Black diaspora transcends cultural limitations

If the lines of racial oppression were unclear before, after Voices from the Black Diaspora, they blurred even more.  This past Saturday at the McClintock Theater, the latest Visions and Voices event explored the diverse narratives arising from Australia, America, and England, unifying varying experiences of black oppression while distinguishing differences in culture.

Typically, the African Diaspora describes the historical migration of Africans to different regions of the globe and the resulting development of dissimilar cultures. However, Saturday night explored something different – the Black Diaspora.

Directed by Philip Akin and Anita Dashell-Sparks, assistant professor of theater practice, the event featured scenes from three plays which provided unique perspectives on race. After the performance, there was a short Q&A session with the playwrights. Akin, also the director of several other prestigious black theatrical productions, served as mediator.

Writer Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose exceedingly elegant words of wisdom charmed the house, defined the Black Diaspora as the political and social sprawling of culture and identity. The new term expands the definition to peoples who were derogatorily labeled “black” by their society even if they didn’t necessarily identify with African culture.

“There is an African Diaspora narrative and a Black Diaspora narrative,” said writer Kwei-Armah of Black Grenadian descent. “Tonight was representative of a Black Diaspora.”

Available, written by Ethiopian artist Alemtsehay Wedajo, explored the challenges of preserving Ethiopian beauty and culture in modern American society. Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen highlighted the social and moral hardships of people of British, Black and West Indian descent. And, Stolen, written by Jane Harrison of Muruwari heritage, shed light on the fractured lives of the children of the Stolen Generation in Australia.

The complex emotional content of each play was a bit much to be broken down into 30-minute scenes, but at the very least, audiences were able to begin to understand the messages of cultural identity.

“Being Ethiopian in America means sort of hiding our culture and tradition,” said Wedajo of her play Available. She smiled as she recalled the positive critical reception from performances past.

“The response from the audience was great, and I was grateful and very happy,” she said.

Voices from the Black Diaspora was presented “black-box style,” which meant that a small audience was up close and personal with a stage composed of minimal set design. Subtle shifts in lighting were used to convey changes in mood and the phenomenal actors had to adopt alternating accents and personas to denote changes in character.

Victoria Telford, who played Qelemuwa in Wedajo’s Available, gave a convincing and hilarious portrayal of a uniquely beautiful Ethiopian woman trying to conform to an American “Barbie” ideal. Ramon Deocampo, of Harrison’s Stolen, gave a particularly moving performance as a lost aboriginal child whose search for his mother stretches over 26 years and ultimately leads to his suicide. The differences of characters only served to expand the difficulties of racial sufferings across gender and cultural lines.

“There is a common way we write out narratives into ourselves and into anyone else who is willing to listen,” said Kwei-Armah, who had characters who spoke in a variety of accents and represented different cultures.

Kwei-Armah’s play Elmina’s Kitchen, set in England, featured several different accents ranging from British to Caribbean as well as Black-British slang, some of which went over the heads of audience members. Kwei-Armah, however, understood the disconnect.

“If you don’t understand a word [in my work], look for the next line,” said Kwei-Armah. “I was really proud of [the way I wrote the script.]”

But while Kwei-Armah accepted the American distance of his audience, Harrison’s Stolen was a bit harder to understand. Revolving around the Stolen Generations of the twentieth century, the specifics of the play were a bit difficult to comprehend without historical context. Nevertheless, audiences empathized with the loss and identity crises of the characters.

“People find some element they can relate to,” said Harrison, when questioned about the reception of Stolen.

Those who attended Voices from the Black Diaspora certainly didn’t waste a Saturday night. The thought-provoking speakers, enlightening scenes and well-developed characters affirmed the presence of black culture across the globe, challenging centuries of discrimination in a little less than two hours.

As for writers Kwei-Armah, Wedajo and Harrison, it is certain that their works changed the representations of racial discrimination for good.