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Africa Onstage

Summer dramas evoke a continent’s complexities.

Photo: Katie Pfeiffer

THEN AND NOW: Artistic director Rehm’s playbill focuses on Africans facing change, as in Oda Oak Oracle, with Val Sinckler, ’01, director Swai and Ana Carbatti.

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Although the playwrights aren’t yet household names in the United States, works by the late Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin of Ethiopia and Nigeria’s Femi Osofisan are finding new audiences on campus this summer.

“They’re really about inventing new possibilities out of old traditions,” Rush Rehm, artistic director of the Stanford Summer Theater (SST), says about the African dramas being staged. “It’s not a romantic, ‘Oh, the past is wonderful,’ but, ‘This is our past and how are we going to use it, and not let it use us?’”

Rehm, PhD ’85, a professor of drama and of classics, says that on a fundamental level, Gabre-Medhin’s Oda Oak Oracle (August 16-19) and Osofisan’s Farewell to a Cannibal Rage (August 9-12) are plays about liberation—“not just political liberation, but liberation from structures of power that want some things not to change.” Like the sweep of the African continent itself, he suggests, the dramas are complex and evoke a broad range of mood, feeling, emotion and subject. The summer playbill also features Dan Hoyle’s Tings Dey Happen, a one-man show about the Niger Delta region (July 5-8), and Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, about the legacy of colonialism in Africa (July 19-August 5).

During the academic year, time available to students for dramatic productions is pretty “scattered,” Rehm says. “So one of the things summer theater tries to do is provide opportunities for Stanford students to work in a professional environment. It’s a full-time, concentrated effort that often involves between 45 and 60 hours per week.”

This summer, drama professor Harry Elam is directing Les Blancs; he is also at work on a book about Hansberry, perhaps best known for A Raisin in the Sun. Aleta Hayes, ’81, lecturer in drama and dance, is choreographing Les Blancs and other productions, and Rehm is part of the cast for Les Blancs.

To Rehm’s great delight, his former student Aika Swai, ’04, MA ’04, is directing Oda Oak Oracle. A native of Tanzania who holds a master’s in modern thought and literature, Swai has turned the production into a community happening. The cast of 12 includes actors from Haiti, Brazil, Tanzania and the United States, and is complemented by scores of Ethiopian musicians. After its run on campus, Oda Oak Oracle travels to Oakland, where lessons in dance and the Amharic language will be offered, and children with the Eastside Arts Alliance will create a mural project.

“Then we’re going to ship the entire cast to Sonoma State University,” Swai says. She’ll speak at a conference there about ways to include African history in the California state curriculum and preside over post-show talk-backs. “And we’ll round off with a traditional African cast party, sacrificing a goat and roasting it.”

Rehm, a vegetarian, may be uneasy with that celebration, but he’s eager to dive into the costume trunks that are filling with African clothing donated by members of local churches. He also beats a drum for the eight-week film festival that accompanies the summer theater calendar. David Anthony, who teaches film at UC-Santa Cruz, will lead discussions after each Monday evening viewing.

“There will be a lot of material that a lot of Americans aren’t familiar with,” Rehm says about the film and theater lineup. “I’m just glad we’re doing it, because you’re not going to find too many commercial theaters rushing to do it.”

He cites, as one example, the way Les Blancs addresses issues of loyalty and homeland. “It’s set in an unspecified African country dealing with colonialism, probably Kenya, and is about a man who finds that he cannot say ‘no’ to the culture in Africa, even though much of his being is now pulling him to Europe.” Rehm calls Les Blancs a “very moving piece that catches all sorts of people in different relationships to and commitments to Africa.” In a kola nutshell? “A very brilliant play.”

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