ANOWA by Ama Ata Aidoo (AfriCan Theatre Ensemble). See Theatre Openings Rating: NNNNN
Part of the horror of the African slave trade in the West is that black people weren't just the victims of the Europeans. Some of their African countrymen were willing - and well-paid - perpetrators of the enslavement. That's one of the fascinating sides of Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa, which gets its Canadian premiere by the five-year-old AfriCan Theatre Ensemble.
"As a diasporan African from Trinidad and Tobago, I feel a special resonance from this play," says company resident director Rhoma Spencer.
"On the surface it's a love story about a girl who defies her parents, but underneath is a larger picture of post-colonial Africa and the diaspora.
"While most people in Africa are embarrassed by the history of slavery and choose not to discuss it, there are those of us who can't forget and continue to be informed by it."
Poet and novelist Aidoo rewrites her source, an oral folktale. Set in 1874 on the Gold Coast (now Ghana), it's the tale of Anowa, who chooses a marriage partner, Kofi Ako, not approved by her elders. But Kofi's growing wealth and involvement in the slave trade - he owns slaves and also sells them - drives a wedge into the marriage.
The playwright uses a narrating old man and woman who function in a way similar to a Greek chorus. Spencer has expanded the two roles into a pair of actual choruses, with the men presenting the voice of reason and the women that of tradition.
"They represent the community," notes the director, an actor, journalist and playwright.
Spencer plans to capture that community feel through music and movement as well.
"From my Caribbean perspective, theatre is rhythmic, and that's true of African theatre as well. The very content of this text is lyrical, so dance" - she's working with Ghanaian choreographer Albert Otoo - "is a natural part of the production."
As a director, Spencer likes to create a style for each production, taking the cultural tradition that infuses a script and making art from it. Here she's working with Ghanaians to capture the essence of Anowa's world, the reality of its people.
"There's an overabundance of expression in how things are articulated, but it's my job to strike a medium in presentation so that the result doesn't appear to Western audiences as caricature."
Her source for this theatrical philosophy is Trinidadan dance pioneer Beryl McBurnie, who travelled throughout her country observing local dance forms and then created her own works in the studio.
"Like her, I'm aiming to capture an essential quality, what she called -the grapiness of the grapes, but never the grapes. '"