How does a nice Jewish boy from the northeast United States find himself
in the middle of a cemetery in Khartoum as part of a Sufi ritual, surrounded by hundreds of Sudanese men, women and children, dancing, whirling and trancing? How do I find myself dancing along and feeling so strangely at home and enveloped by the colossal warmth of the community?
I was privileged to be invited to Sudan in late March—in a delegation with Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp and William (Ninja) Ruiz of the ensemble UNIVERSES, and TCG’s director of artistic programs and ITI-U.S, Emilya Cachapero—for events surrounding the 13th Al-Bugaa International Theater Festival, which launched on World Theatre Day, March 27. The trip was made possible by festival founder Ali Mahdi, a UNESCO Artist for Peace and the leader of ITI-Sudan and Al-Bugaa Theatre Troupe, which creates theatrical works with soldiers, war orphans and refugees.
As part of a larger effort to strengthen relationships between Sudanese and U.S. artists, the delegation signed collaborative agreements between Al-Bugaa and ITI-U.S., and between the Sudanese company and the newly formed Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University.
The Bronx-born UNIVERSES wowed festival audiences with its singular fusion of theatre, hip-hop, poetry and politics, and had the largely Arabic-speaking audiences dancing in the aisles of the large open-air theatre that houses the festival. An impassioned crowd of Sudanese scholars, artists, press and audience members gathered in a tent after each performance to reflect and argue fervently about what they had seen. Palpable in their responses was their genuine shock at the sharp contrast between their impressions of what the U.S. looks and sounds like, and their firsthand experience of our delegation. This was a bracing reminder of the potency of citizen-to-citizen exchange through theatre. UNIVERSES also led an extraordinary day of workshops with more than 20 Sudanese young people.
The festival featured an eclectic mix of performances by troupes from the Sudan and beyond, combining Sudanese forms of pantomime, folklore, hip-hop inspired dance and more traditional dramas. A highlight was the sophisticated performance of a Beckett-inspired absurdist work from Nigeria’s Theater Emissary, Two Characters Undefined, by Paul Ugbede, featuring impressive work from director Taiwo Afloabi and performers Charles Okeoghene Etubiebi and Samson Oklobia.
With increasing freedom of expression over the past decade, a vital and thriving theatrical scene is emerging that reflects the plurality of Sudanese culture, often weaving together new forms of theatre with ancient rituals such as the one we attended in the cemetery. Mahdi describes how this weekly public Sufi ritual is emblematic of the way the Sudanese are employing theatre, dance and music in a manner inextricably woven with Sudanese communal life, and with citizens’ rituals of prayer, family and healing.
As with Al-Bugaa’s use of Forum Theatre techniques, which have had such profound impact on development and the promotion of peace in conflict zones, the impression left is of a culture in which performance is, for many, an essential ingredient in daily life. With members of Al-Bugaa poised to tour with Mahdi to the U.S. this year, there is a great deal to look forward to in these blossoming collaborative partnerships.
Derek Goldman is the artistic director of the Davis Performing Arts Center and co-director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University. For more on World Theatre Day, visit www.tcg.org/international.