Accra — Yaa Asantewaa - The Exile of King Prempeh and the Heroism of An African Queen, an international TV documentary, was recently premiered with a plump at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Accra. Written, co-directed and produced by Ivor Agyeman-Duah, the documentary has already gained high media and academic endorsement.
The story of Yaa Asantewaa has now been turned into a dance production - co-produced by Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble, The African and Caribbean Music Circuit, Black Voices, The Pan-African Prchestra and West Yorkshire Playhouse. currently on tour in Leeds in the UK, Yaa Asantewaa - Warrior Queen opened on April 28 and will end its first season tomorrow at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Ivor Agyeman-Duah, in West Yorkshire says the Brits are enjoying the African Theatre like never before.
Leeds is receptive to African Arts. In a way it has contributed to its growth and progress. It was at the University of Leeds that Africa's first Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Wole Soyinka developed his talents as a dramatist. The Beautification of Area Boy, a 1995 Soyinka play was premiered at the prestigious West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was from his old university after all that funding for the play's tour came. Apart from Soyinka, other African and Afro-Caribbean playwrights, artistic directors, music composers and choreographers can also call Leeds and particularly the West Yorkshire Playhouse their home.
This year's summer theatrical performance season began with an international collaboration, YAA ASANTEWAA WARRIOR QUEEN, 'an epic tribute to one of Africa's most heroic figures' written by the pioneering and distinguished African writer Margaret Busby. Being participated by over 50 Afro-Caribbean dancers, drummers, musicians, singers and actors, (drawn from the Pan-African Orchestra headed by Nana Danso Abiam and which include the fascinating 78 year old Kofi Ghanaba, dancers and drummers from Adzido Pan- African Dance Ensemble and singers led by Black Voices, one of Britain's leading acapella groups) the new musical production which runs in Leeds till May 19, 2001 is directed by Geraldine Connor, famous for her creation of Carnival Messiah at the Playhouse in 1999. It will travel to Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and later to Ghana, South Africa and the United States.
Yaa Asantewaa Warrior Queen is the West Yorkshire Playhouse recommended theatre for the season notwithstanding in competition other British big productions like Arthur Miller's Broken Glass.
As a Consultant and Researcher to the production- partly sponsored with 148,000 pounds sterling from the Arts Council of England, performance was for me perfect delight but there were also contradictions and dilemma.
The story-line is simple- 'the building of the 300 year old Asanteman, an epic nineteenth century African empire, now part of the west African country of Ghana. It is also a story of how the King of Asante or Asantehene Nana Prempeh I was exiled by the British colonialists to the coastal town of Elmina in Ghana, then to the tiny West African country of Sierra Leone and finally across the Indian Ocean to the Seychelles Islands in 1900.This event, a harbinger of effective British colonial take-over of Asante precipitated the last Anglo-Asante war of 1900 led on the Asante side by a woman -Yaa Asantewaa, Queen of Ejisu. The exile in Seychelles of these gallant leaders including Yaa Asantewaa who died there took 27 years, equivalent to Nelson Mandela's imprisonment during the apartheid era in South Africa.'
This is what is dramatized in musical form in four Acts of eight scenes totally two hours. Geraldine Connor says, 'The cast is vast and the end product unexpected, shaped by its unquestionable authenticity, drawing influences from as far as Jean Genet and the oral narrative of Trinidad's carnival griot, Peter Minshall, and ritual traditions of the Akan peoples.'
It is historical but also protest drama to British colonial rule. The playhouse was full for the premiere but of white faces. As the drama progresses to plain injustice of British soldiers accused of stealing Asante treasures and bullying all in the name of Queen Victoria, silence, total silence, dawn on the audience. As the Asantes resist and Yaa Asantewaa intends to take-over control of the rebellion the audience cheer. It was difficult to tell whether the silence is borne of guilt or whether the cheer is for resistence to colonial rule an epoch which contributed in no small way to the wealth of the once powerful British Empire.
The irony intermingles-the fact that the production is also largely supported by British institutions is a plus to tolerance of protest drama or literature. Embassies and foreign offices these days give money that only support their particular cultures. Again the painful acknowledgement that African theatre, music and dance, whether in Africa and especially abroad, has over ninety percent White patronage. Will African arts survive in the coming years without this patronage?
The Rt. Hon. Paul Boateng, Ghanaian MP in the British Parliament and supporter of Pan-African activities says of such collaboration, 'The Link with education, the contribution of scholarship and musicality and a new young audience for the vibrant artistic imagination that underpins the work will add both to our understanding and a shared history and to the rich cultural diversity of modern Britain.'
As Yaa Asantewaa Warrior Queen becomes a past symbol of anti-colonial rule in the last century, Nelson Mandela assumes recent symbol of the same situation -imprisoned like King Prempeh and his leadership including Yaa Asantewaa for 27 years, Mandela was also in Leeds during the premiere week (to re-dedicate the Mandela Gardens named for him during the apartheid struggle) and a version of the play supporting Celebrate South Africa - a week that remembered the role of the theatre, music and dance in the ending of apartheid.