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From Jocelyn Bioh's 'School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play.' Photo via MCC Theater.

These 5 Women Writers Are Ushering the New Wave of African Stories on Stage

"African stories, like African people, can be absolutely everything."

Language is powerful and a lot of human understanding starts with the pen, the scribe, the playwright. For too long, narratives in theatre have locked African characters in positions of desolation or disease. Fortunately, writers such as Jocelyn Bioh, Ngozi Anyanwu, Tori Sampson, Danai Gurira and Aya Aziz are actively shifting this narrative. Their nuanced storytelling humanizes the ordinary experiences of extraordinary characters who happen to be African or direct descendants of African people.

The majority of Western theatre audiences are white, Anglo and Euro descendants. I don't mention this because it is impossible for those audiences to understand our stories, I mention this because I think it is very likely that they will. It is likely that they will absorb these stories as sheer irrevocable truth. African/Diasporan narratives are often distant from their own personal, familial, and cultural experiences, so they are more inclined to take the portrayals they see on stage at face value. If Ugandans in The Book of Mormon are all riddled with AIDS, then surely it must be an epidemic that touches everyone native to the country. If the most widely accepted African story is set in the pridelands of The Lion King, then surely untamed topography expands over most of the continent. In order to combat these long withstanding stereotypes, we need more stories. And we need to entrust these stories to the writers who have actually lived with them.

Here are some of the women writers that are revolutionizing African storytelling on stage.


JOCELYN BIOH | 'School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play'

Photo via MCC Theater.

Jocelyn Bioh's most recent play, School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play, delivers a new take on the tired issue of colorism. Set in a prestigious boarding school in Ghana, the story follows a group of female students vying for the Miss Ghana crown in order to compete in an international pageant. When a fair-skinned girl from America is transplanted to the exclusive school, she's forced to try and win over her classmates, especially the reigning Queen Bee—the beautiful, dark-skinned Paulina. Much like its cinematic counterpart Mean Girls, the story highlights all of the truth that girls are willing to hide in order to fit in and the pain they are willing to endure to stand out. While the play deals with some heavy topics, it is achingly hysterical and the first time in my life I saw a group of young African girls on stage dealing with the petty tribulations of growing up.

'School Girls' most recent run was at Lucille Lortel Theater from October to December 2018. The play will be filmed by WNET-TV this year.

NGOZI ANYANWU | 'Good Grief'

Artwork courtesy of Ngozi Anyanwu.

This coming-of-age tale, which Nigerian-American artist Ngozi Anyanwu wrote and starred in, focuses on a character named Nkechi, a first-generation med student whose perfect path is skewed when life gets in the way. The themes of the show—loss off a friend, love, heartbreak—are common, connected and yet painfully complex. The show has been described as a "memory play" which calls for some audience interaction; Anyanwu addresses the audience at points. We see her work through grief in a way that is often denied for characters in African stories littered with death for exploitive purposes. As traumatizing as it must have been for Anyanwu to relive the story of her fallen childhood friend every night (the show was semi-autobiographical), it was a necessary portrayal of African humanity.

'Good Grief' had its most recent run at the Vineyard Theatre from October to November 2018.

TORI SAMPSON | 'If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka'

Artwork courtesy of Tori Sampson.

This new comedy from Yale School of Drama graduate Tori Sampson marks the young writer's New York debut of a full production. Set in Affreakah-Amirrorkah, the story follows a group of debutantes that embody the dominant culture's notion of beauty, especially the perfect and glorified Akim. Her jealous classmates, however, are determined not to be pushed to the edges of the story and continuously battle for a higher rank. "The play riffs on the West African folktale 'Of the Pretty Girl and the Seven Jealous Women,' uses a Nigerian dialect and is steeped in African traditions and music," Sampson tells us. "It is a play that explores the diaspora of blackness including African American culture, black British culture and so on." By bridging this diasporic gap between contemporary African and American cultures, Sampson prodes audiences to reflect on just how much the ideal standards of beauty were ever within their reach.

'If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be A Muhfucka' is set to premiere at the Playwrights Horizons on February 15, 2019 and run through March 31, 2019. Look into more info here.

DANAI GURIRA | 'The Convert'

Photo by Marc Brenner via The Young Vic.

Danai Gurira is known widely for the characters she's played in AMC's The Walking Dead and the Academy Award nominated Black Panther. Less know her to be the wordsmith behind several plays including the TONY-award nominated Eclipsed, which was helmed by South African director Liesl Tommy and marked Lupita N'yongo's Broadway debut. Recently closed at the Young Vic theatre in London's West End was another Gurira masterpiece, The Convent starring Black Panther co-star Letitia Wright. Set in the 19th century of what is now Harare, Zimbabwe, the play follows a Jekesai, a young girl who must choose between the spiritual rituals of her ancestors and the new Christian faith she has converted to. Torn between the traditions of her family and the lure of a new European God, the story held extra weight seeing as it was staged in one of the most esteemed theatres in England—a country with a carnivorous colonial past.

'The Convert's' most recent run was held at the Young Vic Theatre in London from December 2018 to January 2019.

AYA AZIZ | 'Eh Dah? Questions for my Father'

Photo via NYTW.

Eh Dah? explores a relationship we rarely get to see with African characters—a relationship to privilege. In this one-woman show exploding with music and dance, Aya Aziz tries to reconcile the good fortune she has had living in New York, growing up near public housing but not living in it and having legal documentation. All of these privileges are called into question when she reunites with Egyptian family members living outside of the city who have had to face more harassment and scrutiny while abiding by Islamic traditions.

According to writer Jinal Shah, "The most notable thing about [Aziz's] story is that it reflects the identity conundrum young immigrants face. Her story offers different perspectives on the larger conversation surrounding the current issues of race, religion, and identity in the country which she effortlessly explains through her impressions of her family members." Seeing as Aziz is a young Egyptian-American herself, she placed this girl at the center of the story, gave her a position of power and then demanded some of that power be called into question. Audiences are rarely offered the opportunity to witness a character acknowledging and then chipping away at her own privilege. Hopefully, the vast majority of theatre patrons who sit well above the poverty line follow suit.

'Eh Dah?' will run from March 28 to April 14, 2019 at the New York Theatre Workshop. Check here for more info.

*

While African tragedies should always hold a place in the canon of great theatre, they can no longer reign supreme. Works set on or about the continent can also be hysterically funny, awe-inspiring, provocative, lustful, romantic and religious. African stories, like African people, can be absolutely everything. And if theatre, and art in general, is to continue to serve as a mirror to society it should reflect the diverse humanity of African people and be told from an African perspective. Hopefully, with the works of these writers on the frontier, the Great White Way won't stay that way for much longer.

Brittani Samuel is a freelance writer currently based in New York. For her thoughts on all things art, entertainment and Rihanna, check out her blog. You can find very similar content on her Instagram @brittaniidiannee.

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These Colombian Civil Rights Activists Are Fighting to Make Sure Afro-Colombians are Counted in the Census

When 30 percent of Colombia's Black citizens disappeared from the data overnight, a group of Afro-Colombian activists demanded an explanation.

It was the end of 2019 when various Black organizations protested in front of the census bureau—The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (DANE)—in Bogotá, Colombia to show their dissatisfaction about what they called a "statistical genocide" of the black population. The census data, published that year, showed 2.9 million people, only 6 percent of the total population of the country, was counted as "Afro-Colombian," "Raizal," and "Palenquero"—the various terms identifying black Colombians.

For many years, Afro-Colombians have been considered the second largest ethno-racial group in the country. Regionally, Colombia has long been considered the country with the second highest number of Afro-descendants after Brazil, according to a civil society report.

Why did the population of Afro-Colombians drop so drastically?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists protesting erasure of Afro-descendants in front of the census bureau.

Last year, a crowd of activists gathered in Bogota to protest what they saw as erasure of Black communities in the Colombian census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

In the latest national census report from 2018/2019, there appeared to be a 30.8 percent reduction of the overall group of people that identified as Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquero, as compared to the 2005. After this controversial report, an Afro-Colombian civil rights organization known as the National Conference of Afro Colombian Organizations (CNOA), officially urged DANE to explain the big undercounting of the black population.

This wasn't a small fight. Representatives who hold the special seats of Afro-Colombians in Colombia's congress asked the census bureau to attend a political control debate at the House of Representatives in November 2019 to deliver an accountability report. "The main goal of doing a political debate was to demand DANE to give us a strong reason about the mistaken data in the last census in regard to the Afro population," said Ariel Palacios, an activist and a member of CNOA.

At the debate, the state released an updated census data report saying that, almost 10 percent of the Colombian population—4.6 million people out of 50.3 million—considers themselves Afro-Colombians or other ethnicities (like Raizal, and Palenquero). But despite DANE trying to confirm the accuracy and reliability on the latest census report it was clear that, for a variety of reasons, Black people were missed by the census. The state argued that their main obstacles with data collection were related to the difficulties of the self-recognition question, as well as security reasons that didn't allow them to access certain regions. They also admitted to a lack of training, logistics and an overall lack of success in the way the data collectors conducted the census.

How could they have counted Black populations better?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists playing drums in front of the census bureau.

Drummers performing during a protest against the Colombian census bureau's erasure of Afro-Colombians from the 2018 census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

These arguments were not reasonable for the civil rights activists, partially because the state failed to properly partner with Afro-organizations like CNOA to conduct or facilitate extensive informational campaigns about the self-identification questions.

"CNOA has worked on self-recognition and visibility campaigns among the Afro community and this census ignored our work," says priest Emigdio Cuesta-Pino, the executive secretary of CNOA. Palacios also thinks that the majority of Afro-Colombians are aware of their identity "we self-identify because we know there is a public political debate and we know that there is a lack of investment on public policies."

That's why it is not enough to leave the statistical data to the official census bureau to ensure that Afro-Colombian communities are fully counted in the country. And the civil rights activists knows that. They made a big splash in the national media and achieved visibility in the international community.

Thanks to The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization, Palacios traveled to D.C to meet with Race and Equality institution and a Democratic Congressman. "We called for a meeting with representative Hank Johnson to talk about the implementation of Colombia's peace accords from an Afro-Colombian perspective but also to address the gross undercounts of its black population," says Palacios.

For the activists at CNOA, the statistical visibility of the Black population is one of their battles. They have fought for Afro population recognition for almost two decades. "Since the very beginning CNOA has worked on the census issue as one of our main commitments within the statistical visibility of the Afro-Colombian people," says priest Cuesta-Pina. Behind this civil organization are 270 local associations, who work for their rights and collective interests.

The activists want to raise awareness on identity. Because according to Palacios, "In Colombia, there is missing an identity debate—we don't know what we are. They [the census bureau] ask if we are black, or if we are Afro-Colombians. But what are the others being asked? If they are white, mestizo or indigenous?" Palacios believes that for "CNOA this debate is pending, and also it is relevant to know which is the character of this nation."

Afro-Colombian Populations and the Coronavirus

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists use mock coffins and statistics to protest erasure of Afro-descendants

Colombian civil-rights activist insist that undercounting Afro-descendants can have a real impact on the health of Afro-Colombian communities, especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

Even though the state recently "agreed with to give us a detailed census report" and make a different projection with the micro data, says Palacios, now with the Covid-19 emergency, CNOA and the government has suspended all meetings with them, including cancelling a second congressional debate and the expert round table meeting to analyze the data.

Unfortunately, it is exactly in situations like the Covid-19 emergency where data analysis and an accurate census report would have been useful. According to the professor and PhD in Sociology Edgar Benítez from Center for Afro Diasporic Studies—CEAF, "Now it is required to provide a reliable and timely information on how the contagion pattern will spread in those predominantly Afro regions in the country and what is the institutional capacity in those places to face it," says Benítez.

He adds that this information is "critical at the moment because the institutional capacity is not up to provide it at the current situation". That's why the Center for Afro Diasporic Studies plans to work with DANE information from the last census. According to Benítez, "We are thinking of making comparisons at the municipal level with the information reported in the 2018 Quality of Life Survey, in order to have a robust and extensive database as possible on the demographic, economic and social conditions of the black, afro, Raizal and Palenquera population in Colombia."









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