Congo Project: The Play in Nyanga

by Kate Sutton-Johnson

in Global Connections

Post image for Congo Project: The Play in Nyanga

(Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Elder Villager of Nyanga)

We piled in the van-taxi the next day and continued on our journey to Nyanga.  In this village, where we would ultimately create a more elaborate version of the play, we had a much more complex group to work with and this added many challenges but also some unique opportunities to delve into the issues of the play more deeply.  Here, the Pygmies and Bantu were living much closer together and their different roles were very clearly defined.  Also the number of Bantu performers out-numbered the Pygmy, whereas in the first village, this had been the opposite.

Our role in Nyanga was unique in that we were foreigners and, as far as we could tell, considered rock stars to most of the villagers.  Most of them had never seen a white person before, and they seemed quite enamored with anything American.  This sort of misperception caused many frustrating misunderstandings and issues throughout the trip, particularly as it involved money.  It was usually assumed that we were very rich and we often found ourselves arguing in multiple languages with shopkeepers, local chiefs, and corrupt policeman about who we were and why we were in no position to pay exorbitant prices for things.

Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Villagers of Nyanga welcome the Western team

Our rock star status, however, did have some advantages in Nyanga.  It allowed us to push on a few of the social issues addressed in the play in some of the community events leading up to the performance.  We were able to stoke some dialogue and a bit of controversy, which wasn’t at all easy to navigate, but ultimately seemed to start the most fascinating avalanche of community discussion (which in typical African fashion, became songs and chants.)  For example, we decided to make a huge meal with help from both the Pygmy and Bantu.  We provided the food, but we insisted that the meal be prepared by everyone and eaten together.  This was a very sensitive issue because the Bantu traditionally refuse to eat with the Pygmy and they also typically don’t eat anything prepared by the Pygmy.  On the day of the feast, Pygmy and Bantu women gathered in a large cooking hut and we all cooked together.  The women laughed and chatted and chopped and pounded food.  Our eyes watered and everything blurred in the wood smoke from the five cooking fires burning in the hut.  The women sang together, “Oh!  How our heads are aching!  We are thinking about what you told us and are asking many questions!”  They sang this with big smiles, with fondness and teasing, perhaps not really for us, but for the excitement and newness we had brought to their lives for a few days.  In the midst of our worlds colliding, we found the humor in it all together as we enjoyed the simple pleasure of cooking a meal.

(Filming by Rachael Castell | Women Villagers of Nyanga in the community cooking hut)

Meanwhile, some of the young Bantu men were refusing to eat with the Pygmies, but by then we had learned some strategies for navigating the ever-present Congolese machismo.  We simply told the young men, if they didn’t share in the meal with us and all our friends, they couldn’t share in our palm wine.  And that was that.  They backed down immediately and agreed to participate.  (We understood by then how much Congolese men like their palm wine.  It was a very handy, and at times necessary, currency.)

In other events leading up to the play, we scouted out a performance space in the village and, with our hosts, selected a large clearing at the edge of the rainforest just a short distance from the school.  A bunch of teenage boys cut down a small clearing of the underbrush with machetes so that the performers would be able to crouch and move easily while barefoot.

Panoramic Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Jeanne Calvit sits alone in the new theatre

ver the next two days, we held some rehearsals, first in a dirt clearing in the heart of the village and then in our brand new performance space down by the school at the edge of the forest.  We got off to a rough start, and we would later look back on this part of the trip with lots of constructive self-critique.  The social dynamics were so much more complicated in Nyanga, and it wasn’t until later that we understood the subtleties of some of this.  Despite the rocky beginning, the rehearsal process rapidly gained momentum and we used these times to get the children involved and to establish who would play the principle adult roles.  Alain improvised vocally with the chorus of women, and we experimented creating sound effects with the audience by whispering, rustling leaves, and creating forest and animal sounds with our voices.

(Filming by Rachael Castell | Villagers of Nyanga rehearse the play led by Jean Leopold Ngoulou, Jeanne Calvit, Aaron Gabriel and Kate Sutton-Johnson)

Raoul, one of our core collaborators from Pointe Noire, and I spent two days working on some of the props needed for the show.  We made a costume for the character he would portray, Makuya [ma-koo-yay], the dark spirit of the forest.  (This spirit-character is well known by locals and viewed with a combination of giddy fascination and real fear as a mystic force. Makuya’s appearance in the story provided a great window into the sort of sorcery and witchcraft still very much alive in the culture.  Bantu and Pygmy alike still hold a very real belief in spirits, magic, curses, and all sorts of superstitions.)  Makuya’s costume was constructed of dried banana tree leaves and a fresh banana leaf face mask with slit eyes.  A second actor accompanied Raoul, portraying his hulking spirit body.  He also wore banana leaves built into a kind of branch headdress and he walked atop a pair of bamboo stilts that we constructed.  We created boundaries for the “stage” by laying out bamboo poles in a large arch.  Then we carried benches from the school house out to the edge of the forest for audience seating and made handheld torches from bamboo and old t-shirts soaked in petrol.

Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Boy from Nyanga stands amongst toy trucks made by he and his young friends

Some of the youngest boys from the village brought along some handmade toys that made their way into the show in an interesting way.  They had these incredible trucks made from a fibrous wood, rubber straps, wire and branches.  The detail in their construction was really impressive despite the crude materials.  We ended up using all their trucks to create a war scene at the top of the show.  They also made two airplanes to add in that we mounted atop tall, thin bamboo poles.  The young boys drove the trucks over the bumpy ground in a wide circle while the two planes appeared to circle overhead as two of the boys ran barefoot beneath holding tight to the poles.  People in the audience cupped their hands and created the sounds of bombs and explosions.

(Filming by Rachael Castell | Children of Nyanga work with Papa Rigo, Jeanne Calvit, Aaron Gabriel and Kate Sutton-Johnson on props for the play)

There were some truly beautiful moments in this play.  The smallest children embodying the forest and holding branches larger than their small bodies as they crept along behind Alain, the beautiful chorus of women, and Alain’s angelic voice rising up over the group chants and then falling away.  It was more stressful working in this larger village, but the payoff was great.  The Bantu and Pygmy conflicts here brought a lot of meaning to the project.

(Filming by Rachael Castell | Villagers of Nyanga perform with Alain Ngono)
It’s hard to know precisely what this theatre piece may have accomplished for the  people of Nyanga.  We know we created a community space and we know that we were the impetus for a very exciting event in that space.  We don’t know yet what the legacy of this project will be.  One of the Bantu chiefs has actually vowed to create a theatre association and to continue to use the space to work on our play and other plays.  And the women with their aching heads, are they still asking questions?  Are the stubborn teenage boys who at first refused to eat, are they asking questions?  We don’t know, but perhaps in time, we will understand what, if any, effect all of this had on the racial conflicts in those small communities.

Panoramic Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson | Villagers of Nyanga in the new theatre

I think there’s a feeling amongst our team right now that the project was absolutely poignant and amazing, but also incredibly difficult and frustrating.  Africa is a land of contradictions and conflict, and working there was really hard on all of us.  Since being back in the States, we’ve discussed our next steps on numerous occasions and we aren’t settled yet on what the next phase will look like.

Regardless of what happens, this project as it stands right now, was a profound experience for me as an artist and has absolutely affected my world view.  Experiencing the third world challenged me and demanded of me a deeper artistic language.   I’ve returned from the experience with a sense that nothing is two dimensional, but rather, infinitely layered, confusing, prismatic, and more complex than it would first appear.   This was a spectacularly rich experience, one that could never be learned in a book or on the internet, and one that I could never have realized without financial support.

Photo by Rachael Castell | Kate Sutton-Johnson negotiates for the return of a frisbee with a small but uncompromising opponent in Ipani

Now it’s onto the next adventure: bringing vivid dreams of Africa, haunting and beautiful, to life once again.  On a page.  On a canvas.  On a stage.

Panoramic Photo by Kate Sutton-Johnson and Rachael Castell | Saying goodbye to the children of Ipani

Kate Sutton-Johnson specializes in environmental, exhibit, and stage design for both live events and permanent installations.  Winner of the 2007 Ivey Award for Emerging Artist, she has worked throughout the United States with top regional theatres, museums, and commercial clients.  Her expertise in creating theatrical spaces gives her unique insight into audience experience and the way in which immersive, visceral environments enhance storytelling.  Regional theatre credits include designs for the 5th Avenue Theatre (WA); Ordway Center for the Performing Arts (MN), the Indiana Repertory Theatre (IN); the Children’s Theatre Company (MN); Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts (MN); Theatre Latte Da (MN); Guthrie Theater (MN); Weston Playhouse (VT); Mixed Blood Theatre Company (MN); Park Square Theatre (MN); Stages Theatre Company (MN); Florida Stage (FL) and the Riverside Theatre (FL) among others. Additionally, Kate has taught design as a guest instructor at a number of colleges and universities including the University of Minnesota, Hamline University, Augsburg College, and Macalester College.  Kate grew up in Richmond, Virginia and went on to study set design at the North Carolina School of the Arts where she graduated in 2002.

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  • Cass Stillman

    This was an amazing story and video’s. I just got back from one week in the Congo at Odzala-Kokou National Park and Brazzaville, so I really enjoyed your in depth view of the people and country!!!