Staging Jamaican Herstory with “Afiba and Her Daughters”

 

The past, the present and the future are not separate. They bleed into each other. This is the philosophy put forward by my new play, Afiba and her Daughters. It is based on powerful African wisdom, like the Adinkra principle of Sankofa; and the acknowledgement that the ancestors are ever present in our day to day realities.

In 2003, I had an idea to write a screenplay about a Jamaican university student who comes of age in the 1960s, using the 1968 Walter Rodney protests as the catalytic event. For years this idea marinated but never manifested. Then in 2009, I successfully applied to the MA in Scriptwriting program at Goldsmiths College, University of London with a proposal to turn this idea into a screenplay that would be called, Brother Wally, centering Walter Rodney as the protagonist’s inspiration. Julian Henriques, director of the scriptwriting program saw much potential in it. But I never got to go to Goldsmiths. It was too expensive and I was not eligible for a scholarship, because I already had a Master’s degree, and UK rules were strict on providing funding for foreign nationals who already had equivalent degrees. However, three years later this screenplay became a theatre play after I began studying at Brown University. I made two major changes : First, my male protagonist became female. Not only was I wary about writing from a male perspective, I was also uncomfortable about reproducing yet again the narrative of the radical Black man, with supporting woman characters. Secondly, the story became more complex, and grew to centre on Black Jamaican women’s struggles and triumphs. I wrote act one in Elmo Terry Morgan’s Research to Performance Method class in fall 2012, and act two was written with director, John Emigh’s encouragement in 2015.

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Shenyse Harris as the title character, Afiba. Photo by John Emigh

The play is an inter-generational story about a loving but troubled family. It spans the period of slavery leading up to Emancipation, the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s and the turbulent late ’70s on the brink of the end to democratic socialism. It has been and will continue to be a challenging but rewarding process: trying to manage the exhausting tasks of writing a dissertation, while developing a very complex play (which includes three original songs penned by me) separately; writing about Black women; writing about trauma while trying to have the characters also find joy in their lives; writing a Jamaican play in the United States; being guided by research but harnessing as much artistic freedom as possible; and trying not to self-critique to the extent that I become unable to create. [1]

Difficult but cathartic”

The process has been difficult but cathartic.  I am participating again in theatre, one of the great loves of my life, after too many years of only doing non-theatrical work. And I have the support of an institution dedicated to plays that do not fit the norms within mainstream commercial theatre, with an amazing talented director, cast and crew.  The play has allowed me to sort through my own complex understandings of Jamaica’s legacies of slavery and colonialism, and more contemporary oppressive structures. It has also strengthened my admiration for the intelligence, strength and beauty of Jamaican people, people of African descent in general, and all of the rebel women who continue to guide us.

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From left: Lynsey Ford, Shenyse Harris and Angela Nash in rehearsal. Photo by N. Shakes

Afiba and her Daughters opens on African Liberation Day, Wednesday May 25, 2016 and closes on Saturday, May 28, 2016. Performances will be on May 25, 26 and 27 at 7:00 p.m. and May 28 at 11:00 a.m. Discussions will follow the May 27 and May 28 performances. It is being directed by John Emigh and produced by Rites and Reason Theatre, Africana Studies, Brown University, with original music and two original songs by Lon E. Plynton and featuring Becky Bass and the Mystic Jammers.

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Music rehearsal with Lon Plynton (on piano), From left: Tom Paolino, Becky Bass, Lynsey Ford, Viraj Gandhi, Sylvia-Ann Soares and Shenyse Harris. Photo by N. Shakes.

 “It takes a Village”

It takes a village to make a play, and Afiba and her Daughters has a huge transnational village.

My profound gratitude belongs first with The Creator and The Ancestors, who inspired the story. Thank you to the hardworking creative team at Rites and Reason: Karen Allen-Baxter, Alonzo Jones, Elmo Terry Morgan and Kathy Moyer, as well as the Department of Africana Studies, headed by Prof. Brian Meeks. And thanks to the director John Emigh, who is  deeply committed to the project. The following list reflects persons with whom I worked closely on developing this play and on my general research. There are/will be myriad others who work with the crew, and will be acknowledged in the play’s program and later writings by me:

Development of the Script/Advice on Craft: John Emigh, Honor Ford-Smith,  Kashka Hemans, Elmo Terry-Morgan.

Production and Technical Support: Rites and Reason Team: Karen Allen Baxter, Alonzo Jones, Kathy Moyer.

The Cast and Crew: Becky Bass, Lisa Batt-Parente, Cleveish Bogle, Lynsey Ford, Viraj Gandhi, Warren Harding, Shenyse Harris, Angela Nash, Ezekiel Olukoya, Tom Paolino, Lon Plynton, Sylvia-Ann Soares, Emily Varden.

Research (Jamaica and the United States): Tony Bogues, Carolyn Cooper, Anani Dzidyienyo, Warren Harding, Taitu Heron, Rupert Lewis, Brian Meeks, Abbebe Payne, Keisha-Khan Perry (diss. advisor), Shani Roper-Edwards,  Edward Shakes, Elaine Shakes, Maziki Thame.

Participants in developmental readings:Arielle Brown, Alexis Green, Dennis Kozee, Ashley Mitchell, David Samuel and Kyle Vincent Terry.

Props  sourced in Jamaica: Rion Smith, sculptor;  Phillip Supersad, drummer/sculptor, drum maker, the Institute of Jamaica.

Thank you as well to all of the family members, old friends and new ones, who listened intently to me as I talked endlessly about this play and gave me advice: people like actor/playwright, Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni and my sister, Tracey Clarke.

Asé Ire, Love and Balance,

Nicosia.

[This is a longer version of the playwright’s notes that will be published in the program for the play].

 The featured image at the beginning of this post is of a grave marker (from the period of slavery in Jamaica). It was reproduced by Jamaican sculptor, Rion Smith, from the artifact housed at the Institute of Jamaica, Kingston for this play. Photo by N. Shakes.
[1] Self-criticism is absolutely necessary. However, Black woman artists have to add to their own self-critical reflective process, intense external perceptions: of inadvertently re-enforcing stereotypes, of not being representative enough of the group, of not providing the audience with enough information, of not being “political” enough, of being too “political”. This makes the general process of creating art stressful for Black women as much as it has also been pleasurable, and  a necessary part of our self-expression and activism. For Black woman artists from developing countries working in developed countries, working-class Black woman artists, and Black queer woman artists, the process is even more difficult. This is one of the topics I explore in my dissertation.

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