-Prempeh

attended the University of Ghana, University of Colorado at Denver and the Sunway University. And I hold a BSc. and an MSc. My area of interest is in writing. While still in High school, I won my first major award for my school in writing which was the National Best Writer in the year 2000.