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Afrika Solo

Afrika Solo was first presented in Toronto by ASP in association with Factory Theatre and Theatre Fountainhead, in the Factory Theatre Studio Café on November 12, 1987 with Djanet Sears as Janet/Djanet, Allen Booth as Man One, and Rudi Quammie Williams as Man Two; directed by Anne Szamosi; set design and costumes by Julia Tribe; lighting design by Leslie Wilkinson. Music was composed by Allen Booth, Djanet Sears, and Rudi Quammie Williams. It was published by Sister Vision Black Women and Women of Colour Press, 1990.

In Afrika Solo Djanet Sears constructs for herself a sense of self and of place in terms of a story in which she recounts a journey to a “homeland.” As the “Afterward” to the published play suggests: “The longing to tell one’s story and the process of telling is symbolically a gesture of longing to recover the past in such a way that one experiences both a sense of reunion and a sense of release" (95).

Afrika Solo is a form of “autobio-mythography” – the imaginative construction of self through the reclamation of a history as story, memory, and dream. According to Sears, the form follows that of traditional West African theatre – called “Sundiata Form”: “a story being told through narrative, music, and dance” (96). The “characters” are Janet/Djanet – “a woman in her mid-twenties, British by birth, Jamaican on her Mother’s side, Guyanese on her father’s, presently living in Canada, claiming Canadian citizenship”; Man One – a Missionary, a Priest, and various other characters, also a synthesizer player, singer, and percussionist; Man Two – Djanet’s African lover, also a percussionist. In the premiere production at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, 1987, Djanet performed herself – acting out her own biography through representation.

The play opens with a Prologue: the compelling beat of tenor and bass West African drums is joined by voices invoking the country of Senegal, where Djanet is discovered writing a farewell letter to her lover Ben before she leaves Senegal to return “home.” Then, in a sudden shift in delivery and style, she addresses the audience in a funky “hip-hop” rhythm, introducing a journey that dispelled stereotypes of Africans as “primitive” jungle-dwellers. She evokes the richness of the many diverse cultures through a litany of names. The play comprises a series of memories as she awaits her departure flight, and resists the recurring summons to pick up the phone and return to Ben’s space. Ironically, the airport replicates Canadian cultural experiences, with voices in English and French announcing flights and paging travellers, and a “Star Trek” movie playing on the pay television. There are no longer any culturally specific and isolated experiences: borders have become porous. The television images, however, remind her of the ways in which cultural products are constructed to reflect an idealised appearance, and the ways in which her appearance as a “coloured” child in England diverged from that ideal. She never saw herself reflected in the images of her first “homeland,” and she is informed of her “aberrations” and then subjected to racist names by her best friend. The only “black people” she sees on television are the “savages” or “servants” in the Tarzan movies. When she is told to “go back to where she came from,” she cannot determine exactly where that would be, since her mother is from Jamaica and her father from Guyana, and she was born in England.

Ironically, in returning to her “roots” she determines that the home she is seeking is the place she left – Canada. But in the various landscapes she visits, she discovers a rich, varied history that dispels the negative and limiting stereotypes. She even finds a more “authentic” version of her name: “Djanet” is an oasis town in the Sahara, and it means “paradise” in Arabic. It is also the gateway to the Tassili plateau, the location of ten thousand-year-old rock paintings. She adds a “D” to her name as an indicator of her African origins.

When she tries to summon up an “authentic” Canadian song for the Ba Mbuti people in Zaire, all she can think of is “O Canada,” which she sings like a gospel ballad to make it more accessible, and discovers the African heartbeat in a Canadian song: “African Canadian. Not coloured, or negro . . . Maybe not even black – African Canadian” (88).

Commentary by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University.

Last updated 2021-10-13