All of this work is aimed at a single goal: to present onstage a dramatically compelling portrait of a continent that is known to most Americans only through news reports of civil wars and humanitarian crises.
According to Rush Rehm, artistic director and co-founder of Stanford Summer Theater, previous seasons have focused on the work of individual playwrights — Harold Pinter, Anton Chekov, Bertolt Brecht — or specific theatrical styles such as absurdism or Restoration-era comedy. "Africa Onstage" is a distinct departure from that mold. It may also be SST's most ambitious season yet.
The season kicks off with "Tings Dey Happen," a one-man show written and performed by Dan Hoyle (July 5-8). Based on interviews that Hoyle conducted in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria, the show recently played to sold-out houses and rave reviews in San Francisco.
"It's really stunning," Rehm says. "Dan plays all of these characters: Nigerians and Europeans, warlords, oil workers, prostitutes. He even has a scene that's an imagined dialogue between Graham Greene and Richard Pryor." Through this collage of characters, Hoyle presents a multi-faceted picture of the corruption and violence in the Niger Delta, the source of nearly 10 percent of the oil consumed in the U.S.
The second show in SST's season (July 19-Aug. 5) is Lorraine Hansberry's "Les Blancs," a play about the struggle for independence from European colonialism in an unnamed African country. Even though it was written in 1967 (shortly before Hansberry's death) and deals with the political climate of that time, Rehm feels that "Les Blancs" speaks just as powerfully to social and political issues playing out in Africa today.
It was this play, in fact, that was the catalyst for "Africa Onstage." Rehm had originally imagined a season dedicated exclusively to Hansberry's works, until a friend suggested focusing on Africa instead. This suggestion launched Rehm on an intense period of research into African culture, politics and theatrical traditions. He describes his findings as "extraordinarily complex and rich." Most Americans, he believes, have only a partial picture of Africa, at best. "When you start working on this you realize, 'My God, there's so much we don't know.'"
Rehm also felt that it was important to include works by African playwrights in the mix, works seldom seen in this country. To that end, the summer season concludes with "Farewell to a Cannibal Rage" by Nigerian playwright Femi Osofisan (Aug. 9-12) and "Oda Oak Oracle" by Ethiopian poet and playwright Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin (Aug. 16-19). Both plays combine elements of traditional African theater and storytelling — music, movement, and myth — into contemporary stories of two African cultures at their respective crossroads.
Stanford drama professor Harry Elam Jr., director of "Les Blancs," stresses the vitality and variety represented in these four plays, describing them as "very different in tone." He also stresses the dual mission of SST: to educate as well as entertain.
"But that doesn't mean you're going to come and get lectured at," he said. "It's about selecting shows that have meat to them, that present different perspectives."
As a companion to the theatrical offerings, "Africa Onstage" includes a free film series: screenings of recent movies from countries such as Mali, Rwanda, South Africa and Zaire.
Films are being screened Monday evenings at 8 p.m. through Aug. 13 in Cubberley Auditorium on campus; titles include "Hotel Rwanda" on July 2 and "Chocolat" on July 9. Each film is followed by a discussion led by an SST company member.
Similarly, a post-show audience discussion period has been scheduled for one performance of each of the plays.
What: "Africa Onstage," four plays presented by Stanford Summer Theater at Stanford University
Where: "Tings Dey Happen" in Oak Lounge, Tresidder Student Union; "Les Blancs" and "Farewell to a Cannibal Rage" presented in Pigott Theater, Memorial Hall; "Oda Oak Oracle" presented in Prosser Studio Theater, Memorial Hall
When: The theater festival opens July 5 and runs through Aug. 12. See SST's Web site for specific performance dates and times.
Cost: All seats for all performances are $20 each. (If shows do not sell out in advance, remaining tickets will be available at the door on a pay-what-you-can basis.)
Info: Call the box office at 650-725-5838, or go to summertheater.stanford.edu. The Web site also has information about SST's free film series on Africa.