There was an evening of brilliance at the Ebunjan Theatre in Banjul with Linton Kwezi Johnson, Natalia Molebatsi, and Tunde Jegede with performing to an adoring crowd as part of the Mboka Festival 2018.
The Ebunjan Theatre was built in 2010 and started being used by a local repertory group the year after this. The facility which can seat 200 patrons was the sight of what is starting to be an outstanding festival for 2018. Reggae poet Linton Kwezi Johnson, South African poet Natalia Molebatsi, and Nigerian Kora player Tunde Jegede were the main offers for the festival delegates’ evening’s entertainment.
The evening would start with a reading of Phillis In London a theatre production written by Ade Solanke and performed by actors from the Ebunjan theatre repertory. Phillis In London follows the life of Phillis Wheatley who was captured as a seven year old in the Gambia in the 18th century. This young prisoner of war was taken to Boston as raised as the property of a local rich family as a member of the family. Whitley would eventually become the first African/black person to write a collection of poetry.
The show is still in development and the cast members didn’t have enough time to do the show its due diligence thus we would see them moving around stage reading from their screenplays. Even with this, they were still able to portray the main thing that the play was trying to portray which was how shitty life was for Africans in that period in time. I would love to see the end product if that was what it looked like if while still a work in progress.
The evening would then move on to those who were “on the poster” starting with Tunde Jegede and his ensemble of an extra kora player, a drummer, and a singer. It was a twenty-minute performance that got people in the mood for the magical evening that it was starting to become.
Next on the stage was Natalia Molebatsi who walked on start with a long red dress and silver sneakers and blew away the audience with a virtuoso performance. She greeted them in poetry and said goodbye to them in poetry and song. She recited poetry that she has written before from the previous work she had published as well as some fresher material. A poem she wrote to her daughter telling her to be all that she could be was one that stirred many in the audience. She would end the performance with a joint performance of This Is Our Song with Tunde Jegede on the Kora and us the audience eating from her skilful arms.
After the joint performance, Molebatsi would exit the stage and Tunde would own the stage first with the piece Alone followed by Atiki. The Kora is a lyre from the Western part of the continent mainly by men played in Senegal, Mali, and Gambia. Tunde was a London born Nigerian with a Gambian sensibility who had been taught to play the instrument from the age of seven. We could feel the strings lovingly strummed by skillful fingers leaving the audience enthralled. It was an experience where you listen and are taken on a journey through the rhythmic melodies and you only remember to breath when you realise that you are out of breath. He would be joined by his ensemble and would be treated to world-class performances from those who had owned the Ebunjan Theatre that evening.
It would then swing into a different gear with Linton Kwezi Johnson the festival headliner owning the stage. Kwezi is a legend in the world of black poetry having influenced a generation of poets from his London base. He described his journey which was the one that all poets tend to through in three stages of grown as being one of “urgency of expression” at the beginning, followed by “learning my craft,” with “finding my voice” being the last part in the growth. He explained that he was a member of the rebel generation who were the children of those who had emigrated to England from the Caribbean to help build the “home country” after the devastation of the Second World War. These rebels refused to accept the racism of the white people of England and fought until they got their own space and he was part of that struggle.
His first poem set the pace for his performance and was entitled Five Nights of Bleeding and was dedicated to his friend Leroy Brown. It catalogued the madness of a period in the UK and we were transported to this time when people were battling the London streets similar to what is happening today amongst urban youth.
He would then go on to give history lessons and poetry as he read from many of his most loved shows.