Originally written for Exeunt.
“A person who does not know his own ancestors does not know his own grandchildren.” One of many small wisdoms passed from mouth to mouth during this patchwork celebration of Yoruba culture, these words are a fitting epigraph for a piece of theatre deeply concerned with identity and its roots in past, present and future. There is a profound sense that for those who are born into this culture, being aware of one’s past is integral to the hybrid cultural identity one forges in the modern world. Co-written by five playwrights from the USA, Cuba, Brazil, Nigeria and Britain, brought together as part of World Stages London, the creation and structure of the piece is an appropriately diverse and fragmented reflection of the Yoruba diaspora, a culture scattered across and filtered through four different continents. It’s a feast in which flavours clash, complement and blend.
The scraps of scenes from the production’s five writers are loosely stitched together by the recurring presence of four Orishas, Yoruba deities, who appear and reappear in the form of fictional characters from across the past 300 years of Yoruba history. The three female Orishas Yemaja, Oshun and Oya, associated with motherhood, beauty and war respectively, are followed through the ages by Esu, a mischievous, chaos-courting shape-shifter who perpetually straddles the crossroads. Among the snatches we are shown from this huge swathe of history are a vignette on the impact of slave liberation in Brazil, a snapshot of the American civil rights movement and a post-Olympics scene featuring a young British athlete – more fleeting moments than scenes, tiny splinters broken off a story too huge to begin telling.
Conceptually, the shape of the whole is fitting. Any attempt to take a holistic view of a history and a culture that is characterised by its variety would be reductive and misguided; instead this consciously incomplete and fractured image mirrors the dispersed and many times translated and transmuted tradition that it depicts. The resistance to unifying narratives also speaks of a distrust of written history, a history that often – as in the production’s layered projections – writes over its subjects. This project instead attempts to capture something of the oral history that has passed down through generations and across continents, a history focused on storytelling rather than the imposed tyranny of facts. Unfortunately, the delicate fabric of the stories themselves is often not substantial enough to support the ambition of the piece as a whole, with scenes feeling broken or truncated, their jagged edges jammed awkwardly together.
Perhaps because of such difficulties, the production is at its strongest when most reliant on its dazzling visual elements. The slow, mournful dance that narrates the journey of slaves across the Atlantic through the bodies of the performers, upon whose torsos prices are starkly projected and who gradually slip between curtains lit with maps and names, disappearing into their own history, speaks louder than any of the contrived and sometimes clumsy scenes peppered elsewhere. Another powerful moment features a female dancer tugged from side to side, hands snatching at her body and covering her mouth, a physical expression of the violence implicit in being silenced. It is also the visual and aural that lend the show its most joyous moments, offering vivid, celebratory bursts of song and dance.
Of all the striking images that thread their way through this meandering production, one stubbornly repeats again and again, imprinting itself on the eye. As the trickster Esu guides us through the complex tangle of cultural history, he frequently shifts shape behind sliding panels, a slick bit of stagecraft that is tightly married to the questions of identity that the piece keeps returning to. Because if this show is about anything in the sprawling, amorphous history of Yoruba, it is about shape-shifting, both voluntary and enforced, and about how acts of transformation affect not only a culture or belief system, but also the equally complex individuals within them.