Dehkontee Artists Theatre Wows the Crowd at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts with a Broadway Style Spectacular African Theatrical Performance!
Dehkontee Artists Theatre wowed the crowd at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts last night (January 9th, 2016) with a Broadway style spectacular display of African folklore and pageantry and African theatrical performance! The thespians kept the audience spellbound and glued to their seats without intermission for an hour and a half. The African folkloristic theatrical presentation was also action packed and comical. It ended in a suspenseful denouement just when the spectators had comfortably adjusted themselves in their seats and were craving for more entertainment from the Dehkontee Artists that put up a magnificent African production of Joe Gbaba’s “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville”.
Mainly, the unquenchable thirst and anxiety from the spectators was sparked by the notoriety of Black Snake preying on the fat greasy frogs of Frogsville. In the end he chased the frogs out of their own village and forced them to flee for their lives and seek refuge in the swamps of Soniwen! However, the Narrator in the play (Alie Kamara) promised the enthused audience that DATI would present a sequel to the show (a Part Two of “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville”) in the near future (August 20th, 2016) at the same venue to quench their desire for more African folklore and fables!
The glamorous event was in observance of the 39th Anniversary of the founding of Dehkontee Artists Theatre and the 42nd Celebration of UNC-Greensboro trained director and actor, Dr. Joe Gbaba as a notable American Liberian theatre icon and playwright! The colorful ceremony was graced by a onetime student of Dr. Joe Gbaba, His Excellency Jeremiah Sulunteh, the Liberian Ambassador accredited near Washington, D.C., who was accompanied by his wife and some members of the Liberian Embassy staff. Also present in the theatre were some local officials of Prince George’s County in the State of Maryland, as well as the Chair Lady and members of DATI’s Patrons Club: Mrs. Comfort Shilue-Sobah, Alfreda Chaeyee-Morris, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac and Amanda Yah; DATI’s President James Krischen Wah, Sr.; DATI’s Board of Directors members Emmanuel Kwame Gbedee and Juliana Koffa-Dixon; Mr. Philip Krawlay Klah, Sr., President of the Liberian Community in the Research Triangle of Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill in North Carolina; maternal uncles and aunt of Dr. Gbaba, including James Glaywulu, Smith Mooney, Joseph and Edith Wallekenneh; ULAA’s Secretary-General Arthur Doe, and the United Tchien Association in the America’s President Anthony Urey and his delegation. Other attendees included senior citizens, parents and children as well as Liberian and U.S. citizens and Bowie residents of varied age groups and racial demographics that remained speechless and fascinated by the colorful costumes of the animal characters and picturesque African set design.
The production began with a preview that consisted of the brief history of DATI’s establishment at the University of Liberia in 1977 and highlights of the contributions made by the organization and its founder Dr. Joe “Shakespeare” Gbaba toward the promotion and preservation of Liberian/African arts and culture worldwide. Special tributes were made to DATI’s first Grand Patron, the late President of the Republic of Liberia, Dr. William R. Tolbert, Jr., and Dr. MacKinley A. Deshield, Jr., First Sponsor of Dehkontee Artists Theatre and former Dean of the College of Agriculture and Forestry. DATI also paid homage and observed a moment of silence for a dear friend of the organization named Mrs. Mary Nusser, the late Outreach Coordinator of the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts who suddenly passed away recently.
The curtains opened at sharp 7:30 p.m. with the agile and adept Narrator Alie Kamara, an African American of Sierra Leonean descent dressed in his spectacular zebra costume. Alie fantastically introduced the fable of “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville” by vividly delivering his lines in a minstrel-like fashion. He was totally immersed in his role and kept the theme of the play and the audience glued together and awake as he appeared in various scenes in the play and provided sequential continuum of the storyline to engage the audience. At one point of the production one person from the audience shouted out loudly in affirmation of a story the Narrator told about the disunity among the frogs in Frogsville. The three happy frogs of Frogsville (Toad, Bull, and Spring Frogs) were played by a father-and-sons trio: Dr. Joe Gbaba as Spring Frog, Julian Gbaba as Toad and Jacques Gbaba as Bull Frogs. The trio demonstrated a spirit of comradery while at the same time painting a clear picture of dissent among the frogs in Frogsville.
Annette Landers contributed immensely to the success of the production in many capacities: she played Mother Toad, and served as both the scenic designer for the set and the Green Carpet Event and as make-up artist. As Mother Toad and head wife of Toad the Wise One Mother Toad depicted the role of a devoted wife and mother of Baby Toad played by Ariminta Gbaba (wife of DATI’s Executive Director Dr. Joe Gbaba). Together the Toads spiced up the production with their husband-wife and mother-daughter bonds that portrayed true African family life and interrelationships. The awesome performance of the Toads was complemented by “Chay-chay-polay Chicken” played by Rita Pierre, a die-heart DATI member who travelled with her family from the State of Tennessee to celebrate with her DATI colleagues. Another DATI member that showed up for the occasion was Lars Tomo McCritty. He helped with stage management and participated as one of the guards to Black Snake.
Well, “Talk about the devil and he appears”, the old folks say. Black Snake (Daniel Kevin Moore, Jr.) nailed it! He kept the crowd on their heels for his notoriety as the archenemy of the frogs. For an example, Black Snake hissed and jeered at the frogs and horrifyingly chased them out of Frogsville after he was elected Chief of Frogsville! More importantly, Daniel Moore’s portrayal of Black Snake punctuated the morale of the play that is centered on the need for national unity and rule of law in society. The play also promotes the principles of democracy; endorses cultural and political tolerance and stresses the need for voters’ education to ensure the holding of free and fair general elections worldwide.
The protocol of the night ended with a “Green Carpet Event” during which members of the audience, including the Liberian Ambassador Mr. Jeremiah Sulunteh, had an opportunity to participate in photo shoots on the green carpet with cast members of “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville”. Also, copies of the published text of the play and narrative version of “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville” were on sale and some copies of the published narrative version of the play were autographed by the author and Executive Director of DATI Dr. Joe Gbaba.
Future DATI Performance
The public is hereby asked to look out for DATI’s next showing of “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville” during the spring and summer months of 2016. Also, auditions for its forthcoming production of “Love for Mymah” will be announced shortly. The paly may be presented at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts on August 20, 2016. Furthermore, the Management of Dehkontee Artists Theatre, Inc. extends its grateful thanks and appreciation to the City of Bowie for its generous grant provided to partly help underwrite the cost of the event. Grateful thanks also go to Councilman Todd Turner of District # 4 and Councilwoman Karen Toles of District # 7of Prince Geroge’s County, the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland Byod Rutherford and his wife Mrs. Monica Rutherford and all those who favorably responded to DATI’s kind invitation to attend or acknowledge appreciation of DATI’s efforts to promote culture and entertainment for residents of the City of Bowie at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts.
Published by DATI’s Public Relations Bureau
10 January, 2016
“When God Calls You, You Can’t Say “No”: 42 Years of Service to Humanity in the Performing Arts!”
(Back roll: L-R): Kathy Lokko, Eric Goll, Joshua Howard, Christopher Diggs, Herbert Elliott, Melvin Smith (deceased), Claude Langley, Dr. Maude Major, Dr. Henrique Scott, Sondia Tubman, Joseph Kappia, Comfort Innis, Festus Russell; (front roll: L-R: Bill Ross, Josephine Gibson, Dr. Joe Gbaba, Evelyn Broderick-Weeks, Edwin Gibson)
How Dehkontee Artists Theatre Was Started and Why It Became Liberia’s Premiere Theatre
Thirty-eight years ago, a new wind of cultural rebirth and political consciousness hit Liberia as a whole—particularly at the University of Liberia’s main campus on Capitol Hill in Monrovia. Monrovia is the capital city of Liberia. It is a peninsula, a body of land surrounded by water, mainly the Atlantic Ocean and the Du River. Hence, its original name was “Dugbor” (literally meaning: “at the mouth of the Du River” in the local Bassa and Deiweion languages), long before it was renamed “Monrovia” in honor of American President James Monroe by American freed slaves that repatriated to Africa in the early 19th century after the abolition of slave trade. The original Vai name of Monrovia is “Ducor”. Hence, Monrovia today is not just the capital city of Africa’s oldest republic but a melting pot of various cultures of Liberia and its varied ethnic groups. Hence, it is not surprising that the cultural and political reawakening referenced in this text in part sprang from not only the founding of Dehkontee Artists Theatre, Inc. (DATI) at the University of Liberia in Monrovia in 1977, but DATI’s founding also coincided with a stronger wave of socio-politico and economic transformation that was gradually taking place in the entire country. One main reason for this was because unlike his predecessor, President William R. Tolbert, Jr. during whose reign DATI was founded, was more lenient and allowed opposition politicians to exercise their right to freedom of speech.
At first, the rebirth started with a change of political regime during the passing of the 18th President of Liberia, William V.S. Tubman. He ruled the first African independent republic for twenty-seven unbroken years. After his death, Tubman was succeeded by his Vice President of nineteen years and 19th President of Liberia named William R. Tolbert, Jr. Slowly but surely different socio-political pressure, interest, and cultural groups gradually leapt up like oases in the desert and later served as undercurrents for the drastic social, economic, and political change that took place in Liberia during the reigns of Presidents Tolbert and Samuel Kanyon Doe.
As a matter of fact, most of the pressure and interest groups were spearheaded by fired up young Liberian intellectuals who identified themselves as “progressives” or advocates of Marxist/socialist ideologies. Interestingly, too, some of the promoters of Marxist/communist principles were individuals that President Tolbert had personally invited as his “Precious Jewels”, to join hands with him and the “Grand Old True Whig Party” in order to build a new Liberia. Accordingly, and for most Liberians, the whirlwind of change was viewed as ‘expedient’ and timely to effect some sort of socio-economic and political turn around in Liberia because since its founding in 1847 the majority of the Liberian population were poverty-stricken, illiterate (unable to read and write and unable to fluently speak the English language that is the official medium of communication in Liberia). Besides, the common people felt left out of the decision making process by those who ruled them, as was evident through the blatant denial of most of their daily basic needs: equal access to education, good medical facilities, good jobs, basic utilities like safe pipe borne drinking water, electricity, good farm-to-market roads to transport their goods to marketplaces, etc.
In view of the foregoing President Tolbert also sensed it was high time to bridge the wide economic, social, and political gap that existed between the haves and have-nots of the Liberian society. To do this, he called for the total involvement of all Liberians to build a new inclusive Liberian society through his “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” Policy. “Total involvement”? What a very strange political concept it was for the status quo that President Tolbert had been a part of as Vice President to an aristocratic president and demagogue whose policy was “So say one so say all”! Against this backdrop, how was President Tolbert to unravel the age old rampant corruption that permeated every fabric of the Liberian society—political pundits wondered.
A Clarion Call to All Liberians to Help in Rebuilding a Wholesome Functioning Liberian Society
Contrary to the “So say one, so say all” policy of President Tubman, President Tolbert entertained the broader view of what he termed “a wholesome functioning Liberian society.” He believed that by engaging all Liberians from every walk of life, he would engender an amicable atmosphere of mutual respect, trust, and understanding among the citizens of Liberia, and thereby create national consciousness. In addition, President Tolbert also believed actively engaging Liberians would instill discipline and patriotism in the citizenry, to ask not what their country could do for them but what they in turn could do for their country. In this light he reasoned that the best way to establish genuine rapport with the ordinary people was to speak their language and use culture as a vehicle to convey his policies to the ordinary people. Hence, President Tolbert set the pace and precedent of being the first Liberian Head of State to address the nation in a traditional Liberian vernacular (Kpelle).
In addition, Tolbert wanted to prepare the future leaders of Liberia to learn how to strive for self-sufficiency and independence. For this reason, he introduced his “Self-Reliance” policy; and, thus, the first group of Liberians President Tolbert turned to for help were the youths of Liberia. The youths mostly included young Liberian intellectuals in their mid-twenties and early thirties that had studied at home or abroad either through family resources or on Liberian government scholarships in different fields of disciplines. He referred to them as his “Precious Jewels” and encouraged them to return home and join the rest of their compatriots to contribute their quotas toward the development of a new “wholesome functioning” Liberian society. In the end, though, most of President Tolbert’s recruits became his worst nightmare. They subsequently preached Marxist/socialist agendas that approximately two decades later would lead to uncontrollable chaos and disaster for all Liberians and other West Africans in the sub region.
Notwithstanding, what is important to note here and what created the suitable atmosphere that brought about the establishment of Dehkontee Artists Theatre was that President Tolbert believed that every revolution requires a cultural base in order to succeed. Additionally, he believed that with joint efforts Liberians in the diaspora and those on the ground could work together in order to lift the citizens of Liberia “from mats to mattresses”. As a result, he set a good example by appointing fresh Liberian brains from abroad and at home in key positions of public trust. Some of his appointees included youthful Liberian intellectuals from varied ethnicities whose surnames such as “Flomo” or “Yarkpawolo” or “Kesselly” had never before been broadcast on the two o’clock news on national radio station (ELBC), or announced on the seven o’clock evening news on national television (ELTV).
For those who are strange to Liberian politics, 2 p.m. or 7 p.m. were prime radio and television hours during which major government appointments were announced on the national radio station (ELBC) or national TV known as ELTV! Those were also the hours when the blood pressures of Liberian government officials went sky rocketing because it was no telling whether or not they would be arbitrarily dismissed without being asked to resign as is normally done in accordance with civil service rules and regulations across the globe. On the contrary, President Tolbert could appoint you 2 p.m. and dismiss you at 7 p.m. for “malfeasance, misfeasance and rampant corruption!”
In addition, Tolbert’s speedy and revolutionary move to bring new faces and strange Liberian surnames to national prominence earned him the nick name “Speedy”, and his new leadership style was indeed a shocking contrast or breakaway from the norm of “Who Know you” and the cruel political policies of the past that sent many opposition politicians and social justice advocates to “Belleh Yallah” (a notorious prison in the heart of “nowhere” in Liberia). Most of the time opposition politicians were incarcerated in Belleh Yallah to “teach them a good lesson so they would hush their big for nothing mouths”! This is very much unlike how opposition politicians speak their minds in the western world without being incarcerated for speaking their minds. However, in Liberia or in most African countries where the concept of democracy is still at its infantile stage, freedom of speech is highly restricted!
Further, “Speedy” was a strong advocate of law and order and he vehemently enforced the laws of the land to the fullest extent possible. For an example, he reinstated the death penalty when ritualistic killing in Liberia was at its peak, and thus executed blind justice by even setting examples on close relatives that were convicted of capital crimes punishable by death! Of course as a youth growing up, the shining examples he set had a great impact on my life in terms of advocating for the rule of law and promoting peace, tolerance, and cultural diversity in Liberia. As a result, I now find it very difficult to accept the high level of lawlessness that exists in Liberia today that allows perpetrators of heinous crimes against Liberians and humanity to hold high positions of public trust without these individuals being held accountable for the consequences of their actions and without having their day in a court of competent jurisdiction!
Also, as for President Tolbert, he did not have to know your ma and pa before you could be appointed in his cabinet. Instead, he focused strictly on what the individual was capable of achieving based on qualifications and merits. This too was a source of inspiration for me because I felt compelled to exhibit my talents so I too would be accorded the same recognition that the President of Liberia afforded his “Precious Jewels”. And indeed, President Tolbert did give me my flowers when I worked diligently to promote the history and culture of Liberia at home and abroad!
However, and needless to say, President Tolbert encountered a harsher reaction from the “boys of the old school” within his inner circle. They felt their legacy and monopoly to statehood was gradually being taken away by Tolbert’s immersion of some young and inexperienced “book people” in his government! For this reason, Tolbert’s enemies were determined to undermine his revolutionary domestic and foreign policies that focused on non-alignment of Liberia to any political bloc (West or East) during the cold war; his national policy of “self-reliance”; his foreign policy regarding the total liberation of the African continent from colonial rule; and the uplifting of the lives of all Liberians through his “Total Involvement”, “From mats to mattresses”, and self-reliance policies.
The Emergence of Pressure, Interest, and Cultural Groups during the Tolbert Era
However, just as President Tolbert was making great strides and headways to portray Liberia as an influential world class independent African nation nationally and internationally, meanwhile, several pressure and interest groups bounced up during this period, either to support or undermine Tolbert’s national or foreign policies. For instance, on the socio-political front some of the interest and pressure groups included the Progressive People’s Alliance led by Gabriel Bacchus Matthews; Togba-Nah Tipoteh’s (aka Rudolph Robers’) the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA); the Student Unification Party (SUP) that I once served as Secretary-General. And, on the cultural front, there were: the Blamadon Theatre Workshop headed by James Roberts, (aka, Kona Khasu), Womi Bright-Neal’s Womtee Theatre; Tejladru Folk Group headed by Anthony Nagbe; Jallah K.K. Kamara’s Cultural Ambassadors; Bai T. Moore and the Liberian National Cultural Troupe of Liberia that was run by the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism; the University of Liberia Chorus headed by Agnes Nebo-Von Ballmos; Cutttington College Choir led by Dr. Joseph Natt; the Ricks Institute Choir, Lott Carey Choir, and Dehkontee Artists Theatre based at the University of Liberia. These various social, political, and cultural groups provided a new cultural and political dimension or twist to the wind of change that occurred during the Tolbert and Doe epochs. As a result, President Tolbert hardly ever traveled abroad without including a cultural troupe, or a college chorus group like the University of Liberia Chorus, as part of his entourage.
My Role as a “Precious Jewel of Liberia” and Playwright during the Tolbert Epoch
Hence, my role as a “Precious Jewel” of Liberia and playwright during the Tolbert epoch mainly focused on entertaining and educating Liberians on what was trending culturally and politically. I strove to strike a balance between what was morally good and in the best interest of the majority, and provided civic education to maintain checks and balances between the leaders of the day and the people they led. Notably, I presented my message in a more moderate or refined tone that differed significantly from the fiery, inflammatory speeches that were delivered by the “progressives” and Marxists at mass rallies across the country. For example, during my administration as President of the Silver Jubilee Freshman Class at LU in 1976, I wrote, directed and acted in “No More Hard Time”. It became a national sensation and success due to its forceful social justice message regarding the socio-economic conditions of the underserved of the Liberian society.
“No More Hard Time”, in a nutshell, features a poor family living in the Vai Town section of Monrovia who were unable to pay their children’s school fees. As a result, their daughter Bendu was seduced by a ‘god pa’ or “big shot” in the government who attempted to pay her fees in return for sexual relationship. Further, the drama brought to national spotlight the commonplace practice of Liberian big shots exploiting young Liberian females in exchange for financial supports or gains. Thus, “No More Hard Time” was a national sensation and hit because it not only reflected a true picture of the Liberian society as it was then; but as well, it is a classic because such malpractice still exists today in the Liberia, even up to the writing of this article.
Furthermore, my role as a student leader and a creative and outspoken youth not only earned me the admiration of President Tolbert, my colleagues and faculty at the University of Liberia, as well as members of the international community; but rather, it also afforded me the opportunity to grow and develop my leadership skills at an early stage. It likewise helped me develop teaching skills and how to market my talents as a versatile literary figure. Thus, over the years, I have had the privilege and pleasure of teaching thousands of individuals at various levels of academia: elementary, middle school, secondary, and college, in the realms of theatre, literature, history, education, and culture. Therefore, I am deeply grateful to all of the institutions of learning in Liberia and abroad that provided me this golden opportunity to serve mankind as an educator. Equally so, I am also grateful to thousands of my students across the globe that the Lord has blessed me with and that shower so much love and respect upon me. Furthermore, I am very proud of the high levels of successes my students have accomplished.
For an example, some of the actors and actresses I trained included Jamesetta Howard-Wolokolie, now Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia. She co-stared with me as Ma Miatta (my wife) while I played Mr. Kamara, Ma Miatta’s husband. Felicia Badio played the role of Bendu and ‘god daughter’ and Yama Wariety acted as the Monrovia bluff girl, or “zuitor” who influenced Bendu to engage in the ‘god pa’ business. William Travell played the godfather. As a major class project, we took “No More Hard Time” on the road to Nimba County, the birthplace of my vocation; and then we travelled as far as the eastern tip of Liberia to Harper City, Maryland County. There, we were warmly received by the citizens. Indeed, the national tour did much to give me national exposure and my clarion call for social justice for the poor in Liberia spread like wild fire!
The Inception of Dehkontee Artists Theatre at the University of Liberia
Bang! In 1977 came the inspiration and dream to organize a private University of Liberia-based theatre group to continue my career as a playwright, theatre director and actor. By then Bill Frank Enoyi had published my famous “Watta Police” poem in his magazine that brought me more national fame. “Watta Police” was read in every nook and cranny of Monrovia, on national radio (ELBC), and TV (ELTV). Accordingly, I became a household name, a popular student leader at the University of Liberia after our national tour. Thus, the stage was set for the birth of a group that would dominate the performing arts scene until the military coup that toppled the Tolbert administration and brought the first Indigenous, Samuel Kanyon Doe, to power.
Along the way though, several distinguished personalities played a major role in promoting my talents. One of such persons was Dr. MacKinley A. Deshield, Jr. who served as the first Chief Sponsor of Dehkontee Artists Theatre. He was Dean of the College of Agriculture and Forestry at the University of Liberia and was an ardent patron of the arts. During his leisure he played the hacksaw and sang in the United Methodist Church choir. Apart from being a humanitarian he was an agronomist par excellence and very heart-rending in his relationship with the underprivileged of society.
Taking my Talents to the International Scene through the Aegis of President Tolbert
Another milestone production of mine that boosted my career as an African playwright was “The Chains of Apartheid”! It received raving reviews in the past for its vivid portrayal of the apartheid system in Southern Africa during the Apartheid regimes of Ian Smith in Rhodesia that is now called Zimbabwe, and Pieter Botha of South Africa. Principally, I wrote this play in support of President Tolbert’s foreign policy regarding the total liberation of Southern Africa from colonial rule. In 1977, President Tolbert launched a national fund drive to support liberation movements that were combating apartheid regimes in Southern Africa: Namibia, then known as South West Africa, Zambabwe (then Rhodesia), Angola, and South Africa, etc. The funds were intended to support liberation movements that were struggling to gain their independence from western colonial powers. Therefore, the timing was perfect and the idea of a play projecting the just cause of African liberation resonated very well with African leaders across the continent of Africa that supported the cause of African literation along with President Tolbert. I also supported the cause of African liberation and wrote the play as my contribution to the struggle to liberate all Africans/Blacks from the yokes of colonialism, imperialism, and neo-colonialism.
“The Chains of Apartheid” was first staged at the E.J. Roye Auditorium in December, 1977. The following year after hosting the first week long drama festival at the University of Liberia in July, 1998, Dehkontee Artists took the play on an international tour to the Republic of Sierra Leone where Dehkontee was given a red carpet welcome by the government and people of Sierra Leone. The play was staged at the Freetown City Hall Auditorium, at Fourah Bay College Arena Theatre, and a command performance held at the State House in Freetown under the patronage of Sierra Leone’s Acting President S. I. Koroma (then First Vice President of Sierra Leone). The event also occurred in the presence of all diplomats accredited to that West African nation on Liberia’s Independence Day—July 26, 1978.
News of Dehkontee Artists’ stellar performance in Freetown reached “Speedy” and he was very excited to watch his “Precious Jewels” do a command performance for him. Accordingly, “The Chains of Apartheid” was staged twice at the Executive Mansion Theatre under the auspices of President Tolbert: on one occasion for the President and his close associates including the First Lady, Mrs. Victoria Tolbert, Chief Justice James A. A. Pierre, House Speaker Richard A. Henries, among others. The second showing was held during the state visit of Ghanaian Head of State General Fred Akkuffu and Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings. Afterward, “The Chains of Apartheid” was recommended by President Tolbert to be shown at the Heads of States Summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) but now called African Union (AU). Subsequently, “The Chains of Apartheid” was also staged under the aegis of Liberia’s Foreign Minister C. Cecil Dennis, Jr. at the Monrovia City Hall for all diplomats accredited near Monrovia in early 1979. However, the play was not presented at the Heads of States Summit in July of ’79 due to the hectic schedule of visiting African Heads of States and mounting security concerns at the time.
A Cultural Analysis of the Past
In review, the inception of Dehkontee Artists Theatre occurred during the socio-politico revolutionary wave that direly needed a cultural base in order to be sustained. In this light, DATI was a motivating force in helping the citizens of Liberia see themselves enacted on stage. Dehkontee Artists’ role was very significant because the group provided the people of Liberia some delicious artistic and intellectual foods for thought. This cultural reawakening and national consciousness was necessary in order to prevent violence while promoting peaceful coexistence and cultural diversity and tolerance among the citizens. Other than that, as Liberians would later experience during the Liberian civil war, any revolution or ideology that does not have a cultural base as did the rebel incursion, it is destined to go down the drains! Hence, it is safe to say that a major reason why the “progressive heatwave” died out in present day Liberia is because there was no definite cultural base or foundation to give the people a sense of direction; and instill self-awareness, self-discipline and patriotism in the citizenry.
As a consequence, the wave of self-hatred and self-destruction and brutality that was unleashed upon the people of Liberia was primarily due to the cultural void that was created by the tragic death of President Tolbert who himself was also chief patron of the arts, apart from being President of Liberia. Other factors that contributed to the cultural hollow included the abrupt cessation of cultural activities by Dehkontee Artists Theatre after I traveled abroad to pursue graduate studies in Drama (Directing and Acting) at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; as well as the immediate shutdown of other cultural groups that were supported by the Tolbert administration. The production groups that were hardest hit included those headed by Womi Bright-Neal, Lester Parker, the Cultural Ambassadors and the Tro-Tro Artist group.
The Transitional Periods of Dehkontee Artists Theatre, Inc.
Over the years (from 1977-2015) Dehkontee Artists Theatre underwent various periods of transition: first, there was the time when I graduated from LU in December, 1980 and traveled abroad in 1981 to pursue graduate studies at UNC-Greensboro School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. At UNC-G, I organized Dehkontee Artists Theatre in 1982. We participated in the Annual Greensboro City Stage Event at the “African Marketplace” and staged “Gee, the Mighty Warrior-king”, an African dance ballad. We also performed a main stage production of “The Chains of Apartheid” as my Master Thesis production in the Aycock Auditorium in the same year.
That was the very first time “The Chains of Apartheid” had been staged outside the continent of Africa and so it received mixed reactions from the audience. Now, there were two particular reasons for the strange reactions from the audience. Firstly, the play was about racism and so the message of the play struck a hard cord among Southerners who were watching “The Chains of Apartheid” at the UNC-G Aycock Auditorium. Secondly, the play was being presented in Greensboro down South in the early 1980s, roughly two decades from the date of the famous non-violent student protest by young African-American students at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro in 1960. So, it was understandable that the audience would be more irritable than their counterparts were on the continent of Africa where blacks were mostly in the majority.
Upon graduation in 1983, I returned to Liberia to contribute toward the development of the entertainment industry but received little or no support from the status quo for several reasons: one, most of those in decision making positions were unlettered and ignorant when it came to the promotion of the arts, even though they were mainly of indigenous backgrounds. Two, I had just married me a wife and had begun to set up a home and to start a family; but I was not employed because the status quo at the time opposed my getting married to an Americo-Liberian. Nevertheless, with God above and with help from family and friends I reorganized DATI and recruited students from the University of Liberia to keep the flames of DATI alive during those dark and trying days when I was unemployed.
Consequently, through the strong support and efforts of my new recruits, we were able to stage “The Resurrection” that I wrote and directed. Following that production, we went on a national tour to Bong and Grand Bassa Counties. Some of the cast members during this transitional period included but were not limited to: Lars Tomo McCritty, Benjamin Payne, Merrill Badio, Caleb Domah, Vela Carey, Gloria Butler, Lysandar McCritty, Lawrence Sharpe, Prince Dorsla, among others. Nonetheless, at that juncture, it was virtually impossible to strive for daily bread for my family and at the same time promote the culture and history of Liberia out of pocket. Hence, the activities of DATI were suspended when I received employment with Cuttington University College to serve on the faculty of the Humanities Division. Notwithstanding, I wrote and directed “The Minstrel’s Tales” and directed “The Chains of Apartheid” in my capacity as Director of the Cuttington University Players before I transferred to Zwedru Multilateral High School as Principal. There, I also wrote and directed “Yah” (“Vision”) before the eruption of the civil war in Liberia.
Promoting a Culture of Peace and Tolerance after the Liberian Civil War
A significant aspect of DATI's mission and vision is to preserve the history and culture of Liberia/Africa through the performing and visual arts, as well as to conduct research and publish our findings to educate and entertain DATI’s clientele on the rich culture and history of Liberia/Africa, both on the continent of Africa and in the diaspora. Hence, as a result of the bloody civil war in Liberia that destroyed a quarter million lives and the overall infrastructure of Liberia, there was a dire need to promote a culture of peace and tolerance. This was where my talents as an educator and cultural expert came in handy.
Accordingly, DATI as a non-profit educational and cultural agency was revived after the cessation of hostilities and duly incorporated at the Liberian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992. It’s goals and objectives are: to preserve and promote Liberian/African arts and culture through the performing and visual arts. In this respect, DATI was contracted by the United Nations Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF) to jumpstart a conflict and peace education project in collaboration with the Christian Health Association of Liberia (CHAL). The title of the UNICEF/DATI/CHAL project was the UNICEF Kukatonon Peaceful Conflict Resolution and Peace Education Project. It consisted of a peace education workshop for school teachers and administrators and local educational leaders, as well as a peace and conflict resolution manual. In addition, the project had a children’s peace theatre component that performed live in schools, communities, churches, mosques, villages, and various regions of Liberia. The Kukatonon Project was so successful that it was used as a model by the United Nations in conflict zones on the continent of Africa and in other parts of the world.
The revival of DATI after the Liberian civil war also included recruiting post war survivors to tell their own stories about the civil war with the aim to educate for peace and reconciliation among Liberians through the performing and visual arts. In this respect, several patriotic Liberians responded positively to my call to help reinstate rule of law in Liberia and to educate and entertain Liberians about their rich cultural heritage. The ultimate goal of this project was to advise Liberians to stop fighting and killing one another. Most of the public buildings were damaged during the war and so we made good use of what was left of the historic Centennial Memorial Pavilion as our temporary rehearsal space. The Centennial Memorial Pavilion is where Presidents of Liberia are inaugurated.
Thus, it took courage on the part of the new recruits to sacrifice their safety and meager resources (for those days there were hardly any) in order to restore a semblance of normalcy in post war Liberian society. Some of those heroic giants that responded to the call to national duty included but were not limited to: James Draper, Rita Pierre, Williette Musgrove, Gregory Tugbe, Samuel Tukpah, Alfred Kollie (deceased) Quentin Jackson, Gesler Murray, Fredrick Deshield, George Dossen, Wilhelmina Page, Garrison Barh, Alley Macaulay, Massa Kiadii, Ma Gbessay Kiazolu, Emmanuel Tulay, Emmanuel Lewis, Darilington Pelinah, Ledgerhood Rennie, John Henri, Arthur Wisseh (deceased), Anthony Killen, Kpah-gbor (the drummer from the National Cultural Center), Kemah Sadyue-Jacobs, Williametta Hall, Julian Gbaba, Jacques Gbaba, Jolynn Gbaba, Jose Gbaba, Toga Randall, Gabriel Koije, Marvee Sirleaf, among others.
One international diplomat that took keen interest in the cultural and educational contributions of Dehkontee Artists Theatre, Inc. was American Ambassador Peter jon de Vos. He was very instrumental in recommending us as a fit for the UNICEF peace education project. Furthermore, Ambassador de Vos visited our remote corporate site located on King Sao Boso Street at the Deshield Compound, and attended one of our performances “The Minstrel’s Tales” at the Centennial Memorial Pavilion during the early days of the cessation of hostilities in Liberia between the years 1992-93.
Also, a significant aspect of my training and professional goal as an African American playwright, theatre director, actor, and scholar, is to use education and theatre as tools for national development and international cooperation. In this light, establishing rapport with international personalities is very crucial to promoting national development and international cooperation. Consequently, my contribution toward the promotion of arts and culture in Liberia and here in the United States of America is to arouse the interest of the international community in Liberian/African history, arts, and culture. Against this backdrop, it is necessary to acquaint nationals and foreign nationals alike about the mission and vision statements of DATI to provide DATI’s clientele insights as to how they may be supportive in implementing the goals and objectives of a non-profit corporation such as DATI.
Culture and entertainment are two very important aspects of bringing people of diverse cultural and historical backgrounds together as audience members. And, over the past four decades DATI has spearheaded this social/cultural process by entertaining and educating citizens of the world from various socio-economic strata, Liberian and African nationals inclusive.
Battling with God’s Calling and Fleeing into Exile to the United States
When the Lord calls you to perform a task there is no way you can say “No”! Yes, God gave us free will to do what we want to with our lives; and to decide what we as humans think is best for us. Ultimately, God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipresent (he is everywhere), and omnipotent (all powerful). He knows better what our needs are than we do. Hence, one thing I am grateful for is that the Lord was gracious unto my family and me during the Liberia civil war. I saw so many miracles occur right in front of my eyes that made me speechless! Not, and, not one of us (my mother, wife, and five children, some of whom were then in their early teens and even younger), ever got a scratch on our bodies, let alone being shot, killed, or injured from strayed bullets! We escaped the civil war untouched; for true indeed, the Lord says: “Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm!”
Thus by virtue of his tender mercies, my life was spared because one, God wanted to prove a point that he created me to perform a specific task that I had not yet completed; and two, he wanted to further test and refine me as fine gold in order to implement his calling. Consequently, at his appointed time, I fled Liberia and only God alone knows how I escaped when I was black listed to be murdered by rebels loyal to Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The reason for my being black listed was not because I committed a crime against Liberians and humanity as a whole, but because of my ethnic background as a Krahn man and Liberian intellectual! I saw the black list myself and it also included names of indigenous Liberians the likes of Jackson F. Doe, David Dwanyen, Dr. Stephen Yekeson, and many others that were killed behind NPFL rebel lines!
Overtime, I immediately mustered up enough courage through prayers and perseverance, and developed the mind frame to struggle to bring my family over so that they would not be victimized by the rebels. Fortunately, the Lord sent some American humanitarians (The St. Thomases) my way that helped pave the way for my asylum and the reunification of my family. Of course I had to do odd jobs to survive and to earn some money, secure a home and the air fares, and prepare the necessary paper work to bring my wife and five children over to the United States. Unfortunately, our parents could not come because of stringent immigration laws.
I was motivated to go back to school while I worked full time with the School District of Philadelphia. I decided to study a similar liberal arts field—not in the performing arts—but education. I felt studying education would better prepare me to convey professionally the message the Lord had for me to me deliver to his people. And, the Lord’s message is about peace and universal brotherhood. Besides, I felt that due to the conscription of children in the Liberian civil war, Liberia would need better trained educators to help post war Liberian youths acquire some basic knowledge and skills to bring closure to the nightmares they encountered as child soldiers and former combatants, so they may successfully reintegrate into mainstream society. That was the rationale behind my specializing in Elementary and Special Education at one of America’s premiere Jesuit institutions—St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Hence, while majoring in education, I seized the opportunity to work with the School District of Philadelphia as a Special Education teacher for two years! The Philly school system was so ridiculously racist, unstructured, and lacked home-school congruity, that it required a rocket scientist to put the pieces together for those poor inner city kids from drug infested and violence-prone and dysfunctional North Philadelphia homes and families. For instance, the kids were so hipped that they jumped up and down from sunrise to sunset! They were always angry and aggressive; and they threw chairs and desks at each other; used curse words that you would never imagine a child to ever use; and their parents were worse than their kids when it came to lack of civilized mannerisms and appreciation for education, and so forth.
Prior to my traumatizing teaching experience in the U.S., I had taught at all levels of academia (elementary through college) in Liberia and so what I experienced as a teacher in a couple of urban American schools and classrooms was too frustrating to handle. Further, the contrast between teaching African children of the same age group as those I taught in America was like the difference between daylight and pitch-dark night! In addition, the principals of the two predominantly black schools where I taught in North Philadelphia were Caucasians; and apparently, they also had their own hidden agendas for the black kids in their schools. Therefore, attempting to even mention the word “Africa” to black kids as I had intended to do was an abomination because the curriculum I was given to teach the kids had not a single word about Africa, except for the buzz word “slavery”.
Therefore, to speak the truth, teaching in an inner city school environment was just too unbearable for a father, grandfather and a humanitarian my type. For this reason, I opted to seek employment outside of the education field since I could not get the level of support I needed from school authorities in Philadelphia in order to give the black kids the educational support they needed to at least learn about their heritage as members of the Black Race and as descendants of African kings and queens other than just being taught they were “descendants of slaves”!
After I put my teaching career on hold, I then had the unique experience of working as a child protection worker with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services. Again, this was an uphill battle since my specialty was not in the domain of “Social Work”. Even though I had similar qualifications that landed me the job, it was obvious from the get go that I would not receive any promotions because I did not have a social work degree despite the fact I performed the tasks of a social worker. However, that did not deter me from continuing my studies at St. Joe’s after I completed the Master of Science in Education with emphasis in Elementary and Special Education. Instead, I enrolled in the doctoral program for educational leaders, again with the mindset that after the war Liberia would need qualified educational leaders to reshape the destiny of its post war citizens by producing an inclusive curriculum that would prepare post war Liberian educational leaders to learn about themselves, better appreciate themselves, and promote peace and tolerance rather than for Liberians to tear one another apart!
Therefore, despite the constraints and challenges that came with pursuing a doctorate degree, plus the workload of handling very difficult cases that involved drug addicts, and ex-convicts that abused their children and spouses; and, with all of the numerous court hearings and reports that came along with the job description of a social worker or what was later redefined as a “Social Work Manager, II”, I still found time to revive Dehkontee Artists Theatre! Indeed, that’s how marvelous God is! He is a persistent God who knows what is best for you. Accordingly, for me, the fields of education and the performing arts are actually a vocation—a calling from God, and not just a career.
But, guess what! It took forty years plus in order for me to hear God calling me to be the playwright, educator, and performing artist that he wants me to be. Nevertheless, I finally yielded to his call when I opted for early retirement from the City of Philadelphia and relocated to Bowie in the State of Maryland—a fifteen-minute drive from the capital city of the world—Washington, D.C.—one of the hubs of world culture!
Thus far, Maryland appears to be an ideal place for retirement. I have found so much peace of mind here than I did in the bustling city life of Philadelphia. One thing for sure though, I did receive some “brotherly and sisterly love” from Philly! Further, life in Philadelphia helped me learn some of the ins and outs of being an American in a capitalist world. However, that was just yesterday but now today I am in the present and have just resumed implementing my vocation as God desires it to be. Henceforth, through the dead silence of my new environment I was able to hear clearly the plan God has for me—to use the talents he gave me and to implement the mandate he ordered forty-one years ago!
So, I set out to feel my way around my new environment after I received inspiration one night during my meditation with the Lord. Of course, this time around, I took my able lieutenant of thirty-two years to be my companion and we started going from one office to the next introducing ourselves and sharing our dream of reviving Dehkontee Artists Theatre, Inc. in Bowie, Maryland. The first activities I set out to implement was the DATI Children’s Peace Theatre. Since my grandkids were on vacation I could use the time available to me to teach them about the concept of peacekeeping and provide them the opportunity to learn about their African cultural heritage. One reason why this was necessary for the kids was because the schools they attend hardly mentions Africa in their curriculum. I found this out from my grandkids when I asked them if at all they were being taught the history of Africa. Their responses were unanimous and a resounding “No”!
In this light, I designed a curriculum that entailed information about the geography of Africa, the names of some African nations, African diets (foods) Africans eat, particularly in the West African nation of Liberia; dress codes, and various geographical sub regions of Liberia and Africa, respectively. The curriculum also included some literacy activities such as writing, speaking, listening, and a little bit of acting lessons to help develop my grandkids’ creative and literary skills.
Fortunately, an opportunity made itself available for the children to showcase what they had learned when the Embassy of Liberia near Washington, D.C. extended DATI an invitation to participate in its day long cultural extravaganza on July 25, 2015. The kids were very excited when they learned we had been invited. Inspired and excited at the same time, the children and I spent long hours rehearsing short dramatic monologues for the show for several weeks; and when the day of the show finally arrived, the children nailed it! They performed before a crowd of over six to seven hundred people and the response of the audience was very impressive—with loud shouts of hurray’s from the crowd. Even the Liberian Ambassador, His Excellency Jeremiah Sulunteh (a student of mine when I taught at Cuttington University in Suacoco, Liberia back in the day), was among the crowd along with his wife and some dignitaries and they all seemed to have had a wonderful time as well!
The cultural extravaganza was an eye opener for the kids and adult performers of DATI. We had a display table set up where visitors could come and acquaint themselves with various services DATI has to offer its clientele. Some members of the Maryland Arts and Humanities Council showed up to render their support and to explore what DATI has to offer the citizens of Maryland and the United States in terms of theatre and literacy.
Parents and their children and families also showed up by the droves to find out what DATI is all about and the interaction between DATI’s staff and the public was cordial and educational. Parents and their children asked questions about the history and culture of Africa, and a couple of visitors purchased copies of “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville”. Overall the weather was great most of the day: there
was bright sunshine and the trees in the chancery yard provided much needed shades from the rays of the glaring sunlight and summer heat. As well, there were many vendors and various booths at the cultural event hosted by the Liberian embassy. An estimated crowd of five to six thousand Liberians and foreign nationals attended the event. Indeed, it was an international gala of cultural attractions from Liberia and other African nations in terms of the display of artifacts, cultural dance and performances, as well as the sale of African musical CDs, various delicacies of Liberia, and so forth.
So far, the level of public support that DATI has received has been very great. Though getting started was a little difficult, things began to fall in place after our first public appearance at the Liberian Embassy Chancery. We were lucky enough to run into Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Miller, pastor of the Remnant Christian Fellowship Church in Laurel, Maryland, who blessed us by giving us a much needed rehearsal space to jumpstart our 2015-2016 theatre season with the rehearsal of “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville”. Special thanks to Councilman Todd Turner of the 4th District of Prince George’s County where Dehkontee Artists Theatre, Inc. is located. He has been very helpful in warmly welcoming us to Prince George’s County and his District by providing pertinent information as to how we can receive public assistance to successfully carry out our cultural and educational projects in the County and his District. Annette Esterheld at the City Hall in Bowie has been such a great help as well, in terms of encouraging us to partner with the City of Bowie and the Arts and Humanities Council to implement cultural and educational programs for children and their families in the City of Bowie and the State of Maryland. Ethel Lewis and Alec Simpson made it their duty to attend our first public appearance at the Liberian Embassy in order to show their solidarity and support for our work in the State.
Of course we would be remiss not to mention the kindness, courtesy, and great cordial tie between DATI and the staff and management of the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts! Throughout my forty-one year-career as a theatre director, actor, playwright, and producer, I have never seen such a group of warm-hearted individuals who are so committed to their jobs and devoted to the upkeep of the performing arts in the City of Bowie and the State of Maryland as a whole. We are deeply grateful for their timely assistance and cooperation and do look forward to more and better opportunities to collaborate with them in the future.
For all of you who have supported my efforts over the past four decades or more, I say “Thank you very much”! To God be the glory for the great things he has done in my and your lives! I praise Almighty Younsuah for calling me to the service of mankind in the realms of culture and education. I pray that he will continue to give me the courage and strength to continue his work on earth and that someday when I am called to glory that the Lord may be pleased with my performance and say: “Well done, good and faithful servant”! One thing for sure, when God calls you, you cannot say “No” because he is all powerful!
Published by the Dehkontee Artists Theatre Public Relations Department
Bowie, Maryland, U.S.A.
21 December, 2015