Theatre and history collided in a recent collaboration between Burning Barriers Building Bridges (B4) Youth Theatre in Liberia and the museum theatre department of Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest American living history museum. The West African country of Liberia was established by free and recently emancipated Black Americans in 1822. To commemorate the bicentennial of that founding, B4 Youth Theatre came together last summer and fall with artists from Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia to create a piece of theatre called 200 Years of Returns, which was performed on Liberia’s Providence Island on Dec. 18, 2022.
While Colonial Williamsburg focuses on a period of U.S. history that predates Liberia’s national modern founding by more than 50 years, the shared histories of enslavement and freedom between the United States and Liberia made this a natural connection. Black American actors well versed in staging scenes from the time of slavery on U.S. soil had the remarkable and resonant opportunity to bring those stories and experiences to the continent not only of their ancestors but also of the characters they often portray.
The ensemble for 200 Years was built virtually between two continents over the course of two years. The collaborators met for the first time in person in June 2022, when the B4 team from Liberia and dancers from Angels of Praise Dance Ministry in Baltimore, Md., traveled to Williamsburg to further develop the play. The team bid farewell to one another on American soil at the end of July, preparing to meet again in December in Liberia to perform.
The following is a selection of journal entries written by members of the U.S.-based collaboration team as they documented the experience of performing 200 Years of Returns in Liberia last December.
Dec. 12, 2022: On the Plane
Jamar Jones, actor, Colonial Williamsburg: God wants us together. We have endured a global pandemic, displacements, the uncertainties of life, and yet here we are! The sky is dark yet vibrant. The light will be there to welcome us to the land from whence our ancestors came. Asé.
Deirdre Jones Cardwell, actor, Colonial Williamsburg: I am awake as we approach the Motherland. There are rainbows in the sky! Good morning, Africa! I think you can love a place you have never been. I am thinking about the journeys by boat of our ancestors who have traveled across the Atlantic before me, some by choice, and so many by force.
Dec. 13, 2022: Libassa Ecolodge, Liberia
Katrinah Carol Lewis, artistic director, director, actor, Colonial Williamsburg: I’m in Liberia, waiting for the others to arrive. Tomorrow we will begin our rehearsal process to present 200 Years on Providence Island, where the Black Americans first settled here. I spent the day working on my lines. Reading the words that we wrote brings up a lot of feelings now that I am here. I am very aware of the historical trauma I carry.
Dec. 14, 2022: Monrovia, Day One of Rehearsal
Deirdre: We made it to Liberia! Walking onto Providence Island for the first time, I was filled with a lot of thoughts and feelings. Uncertainty, curiosity, excitement….
Katrinah: When we got into the performance space, I was a bit overwhelmed. There is a concrete stage with a very unsightly backdrop that is falling apart, with some old bows affixed at random places. We have four days to strengthen our ensemble, block this new version of our show, incorporate the dance elements, and procure set pieces and props. I am feeling the pressure, but we have a great team.
Markya Reed, research assistant, University of Maryland, Baltimore County: At the end of the day, Katrinah (co-director), Jasmine (co-director), and Elliott (choreographer) allowed me to sit in on their meeting. They discussed how they would stage the play and what props they needed. It was the task of Joyce (another research assistant) to find these items: five benches, one table, five chairs, two drums, one bucket, one pitcher, four cups, one shawl, a walking stick, a pamphlet made of old paper, and two legal papers.
Dec. 15, 2022: Day Two of Rehearsal
Katrinah: Today we will stage the play. We need to move quickly; we have an audience in three days. We got started late, which makes my anxiety spike big time. But time moves differently here—everything is a bit more relaxed, a bit less structured than what I am used to. For example, there are no real traffic lanes on the streets, the cars move in between these “keh-kehs” (covered motorbikes) and motorcycles. The sound of car horns beeping reminds me of New York City, except here it doesn’t feel like aggression or road rage—just a little beep to say, “I’m here, I’m behind you, on your left, on your right.” The chaos moves together in a way that I will never forget.
Markya: Katrinah keeps calling for company breaths and I low-key love that. We don’t have the drums yet, so Silas (B4 actor) and Jeremy (CW actor) are improvising with water bottles for now. The Liberian News Agency came and interviewed the team. We ended up getting 8,000 views on Facebook by the first night! (Over 60,000 views now!)
Dec. 16, 2022: Day Three of Rehearsal
Katrinah: Yesterday we staged half of the play. It’s coming together, I think. I’m feeling pressure—not from anyone else, but from myself to prepare us to share something that we will be proud of in two days!
Markya: I woke up sick this morning from eating too much pepper last night. Deirdre got me medicine and took care of me. I started to feel closer to her and the Williamsburg folks.
Deirdre: We have a lot to do before Sunday! I just pray God continues to bless this numinous experience.
Katrinah: We have props and better lighting! The team worked together to remove the unsightly bows from the backdrop, fix the holes, and hang a lovely country cloth as a focal point in the center of the drop. Things are coming together.
Deirdre: Learning about Liberia gives me a greater appreciation of my first journey to Africa. Will this be my last? I wanted to go to Ghana to see “slave castles,” but God led me to a place where Blacks went to seek freedom, instead of a place where they lost it.
Dec. 17, 2022: Day Four of Rehearsal
Deirdre: Katrinah asked me to lead a libation ceremony today. I am nervous. I want everyone to feel included.
Markya: Deirdre led us through pouring libation. Everyone circled up at the entrance of Providence Island below the big cotton tree. There were tears while we poured offerings to the ancestors. It was at this point that I felt most connected to the team.
Katrinah: Today we put on our Colonial Williamsburg costumes for the first time since being here. When I put on [the character] Lydia’s clothes, I got very emotional. Lydia was born enslaved, got her freedom in her 40s and lived in Virginia her whole life—and now 200 years later her story will be told on African soil.
Jamar: I am thinking about the historical figures we have portrayed for numerous years in Williamsburg, Va. We have served as faces and voices for these historical figures on the land in which they were enslaved. And now we are telling their stories away from the gaze of an actor portraying a white enslaver or a predominantly white audience. It’s a massive concept that I am wrestling with in my mind.
Dec. 18, 2022: First Performance
Katrinah: It’s the day of the show y’all!
Markya: A lot of people were tired from the long days of rehearsal and some partying last night, but also excited to share what we have been working on. We set up audience chairs and did final adjustments to the stage. We practiced in the morning, and then returned for the final performance that evening.
Katrinah: We did it! Together we told a story about enslaved and free Black people in the U.S. and Liberia that was 200 years in the making. The house was small. The World Cup final was that evening, and despite rigorous marketing efforts from the Liberia team, cultivating a large Liberian audience for a theatre piece is difficult. But isn’t that also true for many nonprofit theatres in the States? Those who were in the audience were invested, they leaned in, they went with us on a journey of returns from Virginia to Liberia and back again. I was satisfied.
Deirdre: Thank you, Lord, for bringing us through our show. I think it was beautiful. Praise the Lord!
After performing “200 Years of Returns” on Providence Island, the team had adventures together for another four days. Highlights included meeting Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia and first elected woman head of state of an African country; performing Colonial Williamsburg’s one-act play Created Equal, followed by excerpts from 200 Years of Returns and a meaningful discussion at Bong County Technical College; and bonding with one another at Kpatawee waterfall and in the homes of the Liberian ensemble members.
Jamar Jones summed up the experience this way:
“The greatest gift was to be in community with artists stateside and from Liberia. We fellowshipped and learned from one another. We developed a collaborative and creative language to devise a theatrical experience to share. I was invigorated as an art maker and encouraged as a citizen of the globe.
“I marvel at the power of theatre. It allows us to share and see.
As I stood in the water, I felt strong. I felt grounded. I felt like I belonged. I relished the communal experience of making art with people who quickly became family. We took a chance, compiled our ideas, and had an experience. An experience that has clung close to my spirit and my heart since I departed.”
The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes more than 600 restored or reconstructed original buildings from 18th-century Virginia, as well as museums of decorative arts and folk art, and extensive educational outreach programs for students and teachers. Burning Barriers Building Bridges (B4) Youth Theatre, established in 2010, has reached thousands of children across 5 of Liberia’s 15 counties through arts education programming and performances.
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