Africa's forgotten stories on stage at Stanford

Katie Pfeiffer Oda Oak Oracle

Oda Oak Oracle tells the story of a village trying to forge a better future without betraying the past.

Katie Pfeiffer Aleta Hayes

Aleta Hayes, performance artist and lecturer in the Drama Department, is in the cast of Les Blancs, a play that explores the shifting dynamics of resistance and assimilation for colonizers, missionaries, journalists, servants, immigrants and native inhabitants in a fictitious African nation.

Katie Pfeiffer Aleta Hayes and Kieleil DeLeon

Aleta Hayes and Kieleil DeLeon act in Les Blancs.

Lyra Harris Dan Hoyle performs his one-man show

Dan Hoyle performs his one-man show, Tings Dey Happen, in Tresidder Student Union from July 5 to 8.

Katie Pfeiffer Les Blancs

Rush Rehm, left, Courtney Walsh Phleger and Kieleil DeLeon will perform in Les Blancs.

"Although you can kill a body, you cannot kill a song."

—Aika Swai, director of Oda Oak Oracle

Africa. The word has almost become synonymous with "a place that doesn't seem to work," according to drama and classics Professor Rush Rehm, artistic director of Stanford Summer Theater. Africa evokes desperate images of poverty, hunger, disease and political chaos—a place where hope perishes.

But perhaps the problem is that we've been trying to understand it from the outside rather than from the inside. "We might have something to learn rather than something to impose," Rehm said.

That guiding principle has shaped this year's Stanford Summer Theater (SST) festival. "Africa Onstage—Let us tell you a story" will feature four productions (with a fifth scheduled for the fall) that blend storytelling, dance and music. The season also includes an eight-part film series, lectures, discussions, and faculty and guest speakers.

Rehm's vision—to explore Africa from the inside—isn't his alone. It's shared, for example, by Dan Hoyle, star and creator of Tings Dey Happen, one of the featured productions. When asked what he hoped audiences took away from his acclaimed one-man show, Hoyle responded: "The sense that you can't view Africa through your own cultural lenses."

For Rehm, the journey to the inside began with a story of his own. He was moved when a friend, Courtney Walsh Phleger, adopted an Ethiopian child. A lawyer who works with abused children, Phleger convinced Rehm that the SST was a rare opportunity to introduce the public to Africa.

"Theater gives you a way to get into the story of Africa that's not a horrible headline or a boring book or discouraging numbers," said Phleger, who became a research associate for Africa Onstage and a performer in one of its productions. "It's just people's stories. For people who say, 'I wish I knew something about Africa but I just can't deal with it,' this is the way to do it."

With Phleger's help, Rehm selected five plays for the festival: Hoyle's Tings Dey Happen, Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs, Femi Osofisan's Farewell to a Cannibal Rage, Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin's Oda Oak Oracle, and, in November, Leslie Lewis Sword's Miracle in Rwanda, a tale of one woman's survival of the 1994 Rwandan massacre.

"These stories are based on a reality we don't see," Rehm said. He said they may be more likely to sway opinions than depressing documentaries and news programs that "just cause us to change the channel."

This hidden side of Africa "was always there, but nobody noticed it," Rehm said.

"It's been an unbelievable journey for me," he added. "Africa completely takes you over—it's so compelling, so varied, so many amazing stories."

As part of his journey, Rehm familiarized himself with Eritrean and Ethiopian communities in Oakland. He joined Stanford's Committee on African Studies and the African Studies Association, an international academic organization for scholars working on Africa. Although he had lived in Cairo, he realized he "didn't know Africa."

Most of us don't. Media coverage and popular imagery tend to treat Africa like a uniform blob—as if it were a single nation rather than a continent of 5,000 languages, 6,000 ethnic groups and thousands of religions, as well.

Perceptions of Africa also have been skewed toward wherever the current crisis is—South Africa, Darfur, Eritrea or Rwanda. Lately, Nigeria has been in the spotlight, largely as a result of the recent flawed elections and subsequent violence. With more than 131 million people, it's the most populous nation in Africa; one in four Africans are Nigerian, and 20 percent of the world's black population is Nigerian. Nigeria takes center stage for other reasons: America has oil interests in the Niger Delta, and the nation's official language is English.

Not surprisingly, then, two of the Stanford productions have a Nigerian focus. Tings Dey Happen explores the oil politics of the deeply impoverished delta. Dan Hoyle, son of actor and comedian Geoff Hoyle, plays 35 characters, including cabbies, hawkers, beggars, scam artists, warlords, prostitutes, oil workers, corrupt cops and the American ambassador in a country where everyone is on the make. Hoyle, too, might be said to be on the make, as a Fulbright scholar who spent a year in Africa considering how to transform his daily interactions into theater.

The San Francisco Chronicle called the piece "bracingly brave … a smart, engrossing, funny, challenging and moving piece."

Farewell to a Cannibal Rage, a comedy by award-winning Nigerian playwright Femi Osofisan, was written shortly after the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70. It riffs on the archetypal Romeo-and-Juliet theme, as enacted by a theater company that keeps shifting the roles they play and the outcome of the plot. Its theme is reconciliation, with a background of drums, music, movement and improvisation.

Hansberry is best known for A Raisin in the Sun, but many consider the posthumously produced and published Les Blancs to be her finest play. Les Blancs explores the shifting dynamics of resistance and assimilation for colonizers, missionaries, journalists, servants, immigrants and native inhabitants in a fictitious African nation.

"They all have totally understandable points of view, but they're in conflict with each other," said Phleger, who plays a well-intentioned, but patronizing, missionary doctor. For example, the white colonist views it as his right to continue living and working on the land his family developed from scratch, in the country he considers his home. African negotiators want to work with the colonizers to transfer power to the native inhabitants, but others are impatient, thinking that negotiation has gone on long enough.

"At the end of the day, you're not sure what Hansberry thought," Phleger said. "That's the best kind of play; it starts an internal dialogue."

Until his death last year, the Ethiopian playwright Tsegaye was considered the poet laureate of his nation. Oda Oak Oracle weaves together Koranic myths, Greek tragedy and Christian motifs into a pan-Ethiopian story with a jazz score. Central to the story is the failure of an oracle to anticipate and resolve a complex human situation, triggered by its own dire prophecy. The play contrasts the mores of the past with the need to forge a new future.

For Rehm, the issues of Oda Oak Oracle are central to Africa as a whole: "Who do you believe? What are your sources of interpreting power? If the results are disastrous, how do you forge new voices to listen to? Will the new voices survive?"

In a way, the West is the oracle—projecting our goals, our needs, our myths and our methods of development on a people who must find their own way to the future in nations where colonialism is still a very recent memory.

Tanzanian Aika Swai, a Stanford alumna and director of Oda Oak Oracle, said that Africa Onstage is a "really, really important pedagogical experience. It's really about information download."

Swai said many of the Stanford students, even African American ones, didn't know the word for "coffee" likely came from the Kingdom of Kaffa in Ethiopia, nor could they find Ethiopia on a map. "What Stanford is doing is huge," she said. "Stanford doesn't know how much they are being observed right now."

The aims are indeed ambitious. Rehm told a conference on "Performing Africa" at the University of Ohio in April that he has hopes of "forging a new community, one that the daughter of peace might sing, if we could hear her song." SST will offer free performances of Oda Oak Oracle at a neighborhood arts alliance in Oakland and also will perform the play at a major conference on Africa at Sonoma State University. Several members of the Ethiopian diaspora community will play important roles in the production.

At all performances of Oda Oak Oracle, SST will present a version of the coffee ceremony, with organic fair trade coffee, that welcomes guests in many parts of Ethiopia. "In this way we align our production of Oda Oak Oracle with the documentary Black Gold," part of the film festival on Africa. The film shows how the international coffee market exploits the primary producers in Ethiopia, Rehm said, "reminding us of our often unthinking complicity in the impoverishment of the very people whose culture we pretend to admire."

"The theater is more than plays; it offers a way to understand our connection to others, and to recognize our mutual responsibility for building a world in which—as Tsegaye suggests—the song of a young girl can triumph over the hatred and bad faith of the power brokers," Rehm said.

The survival of song is a central motif for Oda Oak Oracle and resonates throughout Africa Onstage, for "although you can kill a body, you cannot kill a song," Swai said. When asked to elaborate, she tells another story, of a renowned performer of the oud whose Sudanese village was submerged during the construction of a new dam. "All I can do now is sing my village's song," he said. "The song will go on."

"We've had genocide and ethnocide and all kinds of cides—and we are still here," Swai said.

Rehm, recalling his own journey, said, "We did all come from there—we are all African. It may mean nothing to us, but Africa has an enormous pull on us. It's not all romantic, it's in the head, too."

In other words, Africa is much more than a place that doesn't work. Africa is our past—and it may be our future as well.

Tickets for theater productions are available online at Reserved seats are $20, with a small service charge. The website also has information about the subscription program (four shows for the price of three). Some tickets may be available at the door on a "pay what you like" basis ($20 suggested donation). Post-show discussions will follow some performances. See the website for more information.

The film series runs every Monday night June 25 through August 13 at 7 p.m. in Cubberley Auditorium (but the July 23 screening will be in Kresge Auditorium). The film series is free and open to the public. A Stanford guest or faculty member will briefly introduce each film and will lead a discussion afterward.