A Special Collaboration With an African Influence

Posted on 23 October 2009

web EESP 10 C

By Marianna Levine

This Saturday, residents of the East End of Long Island will have the opportunity to enjoy a little West African food and hospitality from 4-7:30 p.m. at 93 Merchants Path when the East End Special Players perform a piece of their new work in progress, “Kokrobite,” to benefit the troupe.

Jacqui Leader, the Creative Director of the East End Special Players, knew after their well received production of “You are a Petunia in My Garden”, a play the troupe created about their developmentally challenged lives, that “the next play needed to be equally interesting and challenging” for the performers as well as the audience.

Thankfully, Leader, who had recently returned from a volunteering stint at a school for the handicapped in Ghana, was inspired so deeply by that experience that she decided to bring West Africa and the East End together in a creative and informative way through the EESP. That may be how the multi-media production of “Kokrobite” originated, but Leader stresses the production has been a thoroughly collaborative experience.

Leader started the process of putting together the show by returning to Ghana with a two person film crew in tow in order to document not only what the Volta School for the Mentally Handicapped does but also to highlight the rich cultural life of this West African country.

“We shot rolls and rolls of footage interviewing local villagers on topics ranging from love, marriage, food, and voodoo. The Ghanaians being so friendly and forthcoming had all of us deliriously happy, creatively and spiritually” she enthused.

Leader further explains, “I usually improvise with our actors. This time I picked out pieces in the footage that they could work with. For example, I had a gentleman from Ghana recite a poem written by a Ghanaian poet on film that I have the actors recite afterwards on stage. We’ve used bits from the film footage to create specific scenes.”

She also mentions they had a local Ghanaian resident come cook West African dishes with the actors one day, which led to their creating a song about peanut soup, a popular Ghanaian dish.

Leader, whose background is in theater rather than special education noted that developmentally challenged young adults bring a wonderful openness to their acting on stage.

 “How they work off each other is so real. They don’t judge each other, and they don’t censor themselves. You always get something interesting and very raw from these actors.”

When Leader is asked what led her to seek out her African travel experience and apply it to her work with the EESP she says, “You know I’m a very emotional person. I often wonder what is my purpose here? What am I doing with my life? And sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough for others. If I’m down in the dumps I feel like I can easily just go down that black hole unless I go out and do something for someone else. A friend told me about the organization Cross Cultural Solutions, and I had never been to Africa before, so considering I was a little leery about going on my own, I decided to go with that group. When I saw the choice to volunteer at the Volta School, it was obviously the right choice for me considering what I do.”

After volunteering at the school for three weeks, she felt compelled to continue a relationship with the school and the people of Ghana, and thought the cross-cultural experience would benefit the players as well as the students at the school in Africa.

Leader noted there had been a lot of progress made at the school between her first and second visit as the school received three new lap top computers, a chicken coop, and a refrigerator, some of which Leader purchased and brought over herself.

This is amazing progress considering that when Leader first arrived “the kids were literally sleeping on the floor and had only a spout sticking out of the wall with a little water trickling out of it to wash with.”

The EESP and the Volta school have been communicating via pictures on the computer as well as having the students and players sending drawings and paintings to one another. In fact all the costumes the EESP wear were made out of the material students in Ghana made specifically for the play.

Leader relates, “Everyone should do something to help others. It could be here. It doesn’t have to be in Africa. Through helping you feel so connected to the world, and I know this has helped our players. It has given them a sense of ownership and pride.”

For further information on the East End Special Players benefit go to www.eastendspecialplayers.com or call 631-655-6893. Tickets, which include a performance and African food, are $75, but any amount will be accepted for those who want to attend.

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