Feast, showing at the young vic in London, is a journey through the collective mind of the Yoruba diaspora spanning several centuries and geographical locations. Following three sisters and their journey into various Yoruba communities throughout the last four centuries, the play deals with some of the key issues faced by the global African diaspora. The production is a collaboration of 5 writers including Caine Prize winner Rotimi Babatunde, Yunior Garcia Aguilera, Marcos Barbosa, Tanya Barfield, Gbolahan Obisesan with direction from Rufus Norris. Its opening scene, in which Sola Akingbola’s Esu appears, speaking a creole Yoruba, was a welcome departure from theatrical clichés such as the slowly drawing curtain.
(Louis Mahoney as one of the many incarnations of Eshu – Feast, Young Vic)
Similarly the introduction of pre-colonial Yoruba philosophical concepts such as Ori, the immaterial ‘inner head’ associated with human destiny, and the quasi-fatalistic metaphysics, poetically summed by Esu’s statement “in the constant shadow of certainty…. Chaos”, raised mostly unfulfilled expectations that the audience was about to journey into a deep philosophical drama. The mystical world evoked revolves around three sister gods, Yemaja the Orisha of motherhood, Oshun the Orisha of beauty, and Oya the Orisha of wind & tempest. The three sisters come across Esu, the trickster at a crossroads – we discover that the year is 1713 and the lives of the three sisters and millions others are about to be torn apart with the intensification of the Atlantic slave trade. The scene changes from West Africa to the Atlantic crossing in which transactions involving slaves are projected over the stage, including the price and age of those sold, against a backdrop of rhythmic yet morose drumming is definitely the most powerful scene in the play.
The emotional force of the show faded a little as the story moves to cover the emancipation of slaves in late 19th century Brazil. What was intended to be penetrating analysis of the psychological conditions of slavery and the dependence on slave masters, particularly among ‘house slaves’ was reduced to a rather sad and strange oedipal dialogue between Yemaja and her former owner, in which she begs to remain in his service, and reveals that she suckled him. From here communal meals, or feasts, dominate the majority of scenes. While this made for fine entertainment, it was a retrospectively unsatisfying, drawing attention away from the more meaningful discussions on history, identity and culture.
Despite the political conditions in Oyo that led to high numbers of Yoruba falling prey to the slave trade, modern estimates suggest between 1700-1800 in North America 24 percent of slaves were of ‘Senegambian’ origin and consisted of Wollof, Mandinka, Soninke to name but a few, 20 percent were Hausa and Fulani. The wide reaching effects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade impacted numerous ethnic groups in Africa perhaps Feast’s writers might have benefitted from writing more about this diversity rather than a focus on just one story or history. Nevertheless, the centrality of the sit-inns and civil rights movement in securing freedoms for the diaspora in America is a welcome but far from ground breaking point.
The civil rights movement in 1960s America was the next scene in a theatrical historiography that despite the best intentions seemed to appropriate African American history into what seemed like a small chapter in the Yoruba narrative. This was encapsulated by the projection of names of legendary African diaspora creative artists like Prince, Miles Davis, Richard Pryor and Cartola. While the inclusion of these pioneering artists made a powerful juxtaposition against the register of slave transactions in the earlier scene, the link between the African American diaspora and the Yoruba narrative is overstated.
The centrality of the sit-inns and civil rights movement in securing freedoms for the diaspora in America is a welcome but far from ground breaking point.
A fast paced and dynamic exchange between Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s Oshun and Eshu played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith provides some levity towards the end of the play. The exchange between two acquaintances, one an Olympic medallist, the other an east end social commentator, a kind of Charlie Brooker for the estates, who furiously debate interracial relations in the UK reaches a comic yet poignant zenith when Elegba accuses Oshun of “putting that fat rump up for pork pumps”. While the fantastic writing of such scenes was undoubtedly a delight, one cannot help but criticise the lack of narrative coherence in much of the show. That being said, it was a very enjoyable experience for a number of reasons: for the most part there was captivating dialogue, the actors carried the script well, and it was funny. Moreover, any attempt to bring African history, culture and philosophy to a diverse audience has to be applauded.
‘Feast’ is a project in association with World Stages London and is showing at the Young Vic until 2nd March. Fadil Elobeid is events officer at the Royal African Society.