The vision of The Orisha Tales Repertory Radio Theatre Company is one of laser vision.
We exclusively explore the Yoruba culture of West Africa through the artistic sensibilities of playwright David D. Wright. Anthony Sloan interprets these sensibilities through his directing; as Keisha M. Booker acts as dramaturge for the projects.
This way of working firmly defines the guiding vision of the company as taken from the text created by David. His words are the source – the wellspring, if you will, of all we seek to do to elevate this art to the classical state it deserves.
The beliefs and philosophy
The roots of the Yoruba spiritual tradition, or Orisha Worship, as it is practiced, owes its beginnings to the various spiritual discourses of the African captives from the triangle of trade transporting the African human cargo - particularly from the areas now known as Nigeria, the Republic of Benin (Dahomey) and the Congo –
to the Americas. Approximately sixty to eighty percent of the descendants of a brutal enslavement sometimes referred to as the “Middle Passage” are connected to those original victims via bloodline.
The African religions had to undergo severe transformations in order to survive. The changes that led to Santeria, the Vodun (Voodoo), began when the Yoruba slaves had their first taste of Catholicism in Cuba. The Dahomean and Congolese slaves of Haiti had been force-fed the dominant religion of the French, as the Portuguese had those slaves of Brazil (Candomble), the English in Trinidad (Sango Baptist), and those Spanish captives of Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Columbia and Venezuela practicing Ancestral Worship, were all led toward these spiritual concepts.
There are no records. There are only stories, echoes of voices long dead.
The slave is brought to the new land. No longer a human being, the slave is sold and traded like a beast of burden. If the Master is kind, the slave will eat and live to work. If the Master is not, the slave will work until physical life ceases.
Night brings an old Yoruba song. A homemade drum answers. A chorus forms. More drums are brought out. The old movements are recalled. The dancing starts. Chants and dances from quarrelling African tribes join and make love to each other.
There is the commonality of pain and suffering, not knowing where on God’s earth they are located, while separated from family and loved ones. And in this moment, the rhythms unite, transform, and give birth to something new.
The herbalists look after the sick.
They know what foods the gods like.
Enemies are killed by a handful of powder.
This Immolation is no accident, no error; there is no blame, because if you listen to the ancient ones, they will tell you that all of this was divined long before it began.
They see the future.
The old Yoruba priest teaches the young the ancient rites. Unfortunately, he knows that these young people cannot totally be trusted with all that he or she knows because they will, at some point, compromise the integrity of what they have learned at their feet. But they are taught anyway, in secret, because they are the treasures.
The White man in the black cassock comes. He says there is a Jesus, and this Jesus was tortured and killed. Jesus’ mother cries. The slaves understand grief and death.
The Spanish Inquisition comes and kills and burns. They say there is only one god.
The white god doesn’t talk. The white god does not come to visit. The white god does not like the things that the earth gives with such love. No singing. No dancing. No food.
No perfume. He hates the feel of soft velvety flesh and laughter in the night. The white god makes no miracles.
Many white mothers had their child brought back to health by a black herbalist.
Nannies croon the apatakis. White babies fall asleep, with the stories of the gods in their ears.
These babies grow up; they dance. They believe.
The slaves smile and lie. They worship Sango, Obatala or Oshun as they kneel in church. They believe in the white god and saints as well. Simply stated: The more love, and respect, given to all the gods – European and African; the greater their protection.
Elegba, the playful messenger of the gods, cheerfully becomes the Holy Child of Atocha. Osossi, the fierce god of the wilderness, shrugged his shoulders and became Saint Norbert, Oshun, the hip-swinging goddess of those who know how to make love with skill and passion, became Our Lady of Charity (La Caridad del Cobre). Sango, the invincible chief, the whoring god of thunder and lightning, showed his sense of humor. He turns into Saint Barbara.
Everyone felt much more protected now that Sango was a warrior as well as a female Saint inside the church.
No one fooled anyone.
The slave owners saw that after a religious festival
- A bembe.
There was peace and harmony on the sugar plantations.
The Catholic priests thought about the recent slave uprisings in Haiti and the accompanying massacre of the priesthood and assured the laity that a little drumming in the night was absolutely harmless.
Orisha worship in the New World was born. No one really paid much attention.
Why this work –
The plays written encompass the entire range of the human experience within an African context and reference.
The script possibilities are endless. There are over 401 Orishas (selected heads) to focus on and multitudes of themes in this particular pantheon.
(The animals and vegetation tales alone could keep several touring companies busy year in and year out as they pass through various venues including campuses, school systems, community centers and the like.)
In scope, the work rivals the work of the Bard without the trappings of his atmosphere and historical reference.
The language is classical without being condescending or offensive to the modern ear.
The work is holistic as it has spiritual references, dance / (movement elements), music, social relevance, costuming, ancient historical settings, racial upliftments, transcending modalities, cross cultural understandings, et al….
Why this organization –
The Orisha Tales Repertory Radio Theatre Company has the personnel and influence in theatre, radio and Yoruba cultural circles to sustain the idea and scope of the proposed projects. Our discourse seeks to spread the visionary message of the groups’ inner workings. All cultures have their ways of expression, from children’s games and stories, to work ethics and martial arts, to songs and dances, through rituals and meditations, competitions and ceremonies… Our organization is a testimony to yet another way of being. Comparisons and examinations of our developing theatrical form will help to illuminate global cultural understandings for all dwellers on the planet.
Why this work is important –
If we continue to only validate a European aesthetic within what is sometimes referred to as “high culture” or popular theatre, even as the world demographics are changing, we will continue to marginalize populations. We must recognize and accept other forms of artistic theatrical expression as equal, or we run the very real risk of a reality that is of “white skinned privilege” or white cultural supremacy. The way to change this dynamic is not to tear away, or point a guilty finger at the dominant Euro centric / North American society, but to build up other worthy art forms – specifically - the dance drama, the radio drama, and the theatrical presentation that is the Orisha Cycle of Tales. When other cultural expressions witness the success of this process, room will be made for all at the modern/future cultural table. This is a blueprint done time and again. A modern cultural example would be the annual Grammy Awards.
A few short years ago some musical forms were never acknowledged, or worse, categorized within unrelated genres. This frustrated not only progenitors of the genres, but also the artist, workers, boosters and audience of these genres. As soon as distinct categories were adopted and spotlighted, before the main body of participants; not only did these emerging forms release from artificial shackles, but the world also came to appreciate these newly liberated forms, as well as other forms long incubating.
The aesthetic framework
“When in Greece, do as the Shakespearians would do.”
It used to be said that we live in a “melting pot.” Then it was said we live in a “gorgeous mosaic.” But it seems we never ever want to go beyond an axis that swings between the ancient Greek theatre and the Globe theater reality of the 17th century. Sure we give a nod to other ways of working such as the medieval passion plays, and Commedia dell’ Arte, and Stanislavski, or Artaud, or Grotowski, or the Actors Studio, the Open Theatre, the Living Theatre and the like, or even Peter Brook, or for that matter Broadway and its tradition from vaudeville to Neil Simon to British imports… But the fringe of the Public Theater experience under Joe Papp or La Mama under Ellen Stewart or even elements of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s, for the most part, do not resonate beyond that Greek/Shakespearian axis. In a modern world, this is an injustice, or at the very least retardation.
Our concern is with the actors and production crews of modern theatre. We create roles for all ranges of performers to play. We even place designers of the shows in an exalted place by stressing their importance to the cast in the rehearsal (working) process, as well as introducing them to the audience before each performance.
The Orisha style of Music and Song interpretation is different and unique to this form of theatre spawning from Yoruba culture, ritual theatre, and live radio techniques.
The audition and rehearsal process becomes a means of bringing out dignity and inner magnificence suppressed by other ways of working.
We are dedicated to forging a way of working, an aesthetic that will remain in place even as participants go other places to ply their craft in less than satisfying roles and working circumstances. We want all who are touched by our process to know and understand that they always have a home and basis of rejuvenation with The Orisha Tales Repertory Radio Theatre Company. A company that will exist on radio, the stage, small screen, large screen…on land and on sea, and where ever we need to be.
Statement: This art form, as it develops, will be an enabling creative force, affecting many modern as well as historical genres, even as it stays true to its birthplace, which is theatre within an oral tradition.
The repertory company will reflect the whole that is the African American community of United States theatre today. We have all age ranges, skin hues, and body types common to those who are assimilating continuously into a modern caste system perpetrating the horrid, inhumane process that is an extension of the “Middle Passage.”
Statement: The continuing historical plight of the African, which brought us to this point in history, is as intense as ever, and only through a full understanding of our glorious linage will we attain true freedom.
African chieftains sold prisoners of war, or slavers obtained Africans through panyarring (kidnapping), selling these captives to European slavers backed by investment syndicates and, feeding the frenzied middle leg of a transatlantic trading system. The captives were held in barracoons – Slave forts, or castles – as mid point prisons, before being transported. …600, 700, 800 humans – packed – into middle deck shelving like sardines or books, chained together with no way to attend to themselves or each other – “too frightened to be scared” -- came to this “new” world in this manner. This middle world of bidding on humans for their chattel existence persisted to its abolishment(s) in the 19th century. Replaced by a second-class status throughout the 20th century, we now find large numbers of these same descendants imprisoned within a prison industrial complex offering nothing more than a nether world – middle passage – existence.
Statement: It is our belief that through cultural presentations, steeped in tales from a rich Yoruba tradition, will come a realization of human worth strong enough to thwart, and break, the learned psychology of hundreds of years of onslaught.
The core values
Since the Orisha Tales Repertory Radio Theatre Company follows the edicts of the Yoruba cultural imperative, it is easier to define ways of working and discipline. From the time we walk into the workspace we adjust to another reality. The music in the space is Yoruba.
The way of working is ritualistic, in the Yoruba aesthetic with the desire and intention to produce a certain positive result.
The dance comes from an African Centered sensibility.
The language adjusts the thinking toward another aesthetic, more African / more “respectful” than modern modalities.
The Playwright and Artistic Director have such similar backgrounds that it is easier for them to communicate and impart / project ideas to the working groups that make up this collaboration. In fact, their individual strengths in their respective fields further solidify a symbiotic relationship.
The Community is literally “hungry” for images and authentic characterizations of themselves as royalty, humans and “gods” with strengths, foibles, joys, pains, evils, goodness, and the rest. They do not want to be “pedestaled” or condescended, preached to or revered…
They simply want to see a truth they can embrace, can live with/for.