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Getting in Rhythm a World Away: Handicapped troupe makes Ghana connection

Posted on 04 December 2008

Over the course of the last two-and-a-half years, the East End Special Players, a theater troupe made up of 20 developmentally disabled adults, many with Down’s syndrome, have been performing their play “You Are a Petunia in My Garden” for local audiences. The piece consists of sketches written by the Players themselves in which they offer a glimpse of what it’s like to live with a disability through their dreams, frustrations and secrets.

“This play makes you think about their abilities and not their disabilities,” explains Jacqui Leader, director of the East End Special Players. “It touches on things like work, friendships and personal relationships — about having a child or wanting to have a career.”

This Friday, the Players perform “You Are a Petunia in My Garden” one last time for the public. The show, a benefit production for the troupe, takes place at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor and begins with a silent auction and wine reception at 6 p.m. followed by the play at 7 p.m. While Leader says the play will still be offered to area high schools, where it has been well received throughout the fall, she is eager to get started on a new production for the Players — one which will involve disabled individuals half a world away in Ghana, West Africa.

The idea came from a working vacation Leader took with Cultural Solutions, an organization that places volunteers in orphanages, hospitals or schools in third world countries.

“I knew I needed a holiday but didn’t want to just go lay on a beach,” says Leader who spent three weeks volunteering at the Volta School for the Mentally Handicapped in the village of Hohoe. Leader was shocked by the conditions she found at the school in Ghana, where the children also lived.

“It was really hard,” says Leader. “They didn’t have anything to work with — no pencils, no paper, nothing, and there were 60 children from ages 8 to 18.”

Leader learned that in Ghana, there is still a belief that disabilities such as Down’s syndrome are caused not by genetics, but by voodoo. The floor of the classrooms were mud, there was no electricity and students slept on filthy thin foam mats.

“The kids were caned. We would cry,” says Leader who met a man at the school named Michael who was driven to engage the students.  He has taught them to do batik work and tapestry weaving. Back home, Michael sent Leader the children’s artwork which she sold as part of a fundraiser to help the school. But Leader began to think of other ways to continue the relationship with Ghana.

“I thought, maybe we should create a special theater piece with them,” says Leader.

So come January, Leader will return to Ghana, this time with cinematographer Eric Glandbard, to film the mentally disabled at three different schools with the idea of incorporating the footage into a new piece for the East End Special Players.

Ghanaian culture will serve as the inspiration for the new piece— the drumming, dances, and Anansi the Spider — a famous character in folklore. Also involved in the production will be local drummer Daniel Bailey and a Ghanaian drummer named Ockoe, as well as Kristen Van Lew, an East End dance teacher who spent five months in Ghana. Both will be going there next month with Leader.

The new production will feature the live Players interacting with the filmed Ghanaian students through dance, drumming and storytelling. Meanwhile, the Players are already being immersed in the culture of Ghana in preparation for the piece.

“Ockoe worked with our actors and brought all the drums and taught them a Ghanaian song and dance,” says Leader who is also teaching the Players about the symbolism and art of the country.

“I can’t wait to get started. I think it’ll be very exciting. Culturally, it’s stimulating for them,” says Leader. “I feel proud that I can offer them this whole new idea. I like to open up their minds to something like working with people overseas who have disabilities.”

Leader also feels that it’s important to not forget the students of Hohoe. She will take along photos of the Players to share with them in January and still recalls what Michael told her during her visit.

“He said, ‘You are my angel. I know you’ll come back,’” recalls Leader. “I have to do something.”

Tickets for “You Are A Petunia In My Garden” are $15 and can be purchased at the door at Bay Street Theatre. This weekend, the Surface Library Gallery (845 Springs Fireplace Road, East Hampton) will donate a portion of proceeds from sales to the East End Special Players. A reception will be held at the gallery on December 6 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Above: Jacqui Leader with a handicapped child at the Volta School in Ghana

 

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