By Annette Hinkle
Two years ago, Jacqui Leader traveled to Ghana in West Africa with a couple videographers and a kernel of an idea — to link two very different cultures via a theatrical performance. Leader is the long time creative director of the East End Special Players (EESP), a local acting troupe comprised of learning challenged adults. The visit to Ghana, her second, was a follow up to a trip she had taken with the organization Cross Cultural Solutions during which she volunteered at the Volta School for the Mentally Challenged in the small village of Kokrobite.
Eighty students from the age of 7 to 16 live at the Volta School, and though they are separated by several thousand miles and a cultural divide nearly as wide, Leader saw in the school an opportunity for the East End Special Players to connect with children a world away who struggle with similar issues.
Originally, Leader’s idea was to create a performance in which the two groups interact through the use of pre-recorded video footage of the students in Ghana, and live responses from the EESP on stage here. But ultimately, she notes, it didn’t quite work out that way.
“At first, the idea was to tie in the school. But the children are so challenged a lot of them don’t talk – so I had to rethink how I was going to make this a theatrical piece,” notes Leader. “And though we did get great footage of the school, I couldn’t make a whole play just out of the footage I have of them.”
So Leader and her film crew, Eric Glandbard and Lily Henderson, ended up shooting footage of the local villagers as well who offer an overall view of different facets of life in Ghana.
“It’s really about the culture,” says Leader. “My dream would be to take the East End Special Players to Ghana, so why not make it about Ghanaian culture?”
On December 4, the East End Special Players will premiere their new Ghana inspired piece, “Kokrobite Junction: An African Dream Tale” with two shows at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. The performance includes eight vignettes in which the Players interact with the video footage of the Ghanaians who address topics like local food, wildlife, music and even marriage.
Though the Players are all adults, ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-50s, and comparatively high functioning, Leader isn’t always certain how much they know and understand about the wider world.
“We used maps and globes to talk about the continents and how many there were – the results were mixed,” explains Leader. “We talked about ‘What is Africa?’ and I realized it was a good thing. Even though at times they live in their own world, a lot of us don’t venture out and see what’s out there either.”
For that reason, Leader brought an educational element to the project as well. The East End Special Players got to know more about the country through Ghanaian kente weaving and batiking and will be wearing costumes on stage made by the Volta students. The troupe also learned about African drumming, folklore (in the form of the legendary Anansi the Spider) and took part in a cooking class offered by a Ghanaian woman who taught them to make peanut butter soup — the performance even includes a song about the dish.
“It’s been a great educational experience, and theatrical experience,” says Leader. “Something I’ve never done. I’ve learned a lot.”
With this project, the Players have also learned about philanthropy. Leader has maintained a strong tie to the Volta school, and teacher Michael Nyahe, and has sent money when she can to improve conditions for the children, which, on her first visit, could best be described as deplorable. Among the problems were a lack of electricity, scarcity of food, no school supplies, few educational activities, and thin, filthy sleeping mats. Leader has shared with the Players how people here can help improve life for those living far away. That’s a connection the group does understand.
“In a way they know they’ve contributed with building a chicken coop, so the kids can have fresh eggs to eat,” says Leader. “I sent money for a stove so they could make bread and buy mattresses. It’s a hut in the middle of nowhere. There are 80 kids who were sleeping on a dirt floor.”
The next thing that Michael Nyahe has told Leader the school needs is a second bathroom. Right now, there is just one and the boys and girls must share it. But overall, things are looking up for the students at the Volta School.
“They hired more teachers,” notes Leader. “The second time I went they were doing drumming and created this whole dance piece. The footage is in the play and it’s beautiful. Slowly they’re getting paper and pencils and trying to teach them. When they get to be 16, 17 or 18 they want the higher functioning students to be able to weave, make jewelry or sew so they can go back into the world with a skill.”
While conditions are improving at the school, there is still a stigma against the disabled in Ghana, fueled largely by generations of superstitious belief. Leader notes that often learning challenged children are simply shipped off to places like the Volta School where they are largely forgotten or ignored by society. But due to attention from the outside world, maybe even that, she notes, is changing.
“When we were there, 70 villagers and the chief came in full garb to meet us,” says Leader. “We were bringing computers and were there to get footage. They served us palm wine. Michael and the principal said they had never come to the school before.”
On Saturday, December 4, 2010,“Kokrobite Junction; An African Dream Tale” will be performed at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor at 2 p.m. ($15 admission) and at 8 p.m.($25) following a 6:30 wine reception and silent auction. Tickets are available from the Bay Street Box office on the day of the performance. For advance reservations call 726-4609. More information about the Players and their history can be found at: www.eastendspecialplayers.com.
Top: East End Special Players Suzanne Mary Windells, Gregory Doyle and Lillian Havens play the drums. Ken Robbins photo.