AJODA African Elders Association

By Pam Schweitzer

Peggy Pettitt, an African American theatre director colleague from New York, worked with Pam Schweitzer and Ajoda, a Greenwich-based community group of Nigerian elders to prepare a production over an intensive 2-week period and to show it at Blackheath Halls and other local venues as part of the ‘Place Where I Grew Up’ festival.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page

The group was rather male-dominated and run, and we experienced some difficulty in gaining full cooperation as women directors. We also had issues around attendance and commitment, as many of the group had busy lives with lots of grand-parenting duties, part-time work commitments and lengthy trips ‘home’ to Nigeria. Others had health issues and our project had to make way for hospital appointments. People arrived up to two hours late for rehearsals, or left one hour early to collect grandchildren from school, so it was very difficult to hold everything together. The fact that there were elders with different tribal allegiances (Yoruba and Ibo) did considerably complicate the process as language, songs and traditions also differed and there was some residual hostility. 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page

However, it was clear that we were intending to honour and faithfully present the story the group wanted to tell, and that we had the necessary skill to combine and structure their many and different experiences. We began with practical exercises, improvisation, song, dance and exchange of stories. For example, we did a simple exercise called ‘These Hands’, in which each of the elders looked at their own hands and reflected on what they had done (you can find a document explaining this exercise at the bottom of this page).

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page

Despite leading mainly urban lives, some of the strongest memories of the elders was of village life in Nigeria, especially staying with grandparents and participating in the village community, so this was where the story had to begin. Strong memories of the role of elders in the important decisions of the village were fondly recalled, especially as people did not always feel that they had received the same respect in their older years as the village elders. 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page

They recalled songs in English and African languages which they had learned as children and performed these with beautiful spontaneous harmony and lots of energy and rhythm. 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page

Enduring memories of school, discipline and a very British curriculum, were shared by the elders, and a sense from an early age that England was also their home and a distant target to aim for. They also shared experience about their experience of first coming to England (mostly to study) scenes about arranged marriages, culture clashes between generations, their developing adult lives, and concern for ageing parents back home. 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page

They worked in small groups to prepare scenes around these themes and presented these to one another. Transcripts of their improvisations can be read below.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page

As they worked on the play, the group developed a tremendous sense of pride in the shared culture they were depicting. The elders started attending the rehearsals in full African dress, all bright colours and daring designs. 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page

The end result was a forty-minute play full of humour, colour, song and dance, bringing alive the Africa the elders remembered and accurately depicting their lives today. 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'AJODA African Elders Association' page
 

The group wrote the following joint comments afterwards:

It was like a tonic for us, making us feel strong and vigorous, and full of well-being as a group. As we shared memories of our school days and our other experience in common, there was a spirit of togetherness and unity of spirit, which we had not found as a group before. The collective ideas which we generated during the work, made the end result look like a purpose-written play. By being in touch with our shared history, members were lifted out of isolation and depression to new sense of vitality. The play activated, motivated and stimulated us, triggering the spirit of acting, which is generally found in every African heart. 

This page was added by Pam Schweitzer on 22/05/2014.