Twisting and furling his body to the steady syncopation of the cowbell, the dancer pounds his feet against the ash grey floors and allows himself to channel the great Shaman known for uniting the clans of Asante, Okomfo Anokye.
Stopping every so often to receive notes from the instructor in the blue shirt, the slender dancer concentrates all of his energy on reinventing the pivotal moment in history, and pays little mind to the sweat dripping from his brow, saturating his shirt. The energy in the room is strong. The actors and dancers, deep into the rehearsal process are working hard to create magic. The role they are playing in the evolution of Ghanaian art and history is undeniable. An honest meshing of themes and mediums,”Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ,” (Ga for “we came from far away”), utilizes poetry, dance, theater, and music to tell the story of Ghanaian people from settlement to the present day. The “Birth of a Nation” series is a huge step in the elevation of Ghanaian arts by employing more than a 150 artists, and showing the importance of finding a new and refreshing way to teach Ghanaian history to the public.
The play went down earlier this month, for a 2-night run at the National Theatre. It was met with mostly positive reviews particularly for the level of execution of the actors, dancers and musicians (for a sound analysis of the show, see Kwame Gyan’s blog post.)
I met up with the cast back in June while they were deep in the rehearsal process. I was fortunate enough to catch up with writer and director Chief Moomen of Heritage Theatre Series to get the rundown on such a big endeavor. Here’s what transpired.
MK: Chief, tell the good people what Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ is all about?
CM: I am the writer and producer of The Heritage Series. Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ is a part of a series is something I’ve always wanted to do. As a poet my interest has always been telling the stories of Ghana, so most of my poems have been narratives about Ghana and it’s people.
The Heritage Theatre Series is a more embellished form of what I already do. I’ve had an opportunity to do something of this nature on a smaller scale. For the past four years we’ve been doing an event on February 24th to commemorate a moment in our history known as the 1948 riots. Some Ghanaian soldiers who fought in the war were promised some things by the British, but were never given what they were promised, and ended up living in squalor. Deciding to demonstrate in protest, they marched to the castle and one of the British Soldiers shot at them and killed a few. With these soldiers, deaths sparked riots in Ghana, and gave Independence a popular appeal. This event is one of many that took place in Ghanaian history that is worth telling. So yes, this vision started somewhere, and we are very excited to depict a wide variety of these moments in comparison to one.
MK: Tell me a little bit about the artists involved. Is it comprised of students or working professionals?
CM: Yes, we have a good mix. We have a whole team of directors, choreographers, costume, sound and light designers. Some are students, some are teachers, others are professional performers within the capitol. We are displaying the importance of the country providing quality work for artists by expanding the theatre scene and creating a viable industry.
MK: So far so good, right? You have some sponsorship.
CM: Absolutely, but we still have a long way to go. With the series being broken down into three parts, I’m still looking for sponsors and media partners. We want to make the production flamboyant, exciting, almost transcendental. For a project of such high caliber, we are still trying to gain more support.
MK: Can you give a little insight into how the productions are broken down?
CM: With the first production, we are telling the story of Ghana from the coming and settlement of the various ethnic groups to the period of the coming of the European slave trade and colonialism. The story ends during the struggle for Independence, in 1957, when Dr. Kwame Nkrumah declares our country independent forever. So what we are doing is picking up seminal movements in the nation’s history to depict. Now those depictions will be through movement, it will be through dance, it will be through drama, and the poetry will hold the narrative together.
MK: And what about the second and third instalments?
CM: This is not one play, it’s a series of plays. The short term vision is three years. 2017 is Ghana’s 60th anniversary, so what we’ve done is divide Ghana’s history into three parts, from ancient times to 1957 when we had our independence, from 1957 all the way through our times of militancy to 1992, and from 1992 to the present. So the first production will give a general projection of Ghanaian history, our intention is to depict Ghana all the way up to the present.
After the series completes, we are going to tell the individual stories of such great people as Kwame Nkrumah and Nana Yaa Asantewa. There are a lot of moments and individuals in history that we are trying to connect since history is expansive.
MK: So what would you say led to this movement?
CM: I’m a creative artist. I studied English and theater arts at the University of Ghana. I had the privilege of studying under some renowned writers and directors. For me, the passion for expression and for putting something exciting on stage was there from the beginning. When I was a student at the University of Ghana, one of the things I would do was go to the drama studios to watch plays. Some of the plays were really good, and I wondered, why don’t we have this on a bigger scale? Why don’t people pay to come see this? People would say that the entertainment scene in Ghana is monotonous, but there is always stuff happening in little pockets. So the big thing became “how do we do outdoor these events and get people to patronize.”
The public sector is choked, the banking sector is choked, the government sector is choked, but everyone wants to be a part of the creative arts. The goal is to use the tool of creative art to change peoples mentalities, so that we may restore our consciousness and self love as a people.
MK: Theater is one of those things that can help change the perception of the people.
CM: Very true. I have the perfect example.
MK: Do tell.
CM: My love for poetry really grew when I saw Maya Angelou reciting a poem on live television as a child.
MK: Was it a while ago? You know she lived here at a point.
CM: No, this had to be long after. I think she had gone and come, and here I was, barely ten sitting behind a black and white TV, I was quickly taken by her confidence and the elegant way she delivered the poem. The message.
Even at a young age there was a consciousness. Seeing her perform further asserted that I wanted to be a writer, and an actively creative individual. That’s why in this production we are inviting a lot of children and giving discounts to adults and children alike. We want to see this as a family production.
MK: I can only imagine. I think Maya Angelou sparked a fire in many a young writer. How has the rehearsal process been thus far?
CM: We’ve done almost 22 rehearsals, and we’re just about halfway into the production. Initially when we started we grossly underestimated how many rehearsals we would need to have. So many other factors have made the rehearsal process a bit more tenuous than we anticipated but so far so good.
MK: Is the series critiquing moments in Ghanaian history or is it taking an unbiased stance?
CM: We are taking an unbiased stance. We don’t want to get locked down in the murky dispute of our politics, because you know, unfortunately, one of the things is that we haven’t come to a consensus about our political history. Our view is that regardless of whatever problems we had at the beginning, we can’t keep emphasizing those problems. At a point in time we must have our heroes, and we must celebrate them. We need to present ourselves in the way that we want the world to see us.
Check out these photos below from Wogbɛ Jɛkɛ courtesy of The Heritage Series Facebook page.