Iranian Theatre: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

A sole actor enters the stage, nervously clutching a script he has never read before. He flips to the first page, clears his throat. “Here goes.” So begins White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, a conceptual theatre piece written by Iranian playwright Nassim Solaimanpour. Each night a fresh actor is summoned to the stage to play the lead, having never read the script and with no idea what is in store for them. Plenty, it seems.

At times, Nasim has the actor running around the stage flapping his arms, an onstrich being chased by bears. At others he addresses the audience directly through the actor, solemnly telling us about his home, his life. There are moments of silliness; Audience members are invited on to the stage for silly interactive role-plays. We are left feeling strangely close, even protective, of Nasim, and solemnly wondering where he is now. Fantastical stories and personal anecodotes allude to the dictatorial system around him, without seeming prescriptive. We are forced to muse on the role of the writer, political anonymity and the nanny state.

Finally, a challenge is set the actor. Early in the piece, a vial of poison has been placed into one of two identical glasses of water. The actor must decide whether to risk his life and drink one of the cups, bringing the imagined into stark reality. Will he drink?

The stage may be sparse, but White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is positively brimming with ideas.

The Horse’s Mouth is a festival of autobiographical theatre at the Bondi Pavilion in Sydney, finishing 14 December.

Hairdresser Signs: The Art of Ghana

Published 1 February 2013 – The Mirror, Ghana

We walk past hairdresser signboards so often in Ghana, that we never really stop to notice. But art galleries all over the world are taking a growing interest in what is fast becoming a celebrated artform.

Right now at museums in the UK, US and Europe, hand-painted hairdresser and barbershop signboards are selling for thousands of dollars. From the Museum for African Art in New York to the Museum of African Art in Belgrade, Serbia, prestigious museums are organizing whole exhibitions of hairdresser and barbershop signs from Ghana, Togo, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire.

Even a recently published book called ‘Joe’s Hair That Talks: The Vibrant Sign Culture of Ghana’ includes photos of outstanding barber and hairdresser signs. However at home in Ghana, little appreciation is paid to these signs as a form of art.

Dr Doran Ross is one of the academics trying to change this perception. As Director Emeritus of the Fowler Museum at University of California, Los Angeles, he has been studying and collecting the signpainters of Ghana for nearly forty years.

With their skillful hand-painting and creativity in style and form, he says the signs are a stunning example of African artistic culture; “Galleries and audiences are interested in African handpainted signs because they are wonderfully creative works of art,” he says.

Why then, do the signs receive little attention in Ghana? “Most people around the world do not fully appreciate the artistic signage they drive by on a daily basis,” he suggests. “We generally have other things on our minds and often need to have the day to day arts pointed out to us by someone else.”

It is not only the stylistic artistry which interests academics like Ross; Hair and hairdressing are undeniably an important part of Ghanaian culture. Many academics this is because hair, especially grooming and braiding, is a platform for Ghanaian discussions about identity, race and nationhood. Hairdresser signboards are a tangible example of this, says Ross.

For example, some expose our interest in American culture, with business titles like ‘Poet USA Haircut’ or ‘America Salon’. In the 50’s and 60’s many signboards presented paintings of American celebrities such as Muhammad Ali or James Brown. Today they include more modern stars such as Rihanna or Beyonce. “This is a comment on numerous glabalizing phenomena, including issues related to celebrity, fashion, music and technology,” says Ross.

Even the titles of hairdresser businesses are creative, with many using humour or personal stories. Some of Ross’s favourites are ‘Depend on Jesus Haircut’, ‘Eye Hustler Man No Peace Hair’ and ‘Death Row Changes Unisex Salon’.

So next time you are walking past a hairdresser sign, make sure to have a closer look. You might just be looking at the next big artist.

I am not a love person: Spoken word in Ghana

Published 28 July 2012 – The Mirror, Ghana

“I am not a love person”, says Black. “I’m not into love poems. I don’t know how to write a love poem.”

As the co-ordinator of Elhalakasa, Quaye Kojo Benedict (or ‘Black’ as he is known on stage) lives and breathes poetry. But he gets frustrated when people assume poetry can only be about love.

Poems can be about anything from clothes to black power, a traumatic event, politics, or anything from our everyday lives, he says. It’s all just about expressing whatever pops into your head.

He is so passionate about it that he founded a regular spoken word night where you can do just that. Its name is Elhalakasa.

“Elhalakasa is a straight talk, straight philosophy, poetry and music,” he says. Every last Sunday of the month, a group of writers, poets, musicians and lovers of words come together to perform, listen and enjoy other people’s work.

The name is made up of three local words put together – ‘Eha’ comes from the Ewe word for ‘song’, ‘La’ is Ga for ‘to sing’, and Kasa means ‘talk’ in Twi.

“Elhalakasa is performance art – if you want to do spoken word, want to sing, want to act, say proverbs or whatever, you do it creatively.” he says. “Poetry has a new name in Ghana and it is Elhalakasa.”

The event is open to any one to perform – new writers and first time poets share the stage with more established artists. It’s all just a chance to practice and have your work heard.

When you think about poetry, you usually think of reading silently to yourself from a book. But Elhalakasa gives writers the chance to speak their work, and receive instant feedback from the audience.

“A lot of the guys who started coming were not sure if they could get up on stage to perform… All they know is that they can write poems and that’s it.” says Black. “We have guys who have grown into real cool performers, just because they’ve seen other people do it.”

It’s also a chance to celebrate poetry and create greater awareness of the artform. Ghana has a long history of spoken word, but many do not realise it is still valuable. “We have really great men and women in this country who are doing good with poetry but they are only known internationally. In their own country they are not very recognized.” Elhalakasa creates a place for young up and coming poets to practise and grow their art.

If you’d like to find out more, Elhalakasa is on this Sunday night (and the last Sunday of every month) at the Nubuke Foundation in East Legon, or the Pan African Writers Association organizes an event on the first Sunday of the month in Roman Ridge.

Illustrating Children’s Books: Ghana

Published July 2012 The Mirror, Ghana

There is something special about a book you remember from childhood. The story is enchanting, and some can still recite entire books they loved as kids. But often it is the pictures which remain firmly in your memory – the colours, the lines and the faces which helped to shape your understanding of the world.

With this in mind, the Golden Baobob Literature Prize, along with the Ghana chapter of the International Board of Books for Young People have partnered to create a 9 day workshop in children’s illustration, beginning this Thursday.

“Children’s illustrations are important because they help children to develop”, says co-founder of Golden Baobob Deborah Ahenkorah. “They draw a child into that world.”

Book illustrations are instrumental to a child’s enjoyment of a book, but little is being done to train and encourage young illustrators, she says. “The children’s book illustration scene is uncharted territory for young artists,” she explains. This workshop will hopefully fill in this gap by supporting further learning in the profession.

The problem with the children’s book publishing industry currently, says Ahenkorah, is the lack of books coming from Africa. It’s important for children to read stories written in Africa, see images of people who look like them and stories centering on African themes. This in turn will encourage greater pride in who they are, she says. “Children are exposed to many harsh realities”, she says. “Books give children a respite from the world.”

Some of the best examples of children’s illustrations coming from this continent deal with distinctly African themes. In Niki Daley’s book Jamela’s Dress, the rich colours of the fabric shop are brought to life. And in Angela Christian’s book Kente for a King, illustrator Edmund Opare beautifully captures life in the village of Bonwire, as a tailor must weave a special kente for the king.

Hosting the workshop will be one of the giants of the children’s book publishing industry, Meshack Asare. He is the author of classic children’s books The Brassman’s Secret and Sosu’s Call, which was the winner of the UNESCO First Prize for Children’s and Young People’s Literature in the Service of Tolerance. With such prizes under his belt, he has a long-standing reputation as one of the industry’s most important players.

Enrolling in the workshop is a competitive process. Up-and-coming illustrators from all over the country have sent examples of their best work for consideration. Soon the top ten will be handpicked and given free enrolment to the workshop. Take notes of those names – these may just be the master illustrators of the future.

Image credit:  Eliza Wheeler for  9 Degrees North: The ABCs of Northern Ghana book

Saturday Nights 8pm: Theatre Mirrors

Published The Mirror, Ghana

Kalsum Sinare, Emmanuel Armah, Nat Banini; They are some of the biggest names in Ghanaian cinema. But they all have one more thing in common – they all began their careers in a theatre company called Theatre Mirrors.

This theatre group is not only one of the oldest non-professional companies in Ghana, it is also the most prolific. Every Saturday at 8pm they devise and perform a new theatre show in Asylum Down.

Since beginning in 1986, the group has performed 1400 times and attracted some of Ghana’s biggest acting talents to hone their skills.

“When we started Theatre Mirrors, there were other [amateur] theatre groups,” says Nkrabeah Effah-Dartey, the founder and leader.   “As the years rolled by, other theatre groups have emerged and collapsed, but we have weathered the storm all these years.” Known as ‘The Captain’ from his time in the army, he managed to steer the company through the rocky seas.

It is now one of the few non-professional theatre groups in Ghana, an issue he ascribes to little government funding. “In the early days… the theatre was very vibrant in Ghana and the reason is that the Minister for Culture… gave massive state support. It was wonderful those days.” Since then, lack of state subsidies has made theatre a difficult industry. “All around the world, without state support the arts do not flourish,” he says.

Effah-Dartey runs a tight ship. For the past year, members not only perform every week, but they also rehearse five nights a week. He even writes most of the scripts himself, most based on stories he has come across during his career as a lawyer.

The topics range from family drama to the power of forgiveness, adultery and humiliated politicians. “Most of my scripts are true life stories. Some naturally are comedies, but the majority are serious subjects, serious themes,” he says. “Those who come to watch our scripts, almost always find something new to learn about life.”

This week’s performance is a little different, with a show about the life of Tweneboa Kodua, one of the most famous personalities from Ashanti history. The performance will run Friday, Saturday and Sunday night from 8pm. Even if you’ve never seen theatre before, you’re bound to enjoy it.

“For those who don’t know, watching a theatre performance for me is the most relaxable state of life – the highest form of pleasure,” Effah-Dartey says. “You laugh and laugh, and go home fulfilled… You’ll love it.”

The Citizens Centre is located near the Asylum Down roundabout, walking distance from Nkrumah Circle. Entry is 5 Ghanaian Cedis.

A Separation: Film Review

Published March 2012 The Independent, Sydney

Director Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian drama was this year’s Golden-Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s won almost universal critical acclaim and is even the favourite for Best Foreign Film at next month’s Academy Awards, and all with good reason.

Simin (Leily Hatami) is trying to persuade her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) to pack up their young family and leave Iran for the US. He refuses – his father is suffering from Alzheimer’s and needs constant care.  Frustrated, Simin packs her bags and moves to her mother’s house. Already we are thrust into an intimate picture of a family in crisis and confronted with a complex moral divide. Nader hires a young woman to take care of his father and the home. What he doesn’t realise is that the new maid is pregnant, but also working without her unstable husband’s permission.

When an accident occurs, we must untangle a web of manipulation and ambiguous morality. Set against a background of Iranian faith, honour and women’s rights, this is a thrilling whodunit of the most domesticated kind. With naturalistic performances from a talented cast and investigative cinematography from Mahmood Kalari, this is a truly gripping moral drama.

Never Did Me Any Harm

Parenting sure is a hot topic right now. With the success of The Slap, the Sydney Theatre Company and contemporary dance company Force Majeure have joined forces for the first time to create Never Did Me Any Harm. It’s a physical theatre work inspired by the book and deals with parenting – the challenges, the contentment, and the misunderstandings. Melding theatre with the physical, it elegantly segways between the two forms to create a physical theatre work that people really understand, says performer Vincent Crowley.

“The Slap hit a real chord,” he says, as everyone can relate to the issues of family and childhood. From mothers sharing in the woes of parenting to a couple worrying about how to discipline their child, this production does away with the lofty themes usually associated with physical theatre, and brings it down to the every-day. The work even uses words taken from real-life interviews with mothers, fathers and children. “The verbatim immediately puts it in a voice and tone that we understand”, says Crowley. If you’ve never seen physical theatre, there’s never been a better time to try.

6 Jan-12 Feb, The Wharf, Pier 4 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, $35 – $75, 9250 1777, sydneytheatre.com.au

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