d’bi young’s ‘sankofa trilogy’ – a review

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by N. Zahra – BASICS Issue #27 (Dec 2011 / Jan 2012)

The proper nouns pertaining to the work of d’bi young have been left in lower case to respect the spelling conventions of the artist.

From October 22 to December 4, 2011, the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto staged d’bi young anitafrika’s three plays, the sankofa trilogy. Each play in the trilogy tells the story of a generation – 1972, 1992, and 2002 – in a long line of Jamaican women struggling with the violence of colonialism and neo-colonialism. d’bi tells the stories of these women through a technique called biomyth, an approach to artistic creation and storytelling that embeds one’s personal lived experiences within the broader people’s history. While each play is distinct in its style and specific themes; they all deal with the different ways that the sankofa women have grappled with the violence inflicted upon African women by colonialism. d’bi’s mastery of monodrama reveals itself in these three one-woman shows as she convincingly slips from one character to the next – often accompanied by intense rapid emotional shifts – in a heartbeat.

 blood.claat, the first of the three monodramas, tells the story of mudgu sankofa, a 15-year-old girl coming of age in 1972 Jamaica. She is being raised by her granny and her mother is living in Toronto. Although she has many of the same preoccupations associated with a 15-year-old girl such as boys, sports and music, she is also struggling with the feelings of shame projected onto her by the wider society. These feelings re-emerge throughout the whole story as her granny and boyfriend make her feel shame for menstruating.

In an attempt to guard her from becoming pregnant, granny sends mudgu to her evangelical aunt, where, tragically, she is raped and impregnated by her uncle. When her granny accuses her of becoming pregnant by her just murdered boyfriend, mudgu finally reveals that it was actually her uncle. Granny, shattered by the news, reveals that she too was impregnated through rape at 15. This powerful revelation of common intergenerational experience is a theme that runs through all three stories.

mudgu links her experience of motherhood with the powerful history of the maroons by naming her daughter sekesu, who was the twin sister of Jamaican shero nanny of the maroons. Sekesu, unlike her sister, did not escape slavery, but she did gave birth to a child named Mudgu who would eventually join nanny in the mountains in the struggle against colonialism. The choice mudgu makes shows her strength and determination to overcome the violence of neo-colonialism and women’s exploitation.

The second play in the trilogy, benu, takes us to 1992 Toronto and tells the story of sekesu, who comes to be raised in Canada by mugdu’s mother. When sekesu is 20 years old, her granny returns to Jamaica, leaving sekesu to herself.

In benu, we do not come to know what sekesu knows of the circumstances of her birth or why she does not live with her mother, but the scarring of abandonment is evident. After becoming pregnant – and then again abandoned – by a man she is seeing, she gives birth to benu. All alone and trying to navigate an overly-medicalised birthing experience in a Toronto hospital, sekesu is subject to an unwanted epidural. The trauma of the non-consensual medical intervention leads sekesu to experience the common side effect of spinal headaches, and a wave of intense emotional breakdowns that we the audience can only ascribe to the combined effects of the traumatic birthing experience and the repeated abandonments in her life.

Wracked by physical and emotional pain, sekesu leaves her 7-month-old daughter benu at home to seek emergency medical attention. Forced to wait hours and hours in the emergency ward without ever being seen, she is eventually arrested for leaving her child at home alone. We stand witness to the overwhelming structural violence of Canadian society from the violent and brutal birthing experience sekesu endures to the eventual criminalization of this emotionally-fragmented woman. Juxtaposed with her tortuous present is a mythical backdrop, where we are told the beautiful birth story of humanity that was sekesu’s favourite story growing up.

The trilogy ends with the recently produced word! sound! powah!, the story of benu and the fictional poets in solidarity group set in 2012 Jamaica. The poets group plans a poetry slam for the day of the presidential elections to protest the lack of commitment of all the candidates to the people. But when on Election Day the winning presidential candidate is assassinated, the blame falls onto the poets in solidarity group. benu is taken into police custody, questioned, and brutally tortured as she fearlessly denies her interrogator’s claims and defies his threats. benu’s defiance, and the play as a whole, becomes an interrogation of the past colonialism and present neo-colonialism of Jamaican society, which we come to see mocked through the hallow jubilations of presidential hopefuls paying their lip-service to Jamaica’s nominal independence fifty years prior in 1962.

benu is finally murdered for not bowing to the brutality of her torturer, ending her life and the trilogy with the final words ‘death before dishonour.’

In all three plays d’bi young anitafrika illustrates the contradictions and opposing forces within humanity. Death and birth, hate and love, shame and honour, resistance and submission, violence and beauty, although in contradiction with one another, manage to become their opposites at some point throughout the stories. Every contradiction is a unity of opposing forces, with one aspect of the contradiction often destroying the other.

The significance of d’bi’s work stretches far beyond the confines of a critical examination of Jamaica and its diaspora to force its audience to confront the simultaneity of the violence and beauty of our time in a system that brutalizes us and that we continuously resist. The sankofa trilogy is a truly revolutionary work of art that will hopefully inspire the building of a truly revolutionary artists movement.

More on d’bi young’s work can be found at www.dbiyoung.net.

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