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Celebrating Yoruba traditions

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Celebrating Yoruba traditions

Yoruba culture is one of the most dominant African influences throughout the African diaspora. From Nigeria to Cuba, from Brazil to New York, the influence of Yoruba traditions and beliefs can be felt. Feast, produced by London’s World Stages, looks at this often unheralded but ever-present influence. Beverly Andrews reports.

 F

east, a musical drama, aptly opens with the appearance of Esu, one of the most powerful Yoruba gods. He is known in Yoruba culture as the trickster or shape shifter. He is the Orisha of the crossroads or thresholds, of chaos and fertility. The god of both right and wrong, of love and anger, of reverence and irreverence, all these operate within him. One must appease him by making offerings in order to gain access to the other deities or before embarking on any journey. He is the divine middleman and a harsh teacher leading mortals to temptation or disorder, in order to then lead them closer to wisdom.

Through him the audience is allowed to enter his world, where we are then taken on a breathtaking journey which takes us from Africa’s coastal shores to South America’s cruel plantations; from America’s 60s segregated deep south on to a financially impoverished but still defiant Cuba; and then, finally, on to London’s Olympic stadium as British descendants of African migrants collect gold medals.

Feast has so many arresting moments it’s hard to pick just a few but the Cuban section is particularly poignant as we witness a clever and at times hilarious encounter between a shrewd but patriotic Cuban prostitute and a desperate American businessman. The writer of this piece cleverly turns the tables on our expectations since the businessman is not at all interested in procuring sex but, rather, is desperate for psychic advice, which he is convinced the woman can give him about future financial investments. Although the woman honestly tells him that she has no psychic abilities he nevertheless takes a casual remark she makes as a clue to what his future financial investments should be, and leaves happy. The piece cleverly suggests that it is not only those of Yoruba descent who turn to the gods for comfort, but perhaps in these financially turbulent times, even insecure Westerners are now seeking their guidance.

This play came out of an international writing programme organised several years ago by London’s renowned Royal Court Theatre. Elyse Dodgson, the programme’s director, remarks “the Royal Court International Department was running a playwriting workshop with a group of young Nigerian writers and we were celebrating the end of the programme. Looking out at the sea we spoke about our next Royal Court workshop in Cuba. There was great excitement and curiosity about the links that many Nigerians have to Cuban Santeria, the Yoruba belief system still practised widely in Cuba today.”

Four months later in Havana, writers were equally curious about the Nigerians. “Please bring us some soil from Nigeria!” they cried. There were also writers based in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil and they were not going to be left out. Their belief system, Candomiblé, also has Yoruba roots and they were equally interested in exploring the similarities. When the Royal Court was asked to propose a project for World Stages London, the curiosity of the writers became an idea for a play.

Then Rufus Norris came on board. Dodgson goes on to say, “Rufus was partly raised in Nigeria but he was not familiar with Cuba or Brazil. The timing was perfect. We were about to work in Cuba on a final phase of work with a group of new writers. Santeria was everywhere: we met santeros (priests) and left rum for the saints before we shared a meal. And we began to learn about the great impact that these beliefs have on everyday life for all Cubans.

“As one of the Cuban writers explained, ‘in this religion we are so even’. A Cuban santero explained how slaves would disguise their Orishas (Yoruba deities) as Catholic saints in order to preserve their authentic ancestral and traditional beliefs.”  

The Yoruba people are believed to have migrated from Upper Egypt and Nubia around the time of the Exodus of the Book of Genesis. The Yoruba group are assumed to have developed out of undifferentiated Volta-Niger populations by at least the 1st millennium BC. Settlements of early Yoruba speakers are assumed to correspond to those found in the wider Niger area from about the 4th century BC, especially at Ife.

These prehistoric settlements gave birth to one of Africa’s great empires, the Ife in the 12th century. The beautiful life like sculptures produced by that kingdom’s artists predate the Italian Renaissance by several centuries. This seems to be the formative era for the Yoruba people, as reflected in the oral tradition. The Ife were eventually surpassed by the Oyo, who became the dominant Yoruba military and political power in the 17th century. The Oyo Empire was active in the African slave trade during the 18th century. The Yoruba often demanded slaves as a form of tribute and some were then sold by the Oyo and entered the Atlantic slave trade. This connection between the new world and Nigeria is highlighted in Feast in a beautiful, haunting scene set on a South American plantation, where the names of deceased slaves and the prices they were sold for are projected on the bodies of the actors. Then, through a clever use of lighting, their souls almost appear to leave their bodies, as if to say that through death the spirits of these slaves eventually returned to their native home.

This connection between the old world and the new is also highlighted later in the play in a scene which recreates the 60s sit-ins held at America’s segregated luncheon counters to force owners to integrate their facilities. The piece suggest that the courage it took to take part and not fear the violence which was often used against them was a direct result of the protestors’ Yoruba ancestry, whether they were consciously aware of it or not. It was still there and the writers suggest that perhaps it was the Yoruba gods who protected them and eventually gave them victory. 

The media often highlights what divides those from Africa and the African diaspora, but Feast has an altogether different message and it is that maybe the differences which divide us are not as important as they may initially appear to be, and are in fact superficial. What unites us is far more powerful and it is our link to our common ancestry.

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