The Liberian Literary Tradition

12 July 2009 at 12:01 pm (News, Writings) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Guanya Pau Cover“Hi E.G. I was doing a Google search of Liberian comedians and stumbled across your your name and your pieces. Man, you fascinate me. I am a student of literature and it saddens me everytime I search for liberian literature to find virtually nothing or just mediocrity. I am very excited to find that there is a guy with a liberian background doing such work as yours. I really like your self interview with Sha. keep on the good work. Liberia needs and deserves guys like you.”

I recently received this comment on my Wordlife blog/site. Always a good way to start the day, reinforcing your commitment to the passion you are constantly flaming. I struggled with the same thing when I was a student at Notre Dame University. I was an English and Philosophy major, and constantly scoured the mammoth Notre Dame Library for any evidence of Liberia literature. I coursed through countless African literary anthologies. There was a dearth of Nigerian, South African, Senegalese, Kenyan, and numerous others, but never any Liberian writings. We had to suffice with ‘proverbs’ and ‘folk tales’, of which there would be a smattering, and only at the beginning of the anthologies, as though Liberia did not have any contemporary literature. Or they would anthologize Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. I remembered thinking, “Could they really believe, and be saying, that there was no significant literary output in Liberia beyond the folktales that are hundreds of years old.” Granted Liberia as yet to produce a literary giant such as Achebe or Soyinka or Senghor or Césaire, but there must be some, or at least one, literary figure worthy of consideration, especially if you are anthologizing a cross section of African literature, that even if was not comparable to these esteemed figure, could at least stand out in his or her own country. I refused to believe that none existed, or that such a thing as a Liberian literary tradition was not possible. It is not an easy search because most production of literature related to Liberia is literature about Liberia, as opposed to creative work, or work by Liberians themselves. Also because the discussion on Liberia tends to center on its relation, and relationship, to America, and/or the settlement of freed slaves in the country. Later the discussion would shift almost solely to the coup, and subsequently, the civil war that ravished the country.

But Liberian poets, novelists, and essayists, do exist. In 2000, J. Kpanneh Doe wrote, “The writing of novels is rather new to the Liberian literary genre. Except for Murder in the Cassava Patch, a Liberian literary classic, there aren’t many others that can be grouped or classified as Liberian literature, or for that matter, constituting a literary tradition.” This is simply not true, and one can only assume it’s a lack of knowledge,  perhaps access. One should consider Bai T. Moore, the author of Murder in the Cassava Patch, who also anthologized Liberian poetry, published his own collection, wrote novels and short stories, and contributed to the documentation of Liberian folktales. One should also consider, Wilton Sankawulo, Roland Dempster, Edwin Barclay, and a number of other poets, writers and playwrights. Also, Guanya Pau, the first novel written/published by an African, is by Liberian author, Joseph Walters (pictured above). Their work may not be readily available or easy to find; you may read about them more than you will read their work. That does not take away from their contributions. There are contemporary Liberian writers that are beginning to gain some prominence, such as K. Moses Ngabe, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, and most recently Helene Cooper for her memoir, The House on Sugar Beach. If this stretch of literary output from 1891 to present, spreading across the various disciplines, does not constitute a literary tradition, I don’t know what can. Further, how can the first country to produce the first published African novelist be said not to have a literary tradition?

I sometimes wonder if part of my decision to become an artist, was to contribute to the Liberian literary tradition, and show that such can, and does, exist. It might require something akin to an archeological expedition, or one might have to look to the new generation of Liberian artists scattered across the Diaspora, to bring that tradition to prominence. But it is there, and with the proper resources it could be brought to light. Some might question the validity of any contribution I make to Liberian literature, or literary tradition, due to the fact that I left the country at such a young age, and having grown up in a primarily white middle class background. A telling example of this is an experience I with a University of Minnesota student, who I met by chance at a performance of a visiting, I believe, South African troupe. When she learned I was Liberia, she asked how long I had been in the US. I have become accustomed to these kinds of questions because I do not look or sound like your typical Liberian. And I could have almost guessed what was next. When my answer to her was that I had been in America for over twenty years, she replied, ‘So you’re basically American.’ I told her that I am Liberia, have always been Liberian and will be Liberian until I die. As will my children. You can insert African in here as well. This is not to negate my American heritage, because as I always say, I own that too. Therefore, the East and the West, the African and American, are my domain. They are mine to celebrate and to challenge. I finished the conversation telling her, ‘When you’ve been in America for over 20 year, let me know if you’re still Liberian.’

I cannot even begin to consider myself in the company of African scribes that my taught me, inspired me and secured me, from Achebe to p’Bitek, from Kenyatta to Bessie Head, but I hope that I can at least make some modicum of contribution to the literary works of my people, even if it is just the Mano/Gio people of Liberia. Albeit not all my work is about Liberia, but I am not sure that it needs to be in order to be part of the tradition. We are in a new age, part of a new generation, and many of us are transplanted across the global, and depending on the environment in which we live, our themes cannot always be about home. However, our address is still part of the chorus of voices of our people, no matter where they reside, no matter what age and time they occupy, no matter what struggles they face. Responses like one above give me encouragement that I am making even the slightest difference.

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‘No Longer at Ease’ a thrilling dramatic journey

7 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Press, Shows, Theatre) (, , , )

‘No Longer at Ease’ a thrilling dramatic journey
By Jaime Meyer

“No Longer at Ease” begins with a seemingly endless frenzy of blessing. Obi Okonkwo is being sent from his home in Nigeria to England to become educated. His relatives and friends, who are paying his way, praise him, embrace him and pour protective chants over every inch of his being. Obi stands rigidly in his smokestack-gray European suit, a swirl of dancing, clapping Afrikaans encircling him, all dressed in the colors of sunrise. Some new creature is being born amid this glorious cacophony: not quite African any longer, not quite European, ever. Nigeria is at the dawn of independence from Britain, and Obi is the image of that new day. But, bit by bit over the next two hours onstage, Obi’s life splinters, then cracks, then shatters.

e.g. bailey’s adaptation of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel is a big-hearted, thrilling theatrical experience. Pangea World Theater’s production, directed by Dipankar Mukherjee, is sonically and visually overcrowded, and the acting is often underpolished. But the sheer force of bailey’s — and Achebe’s — storytelling, the emotional commitment of the actors and the power of luminous ideas leaping up from the text like solar flares coalesce into an extraordinary evening of theater.

Obi’s story may be specifically Nigerian in context, but it is universal in content. As he becomes educated and moves out into the world, he takes up residence in the rift between modern Western culture and ancient tribal values. Is he becoming absorbed into — or possessed by — the European mind? Or is he rightfully shedding outdated tribal customs? He falls in love with an educated woman who, it turns out, carries a generations-old ancestral curse. Marrying her would bring shame not only to his living family, but also to generations of his children not yet born. For him, this is nonsense; but for his family, it is unquestionable truth.

The beauty of Pangea’s production is in its evenhanded depiction of these burning dilemmas. A story that could become an easy harangue about white people, Europe, Christianity and colonialism becomes instead an intricate, magnetic dance of energies — social, political, religious, ethical and personal.

In the role of Obi, James Young II moves through the play like a single powerful muscle flexing and contracting again and again. As Clara, Obi’s cursed fiancee, marie-francoise theodore fills her character with a modern sexiness and ancient torment. Ronnell Wheeler’s ebullient African dance at the top of act two is a joyful highlight.

Mukherjee likes to direct the living daylights out of a show. Drums pound from above; actors hum and click their teeth and wave their arms in vaguely ritualistic motions; lights undulate across long banners hung from the ceiling, each painted with Seitu Jones’ symbolic visions.

Sometimes it’s all gorgeous, but too often, you feel you need to hack your way through the jungle of theatrics to make your way to the play. Still, it’s stimulating theater.

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Jaime Meyer is a local free-lance reviewer. Originally printed in Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

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Pangea takes on an African classic

4 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Press, Shows, Theatre) (, , , , , )

Pangea takes on an African classic
by Rohan Preston (Star Tribune)

Chinua Achebe is a titan of African literature who lives a quiet life in upstate New York.

Pangea World Theater is a small, ambitious Minneapolis company interested in humanitarian issues. Somehow, the two connected; Pangea will produce the world premiere of the stage adaptation of “No Longer at Ease,” Achebe’s landmark 1960 novel about the conflict between tradition and modernity.

For Pangea, which has staged such heavyweights as “Ajax,” “Rashomon” and Athol Fugard’s “Playland,” this is another opportunity to tackle a world classic.

“No Longer at Ease” is a milestone in the history of literature, and producing it makes us a little nervous,” said Pangea literary manager  as she broke from a pre-rehearsal circle in Waring Jones Theater at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, where the play opens today. “We want to stage it with clarity, so that we can honor its achievement and bring some of its points into sharp, dramatic focus.”

“No Longer at Ease” is the second Achebe book to bring wide recognition to African literature. The main character in “Ease,” Obi Okonkwo, is a grandson of the protagonist in Achebe’s 1958 debut, “Things Fall Apart.”

Set on the eve of Nigeria’s independence from Britain, “Ease” revolves around Obi, a young man whose Ibo people have raised money to send him to school in England. After completing his education — he becomes a poet instead of, say, an engineer — he has returned, full of idealism. He is eager to help usher Nigeria into a new era.

Obi confronts the deep-seated traditions of his countrymen. His mother would rather commit suicide than permit him to marry the woman he loves, who is from a class of untouchables. The ethically and morally upright Obi eventually succumbs to the things he condemns: He takes a bribe and is arrested.

Securing the rights to stage this world premiere was the easy part for Pangea’s creative team. Through a mutual friend, the company got in touch with Achebe, a professor at Bard College in New York. Natarajan then made contact with Achebe’s agent in London.

FINDING THE FOCUS

The hard work was narrowing a sprawling, epic novel for the stage. E.G. Bailey, who adapted the book, and director Dipankar Mukherjee use 11 actors, many in a chorus, to play all the parts.

Bailey, a Liberian-born poet, playwright and performance artist, had other challenges while working on “Ease.” Shortly after he did a first draft of the play in June 1999, he returned to his homeland for the first time since his youth.

“The big danger for me was not making this my own story,” he said during a rehearsal break. “This is really a story of change and tradition. Obi went away to school, like I did. He owes something to the community. He wants to bring enlightenment, but he has too little appreciation for tradition.”

Bailey and Mukherjee brought in leaders of Twin Cities Nigerian organizations to work on accents and to talk about the play’s themes. The Pangea creative team discovered many complexities; for example, the bribery that is so pervasive in the book and in much of contemporary Africa is rooted in a benign traditional practice of gift exchange.

Bailey and Mukherjee also delved into the conflict of values that Obi embodies. Because of his English upbringing, Obi sees bribery as more of a crime than abortion. When his girlfriend — the same one his mother has forbidden him to marry — becomes pregnant, he seeks money for an abortion.

In traditional Ibo culture, to have an abortion is to undo your chi, or spirit, Bailey said. “That is the worst thing you could do, killing your soul,” he continued. “Obi cannot see that. He is a good man, full of righteous, ethical fire. And the things he wants to change will change. But not on his timetable.”

The play’s conflicts have universal applications, Mukherjee said. “We’re talking about Nigeria as much as India,” he said. “In both cases, different mini-states were forged together into a nation, and the traditional values continue to clash with the legacy of colonialism and the possibilities of the future.

“The brilliance of Achebe is that we can see our own struggles here as we try to find a progressive vision of how to live. We want to stay true to his broad vision and ours.”

What: Adapted from Chinua Achebe’s novel by E.G. Bailey. Directed by Dipankar Mukherjee.

When: Opens 7:30 p.m. today. Runs 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sun. Thru May 27.

Where: Waring Jones Theater, Playwrights’ Center, 2301 E. Franklin Av., Mpls.

Tickets: $14-$16. 612-343-3390.

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Pangea World Theatre presents No Longer At Ease

4 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Shows, Theatre) (, , , )

No Longer At Ease
by e.g. bailey
based on the novel by Chinua Achebe

May 4-27, 2001

No Longer At Ease is the story of Obi Okonkwo who returns to Nigeria from England filled with romantic idealism and finds a society full of conflicting demands. Set on the eve of Nigeria’s independence from Britain this is an ironic story about the clash between tradition and modernity as represented by the forces of colonialism. e.g. bailey’s stage adaptation brings to life all the emotional force and poetry of this journey into self-hood.

Co-presented by the Playwrights’ Center’s NewStage Directions program

This project is made possible in part by funds from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) by an appropriation from the State Legislature.

“You got into Achebe’s head.” – Audience Member

“…a big hearted, thrilling theatrical experience.” – St. Paul Pioneer Press

“…Pangea World Theater has adapted the book, titled No Longer at Ease, into a first-rate play, featuring a sparkling performance by James Young II as Obi, the grandson of the hero of Things Fall Apart, newly retuned to Nigeria on the eve of independence.” – City Pages

“If you like economical and evocative theater, go see “No Longer at Ease,” Pangea World Theater’s adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s novel.” – Star Tribune

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‘No Longer at Ease’ a tense, furious work

4 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Press, Shows, Theatre) (, , , )

‘No Longer at Ease’
a tense, furious work

by Rohan Preston (Star Tribune)

If you like economical and evocative theater, go see “No Longer at Ease,” Pangea World Theater’s adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s novel.

As adapted by E.G. Bailey and directed by Dipankar Mukherjee, this “Ease,” in a premiere at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, captures the big themes and epic arc of Achebe’s work but little of his wry humor.

The brisk 21⁄2-hour drama veers from haunting ritual to heady realism, mixing these realms with a wonderful, no-fuss theatricality.

Set on the eve of Nigerian independence, the action involves Obi Okonkwo, a headstrong young man who has been sent away to school in England by his Ibo people. After four years abroad, Obi (the reverse of Ibo) returns westernized and scornful of his people’s traditions. His family forbids him to marry his girlfriend, Clara, who is from a group of outcasts. Obi moves in with her instead. When she becomes pregnant, Obi takes a bribe so he can pay for an abortion. He seems no different from the corrupt officials he condemns.

The action plays out on Seitu Jones’ striking, museumlike set. It is lined with elaborate carved African artifacts and furnishings, as well as 11 mainsail-style backdrops behind which the actors retreat. Sarah Schreiber’s expert lighting transforms the space from office to nightclub to home.

In the ritualistic scenes, imaginatively staged by Mukherjee, the broad themes are more important than the individual character development at the heart of most Western drama. The show is at its best during the stylized scenes.

For example, when Clara goes to have the abortion, she meets resistance from the whole community, lined up on one side of the stage. In half-shadows, the hissing, gasping townspeople walk in slow motion, pushing out at her as if trying to stop a car with bare hands. From the other side of the stage, Clara pushes until the two sides meet — and cross — at a threshold.

Then the scene dissolves, the lights brighten and the pace returns to normal. Mukherjee’s sensitive treatment of this section is a highlight.

By contrast, the realistic scenes are more predictable, and while those involving the conflict between European colonizers and African subjects may be historically accurate, they sound stilted.

Actor James Young II plays Obi like an ornery prizefighter. He comes on at full throttle for most of the show, his passion loud and clear. Young’s bombast is somewhat moderated by the company of actors around him, including Gregory Stewart Smith, who plays Obi’s brother and a host of other roles; Ronnell Wheeler as a ritual dancer and conspirator, and Marie-Francoise Theodore, who gives a knitted-brow innocence to the underwritten role of Clara.

— Rohan Preston is at rpreston@startribune.com .

*    Who: Adapted from the Chinua Achebe novel by E.G. Bailey. Directed by Dipankar Mukherjee for Pangea World Theater.

*    Where: Playwrights’ Center, 2301 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis

*    When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, through May 27.

*    Review: This brisk, 21⁄2-hour drama about Nigeria on the cusp of independence veers between stylized ritual and heady realism, blending these disparate realms with a wonderful, no-fuss theatricality.

*    Tickets: $14-$16. Call 612-343-3390.

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Final Words: Playwright’s Statement

4 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Family, Shows, Theatre, Work Notes, Writings) (, , , , , )

No Longer At Ease
Final Words: Playwright’s Statement
e.g. bailey

Achebe is our Elder. For many of us, he is the famed griot teaching us our history, while telling us a great story. Nearly every Afrikan I spoke with about the play said they had read Achebe, perhaps not all his works but the least of all Things Fall Apart. For some, he was mandatory reading. And he should be, at least for all of us of Afrikan descent. Achebe’s goal, which he fully accepts, is to help us reclaim our stories, to help us to understand that our history was rich, and our stories beautiful before our subjugation at the hands of Europe. He states, “Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espous–to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” But he is fully aware that this reclamation is not simply a glorification of what we were and who we are, and perhaps even who we want to be, but dealing fully with our past, even facing up to our hand in the matter. Earlier in the same essay he says, “What we need to do is to look back and try and find out where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us.” In his most recent essay, he writes, “I know that such a tremendously potent and complex reinvention of self–calling, as it must do, on every faculty of mind and soul and spirit; drawing as it must, from every resource of memory and imagination and from a familiarity with our history, our arts and culture; but also from an unflinching consciousness of the flaws that blemished our inheritance…” For him the greatest danger is not remembering the agonies of the past but forgetting them. Though he was speaking about Nigeria after the Biafrian War, I think that statement strikes a deep cord in the consciousness of Afrikans and Afrikan Americans alike. In order to accept our selves and our beauty, we must also be able to accept our scars. And the story of Obi Okonkwo not only celebrates our culture but also forces us to face the difficulties our own culture can present us as we try to evolve into the future, as we try to negotiate and synthesize our existence in an everchanging world and yet hold on to our traditions. An epigraph from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, could serve as a apt summary of the conflict in No Longer At Ease, and even a metaphor for the current state of many Afrikan countries: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interrengnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” Obi’s tragedy is that he finds himself at the epicenter of this rift. And it is these rifts in our history and encounter with Western culture about which Achebe writes: The arrival of Europeans in Things Fall Apart and the dawning of independence in No Longer At Ease. But these are not simply historical and physical rifts, but primarily psychological ones.

The journey of creating this work has been incredible and a blessing, but not without its struggle and at times exasperation. However, within it, I have discovered a great deal about myself and my people. I have felt in many ways like an apprentice in the company of a profound elder. Yet also, I have discovered that Obi’s story is in many ways my own. There is no conflict that Obi deals with that I have not encountered in one form or another in my experiences both in Afrika and here. These are dilemmas that all of us as Afrikans in America must deal with in our prodigal relationship with our home. But it is not our province alone, even my eldest brother residing in Ivory Coast deals with it as he struggles with his acceptance of Christianity and the traditional spiritual beliefs of our Grandfather, who reared him.

In the Igbo culture there is a tradition called the Mbari celebration. With this tradition, representatives from the community are chosen to prepare a festival of images in honor of Ala, the Earth goddess. The chosen representatives, ordinary citizens of the community and artists alike, go off into seclusion to create their works of art, which they present to the community during the ceremony. They are left alone to create, supported and fed by the community, sometimes for two years. That in many ways is what I see as the role of the artists that have come together to create this work, that speaks for and about the community, with its beauty and flaws. We can only hope that you enjoy our “home of images” as much as the villagers enjoy the Mbari ceremony.

Thanks enough cannot be given to Pangea World Theater for this incredible opportunity, for their faith and trust. Abundant thanks to my future wife, Sha Cage, without whose support, love and input this work would not be. And love and thanks to all the artists involved in this project for their brilliant gifts, from crew to cast, to support network to the whole Pangea family. Thanks to Chinua Achebe, for his work and for giving us permission to bring it to stage. To the Igbo community and Ummune Cultural Association. Special thanks to Hannatu Tongrit-Green, Onyebuchi Njaka, Larry Ubani and Flora Okwa. Also to Susan Robeson, Mimi Girma and J. Otis Powell!. The Playwrights’ Center for their development support. To parents: George and Ginny Bailey. To friends and family. I dedicate this work to my grandparents: Vaslekey and Mayamu. And to my mother, Massa Vaslekey Sirleaf. Without “We” I am nothing.

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