Arts & Culture

Back to Africa with Shango

BY RICHARD JOHNSON
Observer senior reporter
johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

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The phenomenal success of the film Black Panther, which was released in February of last year and reeled in a staggering US$1.3 billion at the box office worldwide, will undoubtedly have an effect on the sensibilities of audiences, particularly those of African extraction, and their appreciation of stories particularly those which shine a positive light on Africa.

Shango, the latest student production from the School of Drama at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, definitely fits into that category.

Over the years, the School of Drama has been at the vanguard of presenting strong, wholesome productions. This continues to be a refreshing departure from the proliferation of comedy which exists in the local commercial theatre space. At Sunday's performance, it should be noted that there was a significant number of youngsters in the audience and it is hoped that the stories, themes and lesson from Shango are not lost on them.

Interestingly, Shango was written by Rawle Gibbons and Rhoma Spencer, 22 years before Black Panther. It draws on a number of previous works — Tales of the Orishas by W Gonzales, Shango de Ima by Pepe Carril; Drums and Colours by Derek Walcott and An Echo in the Bone by Dennis Scott — and results in a rich, multi-layered drama which takes theatre goers on an African odyssey involving not just acting, but music and movement as well.

The outdoor cut-stone amphitheatre at the School of Drama provides the perfect stage to mount this work and director Marvin George utilises every inch of this space to showcase the work. Trees, sloping terrain, steps, and the roof of an adjacent building all became part of the set and served to make Shango a more tactile experience.

Shango commences with the title character, a Yoruba Orisha, going in search of his father. This journey takes him and the audience on a wild ride stretching from his celestial home to continental Africa and then on to the new world. This trajectory also showcases the vital link between some of our cultural and religious practices and their root on the continent.

Although it is a dramatic piece credit has to go to the music of this work. The student actors showcase their great vocals transforming traditional Yoruba praise poetry known as orikis into a pulsating and powerful soundtrack which stitches the production together into a cohesive whole. Standouts are Fredreeka Smith as Odudua and Sandria Campbell as the Revival Woman. Their voices, texture and tone, are perfect for this work and lend a level of authenticity to the interpretation. The commitment of the cast to the movement was evident. A well-choreographed fight scene resulted in spontaneous applause from the audience.

While the student actors seemed comfortable with the music and movement it was the text which seemed to pose the biggest challenge. As student actors they are yet to master the skill of divesting self and immersing totally into character. Too often it seemed as though they were just repeating the lines they had learned. Had director George created an accent or sound distinctively different from the native tongue of the cast, perhaps this would have pushed them to invest more into character.

That said, Chadrick Barnes as Obatala and Rajeave Mattis as Orunmila really embodied their characters and delivered strong performances.

This year's Actor Boy Awards, which is set for April 1, sees the School of Drama walking in with the most nominations of any producer. The school has a total of 30 nods for three productions. With strong productions such as Shango one can definitely see why.


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