Woolly through an Intern’s Eyes

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has been around for about 30 years now, all under the guidance of beloved artistic director Howard Shalwitz.  His leadership has distinguished the theater as one of the longest lasting contemporary American theaters dedicated to producing some seriously provocative work.  As such, it was my immense pleasure to accept a seven-week internship here at the theater working in the Connectivity Department.  Woolly’s reputation is known far and wide, even reaching to the corners of Vermont, where I have spent the last year and a half in my cozy little liberal arts college.

My experience with Africa has been limited to a bleary-eyed 8am class about its democratization record (spoiler: not stellar).  Imagine my surprise and ultimately, my excitement, when I realized that my internship would essentially revolve around The Convert, a unique play simply by virtue of the fact that it is an African play written by an African woman about African people.  Wait, it gets better – not just a play about African people, but about an African woman. 

Through my work in the Connectivity Department here at Woolly, I have plunged into a deep, refreshing pool of diverse theatre.  The unfortunate reality of being a drama student (and this is anywhere) is that what is often filtered down are the classics—all important, yet all very white.   The unfortunate reality is that not very many stories on the stage have been told about black women – or African women for that matter.  Besides For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf, and a few notable others, I’m not sure I can think of many famous shows telling the stories of black women.  And when you broaden the racial scope, you find yourself with even less choices—Hispanic women (West Side Story doesn’t count)?  Asian women?  Arab women?

That’s why I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to work at a theater that has the means and the resources to commit to new shows written by women and men who are striving to diversify contemporary theater.  It makes my job at Woolly even more daunting – while the playwrights are aiming to diversify the plays available, my department is essentially aiming to diversify the audience to match the play.

I hope I’ve done the task justice.

-Tenara Calem, Connectivity Intern

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Pictorial Rhodesia

In her devastatingly beautiful The Convert, playwright Danai Gurira delves into a very particular place and time and set of characters to begin grappling with being a 21st Century Christian, woman, and Zimbabwean. “Who we are today,” Danai explains, “is how we are affected by what happened back then.” In the play, she transports us to Southern Africa in 1895, to the part of the continent then known as Rhodesia, today called Zimbabwe. As the production dramaturg, one of my roles in the rehearsal process was to help the director, actors, designers, and production team access the particulars of this world, especially since a reasonable amount of verisimilitude was of interest to us. With the support of my colleague Carrie Hughes at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, I pulled together some amazing photographs of the people, landscape, and infrastructure from the period and covered part of Woolly’s rehearsal hall with them to immerse everyone in the world of the play. Below is a small sampling of some of these photographs, which trace the British colonization of the region and the Shona and Ndebele people.

-John M. Baker, Woolly Mammoth Literary Manager

1 Ndebele Village 1890s

Ndebele Village 1890’s

2 Shona Village 1890s

Shona Village 1890’s

3 Girls in Zimbabwe

Girls in Zimbabwe

4 Women in Matebeleland

Women in Matebeleland

5 Girls in Zimbabwe

Girls in Zimbabwe

6 Colonists

Colonists

7 Colonists

Colonists

8 Ndebele chiefs

Ndebele chiefs

9 Lobengula's war doctor

Lobengula’s war doctor

10 Miners

Miners

11 Prisoners

Prisoners

12 Chisawasha Mission 1891

Chisawasha Mission 1891

13 Infrastructure

Infrastructure

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What’s Your Roots? What’s Your Revolution?

At Pay What You Can Night for The Convert, we asked our audiences what their roots are and what their revolution is. Here’s what they had to say:

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318121_10152578209670543_207590569_n 318199_10152578210170543_1467913841_n 487193_10152578209690543_1766802089_n 524589_10152578209885543_500690783_n 525415_10152578209900543_488937766_n 553343_10152578209300543_140456042_n 559812_10152578210060543_1072608145_n 575006_10152578209390543_2032579274_n 577160_10152578209490543_1367299036_n 581839_10152578209895543_1344616355_n 599022_10152578210035543_1357839532_n 599073_10152578208945543_1092558660_n 601519_10152578209430543_1512965167_n 734844_10152578209250543_1197638359_n

 

How about you? What are your roots? What is your revolution?

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An Interview with THE CONVERT playwright Danai Gurira, by Robert O’Hara

ROBERT

How does it feel to be famous?

DANAI

(laughing)

Who told you I was famous?

ROBERT

(laughing)

I was wondering has anything changed for you?

DANAI

Well yes and no. There’s nothing that different about me to Me…  I think I’m a little too old for it to affect me much. So the feeling is interesting, it is new but I’m not changed.

ROBERT

Do you feel that people have changed around you? Or towards you?

DANAI

Not the people who matter to me. The people who have always been my people they’ve always believed in me regardless of any of this stuff.

ROBERT

Do you feel that the industry treats you different? Do you have more access now?

DANAI

Yes. Yes. Yes and No. Definitely there is more access and attention paid even in the social realm of the industry.  But there isn’t like there are roles that are just handed out as a result. There is still work to be done  and all of that still has to go down and occur. That doesn’t change.

(laughing)

Or hasn’t changed for me yet. I haven’t felt a change. In that area.

ROBERT

Are you at all concerned with sort of being typecast? Is there any concern for  you in being trapped inside this?

DANAI

I think I would feel that if I didn’t have other work. Just the sheer fact that the film I did last year and was received so well at this past Sundance, where I’m the lead role and I’m playing this Nigerian Woman who’s trying to get pregnant to save her marriage, that totally puts me in a whole other realm but another thing is the fact that I’m a playwright. And so I never feel like I’m just this one thing. And so I can’t imagine that’s how I could be perceived.

ROBERT

So the light that is being shined on you. You can sort of direct it towards your other projects.

DANAI

Right.

ROBERT

Now would you ever agree to do IN THE CONTINUUM again?

DANAI

(long silence. )

…. Sure… Sure but only with Nikkole. And only under certain circumstances. I mean you don’t want to be that athlete who comes back to their sport and attempts to regain their former glory. You want to be able to find something new in it. So in the right circumstance and with Nikkole. Sure. Sure. Of course.

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Kurova Guva, a ceremony to welcome home the spirit of the dead, Part II

After death, the spirit is wandering, perhaps waiting and listening for a call to come home.  When our tears have been cleansed by a season of rain and rebirth we prepare to welcome home the spirit of our loved one. 

For the Shona people family duties do not end when we die.  As ancestors, we must provide protection, help resolve issues, and avenge our deaths if they were unjust.  Leaving the physical body allows the spirit to hear and see; moreover, our deceased are in a good position to give us guidance and protection.  In order to fulfill these duties, we must be present with our families. So an important part of our culture is the ceremony to bring home the spirits of our dead.  The ceremony has to take place after a rainy season.  If there is a drought the ceremony is delayed.  There is also a practical reason for waiting for the rain.  The soil over the rain may be displaced or sink in after the first heavy rain so the grave must weather a full rainy season before the tombstone or stone covering can be put permanently on the grave.

 There are no charms, ill wishes or witches fiercer than a mother’s love.  So she is the one seated, all that is needed to ensure the spirit’s safe return.  Before birth, our mothers wait, holding us safe in their wombs. We begin this ceremony, imitating life, with a woman, once again, guarding a gourd.  For seven days our mothers patiently sit and wait for the ceremonial beer to brew.  

If the mother of the deceased is alive, she sits with the gourds or drums of beer for the week or two preceding the ceremony in a small hut built solely for this purpose.  If the mother is not present a post-menopausal maternal aunt or cousin assumes this role.

On the seventh night we, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, children, nieces, and nephews call the spirit home through clapping, drumming, playing of the mbira, and dancing to bring our loved one back home, awakening the night with music played for spirit ears.  

Sometimes a cow is slaughtered the night before in honor of the dead and to provide meat for all who are gathered.

The brothers sing, “Our wives have risen with the sun to clear your grave.  We have compensated them with beer and money and now all is as it should be your way is also clear.  We call on our great aunts and grandfathers to guide you home.   If there was anger between us we will kill a goat in the name of that anger, and share it in peace.  Come and drink with us. All will be as it should be now that you are home.”

After the grave is cleared of all debris by women who have married into the family, gourds of beer are brought to the grave by the man’s closest friend and a nephew.  They may slaughter a goat or some chickens on the grave as well.  The beer is shared by the living and what is left is poured over the grave.  One gourd of beer is saved solely for the deceased.  After pouring the beer on the grave, the gourds and smashed and the shards are left on the grave and the spirit is home.

“We have shared your earthly goods and your wife has leapt over your weapons and proved herself honorable.  To her chosen one she will bring water.  All is as it should be; we now wait to hear who will carry your voice.”   

At the end of the ceremony the possessions of the deceased, including land and clothing, are shared amongst his family members.  His wife is supposed to stay celibate until this ceremony is complete and she jumps over her late husband’s knobkerrie or ax to prove that she has nothing to hide.  The widow also decides at that point if she wants to marry one of her husband’s brothers.  She signifies her choice by placing a bowl of water in front of one of the brothers.  If she does not wish to re-marry into the family she can place the bowl in front of her own son, or her husband’s sister.  The deceased’s oldest son may at this point be given his father’s name as the head of the family and may also become his svikiro (spirit medium).

-Mavhu F. W. Hargrove

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Kurova Guva, a ceremony to welcome home the spirit of the dead, Part I

I have yet to attend a kurova guva ceremony.  Researching and writing this reminded me of my first visit to my grandmother’s village after my grandfather’s death.  I was home for my wedding.  My soon to be husband and I were driven to the village by my aunt.  Soon after arriving, my aunt went into the house and my grandmother, temporarily out of view of her very Christian daughter, pulled me from admiring her lemon tree to the graves which were at the other end of the garden.

I had never paid much attention to the graves, I knew I was related to the people buried there, but most of them had died before I was born.  My grandmother gave me some pebbles and made me kneel at the head of one of the newer graves; I knew it was my grandfather’s.  She instructed me to throw one pebble on his grave.  I did.

Now, tell him who you are she said, annoyed as if I should know what I was doing.

I was quiet not wanting to say the wrong thing and also feeling a bit silly talking to a grave. She hissed at me and pointed at the grave,

“Say, Sekuru, it’s your granddaughter here, Mavhu.  I came to see where you were buried and I have also brought my new husband.”

She nodded for me to throw the second pebble and try again.  As soon as I said his name, Sekuru, everything that he was came back to me.  His grey knitted vests under his jacket, the small black feather with white spots tucked into the band of his hat, the way his laughter went breathy and noiseless when he was really amused.  Right then the word ancestor was not distant or even separate from me.  The five minute ritual prescribed by my grandmother gave him back to me.  He was my grandfather, my mother’s father.  For the first time I think I really understood the importance of Shona people’s relationships to their ancestors.  Because he was, I am.  Our family was central to all that we did and were not divided by death.

The struggle between our own cosmology and a foreign religion began long before I was born.  Like other Africans on the continent and in those taken into the Diaspora, we found ways to hide some of our most important rituals in Christianity.  A goat is always slaughtered at a wedding but we say it is to feed those gathered; there is supposedly no spiritual significance.  The Mbende dance performed by young men and women at the full moon celebrating fertility and family was renamed Jerusarema (Jerusalem) so it could continue to be performed in the open.  The kurova guva ritual performed a year after death became the unveiling of the tombstone or memorial ceremony.   Some Zimbabwean families celebrate the Christian version of our ceremonies; some still practice the traditional.  We don’t seem to disagree that we should somehow honor or acknowledge our own customs but I suspect most families, like mine, are constantly divided over what should be done and how.

-Mavhu F. W. Hargrove

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Permanently Impermanent

Map of the world c. 1550

It’s the age old question that we are all asked at some point in our lives: where are you from? For some people, it’s easy. They can answer without hesitation countries such as Italy, Spain, Russia, Japan, etc. Their family traditions are strong and their understanding of the culture is clear and accessible. They were the kids in elementary school who instantly knew what country they were going to pick for their heritage project and the exact recipe their mother was going to use for the ethnic food portion of the presentation. But what about the rest of us lost souls wandering around the world, unsure of our exact roots? I’m aware that my ancestry is a smorgasbord of countries (whose isn’t?) but I have rarely felt an overwhelming presence of familial heritage in my own personal revolution. Ultimately, how can I say I’m from some place I’ve never been? Is my identity defined by my genealogical origins or by my cultural practices?

In The Convert, culture and traditions are placed on the same pedestal as performance and Jekesai shows us that religion is a practice, not an inheritance. With inheritance comes the falsification of what we believe to be permanence; but how can something stay forever when life is not a permanent promise? In this sense, it would seem that because nothing can remain forever, than our roots are easily, uproot-able. We are a transient species as Chilford proves: he becomes a Jesuit priest after growing up in a household with a “witch-doctor” father. He shows us that religion is centered on a foundation of performance and not an internal inheritance. Although he was raised in a Pagan house, he denies his upbringing for Christianity, and although he is of African blood, he considers himself a European (“in an African’s costume”).

So how do we balance who we are with where we came from? Maybe it’s the little things that keep us grounded in our roots. Jekesai continues to wear her Shona necklace—a physical binding to old traditions—while the “far more educated” Prudence switches back and forth between English and her native tongue. But are these symbolic gestures enough? Can we truly combine two separate cultures into one, or are we constantly putting them at arms with one another?

Share your thoughts, loyal Mammoths. Come out to Pay-What-You-Can and tell us about your roots, your revolutions. Do they conflict? And how do you balance these somewhat competing agendas?

-Emily Wilson, Communications Assistant

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