Arts & Culture » Stage

Forbidden fruit


After years of teaching theater at the University of Michigan and writing such plays as I am a Man and Let Me Live, Charles "OyamO" Gordon is determined to pave the way for what is becoming a new theatrical genre. His latest project – combining creative exploration and social consciousness – is Liyanja, the first Congolese dance drama produced in the United States.

Based on an ancient African myth, the story has amazing similarities to the biblical account of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit; however, the myth predates any Congolese contact with Western religions. The onset of the play features a heroine, Mbombe, who is beautiful, brave, feminine and fierce. She resists companionship until a great hunter challenges her to a wrestling match for her hand in marriage. After their marriage, Mbombe partakes of the forbidden fruit with far-reaching consequences, including hardship for herself and various nations, ethnic cleansing and the birth of the vengeful warrior Liyanja.

Although the story is interesting in and of itself, its concept and sentiment have been expanded and embellished with authentic music, dance and a vibrant array of more than 50 costumes. Dialogue and monologue are intricately interlaced to convey the concepts of deception, betrayal and revenge which resonate throughout the drama.

In adapting this legend to the stage, OyamO has enlisted the help of several artists dedicated to the authenticity of Congolese drama. Mbala Nkanga, a professor in the department of theater at the Center for African and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan, is directing the production, and Ann Arbor’s Congolese Dance Company, Bichini Bia Congo, will be performing the choreography of Biza Sompa. Additionally, live music by Congolese drummers - who flew in from Paris just for the project - will be included in the production.

At this production’s core is not only an intention to entertain and educate, but also a compelling call by the author for change in the theater community: "I’m determined to find a form of theater that will hold the attention of African-American audiences," declares OyamO. "Most blacks do not culturally respond to traditional European theater – we’re more participatory and more inclined to be attracted to genres that include song and dance, and dialogue we can relate to."

OyamO concedes that he intends this idea about black theatergoers in very broad terms. But based on the huge number of blacks who frequent gospel musicals versus "traditional" theater, the attendance figures speak for themselves.

Historically, theater has portrayed drama in dialogue-driven, intellectualized formats that seem to have only an elite appeal. OyamO believes this approach is "notoriously dull" and limits the audience to the point of alienating blacks. "The traditional, straight play usually consists of a great thought in an obscure form, and this is boring," he charges. "Art is supposed to be spontaneous, not talked to death and overanalyzed. I want to take a more active approach to theater – I’m looking for a format that will attract anyone from a third grade education to a Ph.D."

It’s this unique approach that may have been the catalyst several years ago for Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk by George C. Wolf. Wolf ingeniously combined monologue, urban hip-hop and tap dance with funky music and some standard-style tunes. The results were a Broadway sensation that packed theaters with racially mixed audiences.

Continuing along that line of thinking, OyamO embraces the idea of the dance, drama and dialogue combination – with the addition of African music and costume – but not limited to Afrocentrism. The appeal of the format is further confirmed by the favorable audience response to a play of his, In Living Color, performed by Plowshares Productions in Detroit last year. The cast and crew of the current production appreciate the freshness of such a theatrical approach.

OyamO agrees that the atypical formal demands of Liyanja – plus his taking on the dual role of playwright and producer – have made for a particularly rigorous schedule. But not one to shy away from a creative challenge, he wants to raise the stakes by also incorporating the psychological development of certain characters.

If everything goes as planned, this unique genre will not only entertain, but will address spiritual, social and political issues. Liyanja is positioned to be just the first of many projects to transcend local theater in an academic environment and to set a standard of engaging drama as a vital aspect of the black community.

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