Sierra Leone: Day 0

This is a first in a series of posts I will be making about my trip to Sierra Leone to teach with the US State Department-funded TechWomen program. See photos here.

I stoop down low as I step into the finished-pine hallway; it gives a feeling of enclosure, of a passageway build for another time. I emerge and stare-up at the high ceiling, painted with winged faces connected by banners, the name of the moon great and centered above the stage. Dozens of candles light the space which was designed to be lit in that way, gilding catching the wavering, liquid light.

The floor of the stage is divided into 5 spaces, like the play I’m here to see. The surface alternates rough, rubber-textured panels with semi-polished un-welded copper. The metal throws back every twinkle of light that falls on it and sometimes in odd moments doubles the players who walk upon it. The stage sits about mouth-level for my seat in the pit.

My mother sits grinning on the narrow red wool-padded bench in front of me, her blue eyes rapt and about level with the stage. We are running late for our delegation to Sierra Leone, using an unavoidable Heathrow layover to see Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Globe. ‘Running late’ because According to the official schedule we were supposed to be in west Africa by Saturday night, the very night we were sitting in that candle-filled, gilded playhouse. But I was scheduled to chair a San José Human Services Commission meeting that made earlier flights impossible; my mother, traveling companion, and fellow TechWomen mentor teaches classes in the jail and hates to miss more than she absolutely needs to, since her students don’t have the luxury of cutting class and have often been abandoned; and neither of us had the budget necessary to make the shorter, more timely itinerary favored by the other members of our delegation. So we took cheap flights with long layovers. Then, rather than staying in our airport hotel and luxuriating in sleeping horizontally, we took ourselves on the Underground to Mansion House station, wandered across the Thames, and kept the water company while we ate sandwiches begrudgingly boxed by a harried teller.

The Sam Wanamaker playhouse is part of the Globe complex and it is a space smaller and more holy than most churches I’ve been in.

The production company for Richard II is made-up exclusively of women of color. The play co-directed by Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton; Ms Andoh also stars as the titular King Richard. The production design draws not from some picturesque reenactment of the time of the playwright, but from the lived histories of the actresses. The costuming (Rianna Azoro), the etiquette, manners of physical address and discipline, setting (design by Rajha Shakiry), the music (Lois Au directing and Dominique Le Gendre  composing), issues of hair and eye-level shoes are all promised to be drawn from the traditions of their specific ancestors. Photos of a dozen of those specific ancestors hang enbannered on linen, hanging from the balustrades of the upper gallery.

This trip to Sierra Leone will be my happy third to west Africa in the past 3 years. I’ve walked through the frantic streets of Lagos filled with men in skin-tight singlets and heavily-starched shirts; driven through the self-satisfied professionally-planned boulevards of Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal capital built in a place no one tribe could claim as their homeland; I’ve pressed my feet into the same sand British and American slave boats shoved themselves into to steal people for the fields of their colonies and Empires; I’ve danced with a performer/the spirit/god Joli in Makeni as Temne performers sang their parts in strong unison; I’ve learned to tell the sound of Krio from other west African Creoles from South African accents from Kenyan language patterns; I’ve developed a firm taste for groundnut stew. One our first day in Nigeria during the delegation in 2018, we toured a major art gallery; the top floor of which was unlit but also unbarricaded, so I explored the religious items and carvings and statues there, seeing in their faces the same rituals of marriage and life and death which Shakespeare lays-out as the pattern of the lives of his people. I saw a traditional Yoruba horse-hair scepter/fly whisk, which tribal leaders can use to anoint people during specific ceremonies, including throwing water far into an assembled crowd.

The program we purchased for 5 pounds at the Globe reminds me that Shakespeare wrote “on the heart beat.” As I sit in the theater, I press my two fingers to my pulse point and recite Sonnet 116 to myself as the audience fills-in, setting the iambs to each throb. Those assembled hush on an unseen but thoroughly-felt cue. There was a feeling between each of us like we are vesicles in the same lung, every breath contributing to the shared air, powering the action that was about to leap to life around us. 

Then: a sudden singing, women’s powerful voices filling the liquid space in perfect unison. The language was not English; it sounded like it might be west African, though I could not be sure.

The court of Richard II entering through the same low pine passage I’d entered, tunics and saris and wide pants brushing against my shoulder as they stride along the aisles to ascend the stairs. The King wears a version of what I saw tribal leaders in Nigeria wearing, embroidered long jackets designed to be worn open in the front with extensive gold embroidery. Her crown is an array of stiff rays of gold with a gold human figure nestled above her high brow; her eye-shadow is broad and gold. 

The program reminds us that people of color and women are “at the bottom of Empire,” and that was the perspective that the directors wanted to explore without losing the grand and powerful language of the text. They succeeded in that first scene.

The lords of the court all wear gold embroidery on costumes that are tied to their performers’ family histories: Ayesha Dharker as Aumerle wears variations of Indian traditional dress; Sarah Lam as Bushy wears variations on Chinese traditional dress. There is much double-casting — enough that I was occasionally confused if I was hearing lines from Nicholle Cherrie as the Green, Percy, or the (400 year old spoiler!) murderous groom.

The connection to the actress’s family histories played out in more than clothing. Two of the most visible examples came when lords prostrated themselves in the copper ground before their king or pressed a hand to a friend’s foot in greeting. These seamlessly replaced the more traditional British aristocratic gestures for those moments: bowing and shaking hands. But because these gestures come from complete and complex cultures, they hold within them all of the potential for disrespect and dissent present in all forms of etiquette. In a particularly powerful moment, Indra Ové as Northumberland touches the ground before the king, but rather than pressing her whole palm on it, she touches just the delicate tip of her middle finger, showcasing her distain for his avaricious, capricious, and soon to be foreshortened rule.

Gold is the dominant color in the scheme as it should and must be: one of the central conflicts of the piece is Richard’s overspending on Irish wars and his lovers. As her greed grows, so does the amount of gold embroidery on her clothing until she wears a long coat that is more gold than cloth.

In her final scene, after she looses her crown to Bolingbroke — whose clothing is also extensively influenced by west African traditional fashion — the deposed Richard is almost unrecognizable. Crownless, imprisoned and abandoned, Richard wears the kind of pale singlet I saw in Lagos, paired with a dirty dhoti. Richard is constantly in a state of self-defined martyrdom in the play; the martyr Shakespeare had in mind was of course Jesus Christ, but that was before the rise of Empire and occupation of the Indian subcontinent. In this post-Empire production, a king in dhoti reminded me most strongly of the survivors of Empire and those who, despite their own personal failings, campaigned successfully against it (see: Gandhi).

At the intermission, as I gulped down scalding tea at the nice cafe inside the theater complex, I told my mother that this was the best plays I had ever seen. She thought I meant the power of seeing women given complex, powerful roles and we began arguing about Anthony and Cleopatra vs Richard II. But what I meant is it was the most powerful performance I had ever seen.

Seeing women of color in every role, wearing clothing personal to their histories, speaking words common to their shared nation, was boneshakingly profound. The lessons of the play — about how to re-form a nation when the habits of entrenched power become intolerable, that we can feel sympathy for leaders who can no longer lead us, that coalitions are necessary to upending power, that every sea change will also bring to a the it regrets — are built into the text. Shakespeare is brilliant.

But whose voices sing that change into being; that was the power of the play. Last night, women were the cowards and the kings, the flirts and the fighters, the power-mad and powerless — and because this is Shakespeare in all his observational complexity, the same women were each of these in turn. Just as women are. Just as we always have been.

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