Yaa Asantewaa - warrior queen. (The Arts).

Author:Duodu, Cameron
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Publication:New African

Cameron Duodu went to leeds to see the opening of Yaa Asantewaa, warrior queen. he was so impressed that he wants some more. sadly, Yaa Asantewaa will not come to london this year, and cameron, devastated, wants all to write and protest to the british council. but only do that after reading this...

There have been great women in history. And there is Yaa Asantewaa. She is one of a kind. So great was the heroism shown by this Queen Mother from Edweso, Asante, that although the people of Akyem Abuakwa, from whom I hail, had fought bitter wars against the Asante many times in their history, I heard old women in my village singing about her when I was a child.

Sing about an Asante whose people used to cut off our people's heads? Yes. You will soon see why.

Their song -- which I can still sing -- went like this:

Hail her!

Oh do praise her!

Yaa Asantewaa

The mere woman

Who fought the cannon!

Send me something

When someone is coming...

They were asking her to "send something down" to them because they were singing in fond memory of her being forcibly taken away from her own people and deported to the Seychelles Islands, "somewhere very far away," by the British. It happened in 1901 and it happened like this:

The British had taken the King of Asante, Otumfuo Prempeh I, captive and deported him first to Sierra Leone, and then to the Seychelles Islands, after "defeating" him in a war in 1896.

In fact, the reason for Prempeh's "defeat" was that he elected not to fight the British. He could not conceive a situation whereby the British Queen, Victoria, had sent envoys to Asante, and had signed treaties with its Kings, but would attack Asante when the King of Asante, in his turn, had sent envoys to the British Queen.

But Prempeh had not heard of the perfidious Albion. Against all the traditions of diplomacy, the envoys sent by the King to Queen Victoria were kept waiting and kicking their feet for weeks in London, while back in Ghana, Her Majesty's forces attacked and sacked the Asante capital, Kumase.

The British stole so much from the Asantehene's Manhyia Palace and from the Royal Mausoleum at Bantama (Kumase) that when a portion -- only a portion -- of the treasures was put on display in the British Museum in an exhibition (1982) entitled Ashanti Kingdom of Gold, it took me hours to go round seeing it all.

It left me in a near-permanent depression. Ghanaians may never have a chance to see any of those objects again, although many of them are sacred to the Asante. Yet the exhibits did not include the Gold Death Masks of Asante Kings that I had seen in a Los Angeles Museum and the Wallace Collection in London! What else is where? (See, When Looters Have A Choice, p46-49).

Anyway, the British had got Prempeh. They had also got his aged mother, his father, and almost his entire Council of Chiefs. But they were not satisfied, because they had failed to nab The Golden Stool of Asante. So they dispatched the Governor of the "Gold Coast", Sir Frederick Hodgson, to go and bring it.

It was not strange that the British wanted the Golden Stool. You see, they had heard garbled versions of how the Stool came to the Asante.

According to legend, the most powerful founder of the Asante Kingdom, Nana Osei Tutu, brought with him to Asante from Akwamu (where he had trained, as a prospective heir to the Asante stool), a spiritual guru, Okomfo Anokye. It was Anokye who, by planting two "Kum" trees in two different locations -- one of which died (Kumawu) and one of which thrived (Kumase) -- determined where the Asante capital should be.

But having given the Asante a capital, Okomfo Anokye also decided to give them a Nation to boot. Gathering the major families that constituted the chiefdoms of Asante together, he commanded a Golden Stool to descend from the Heavens in a cloud of dust and mist.

He then asked for the most sacred part of the Asante human body -- pubic hairs and nails -- from each of the royals present. He burnt all of it together into ashes and mixed it with mmortor, a mixture of potent herbs and blood. He then smeared the Golden Stool all over with it.

Turning to the crowd, he said: "Your sacred souls have been transmitted into this Golden Stool. The day it is lost, all of you will be lost and there will be no more an Asante Nation. So you must guard it with your very lives."

The Asantes had guarded the Golden Stool with their very lives for 300 years. The King of Asante himself never sat on it, for it was sacred. At public festivals when it was produced, it was guarded more stringently than the person of the Asantehene (King).

Strangers were not permitted to gaze at it. It had its own umbrella and a special chief who looked after it. It was the Symbol Supreme of Asante. But the British wanted it...

What happened next is the subject matter of Yaa Asantewaa, Warrior Queen, an audacious presentation that is at the same time, a musical, a play and a stage presentation borrowing strongly from street theatre in the form of the Asante/Akan durbar, as well as the West Indian carnival.

I saw it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, and quite simply, it is the most eloquent expression of the African Diaspora spirit I have ever encountered.

The lead or title role, is ingeniously split into three parts -- "Yaa Asantewaa, The Word", is played by a Nigerian, Funmi Adewole; "Yaa Asantewaa The Dance" is played by an Ewe woman, Victoria Adjoa Dzivenu; and "Yaa Asantewaa The Song" is performed by Ella Andall, a Caribbean.

Margaret Busby, born in Ghana of Caribbean parents, wrote the script. The artistic direction -- so slick Broadway would buy it off -- is by Geraldine Connor of Trinidad.

Behind them is a solid Ghanaian foundation led by George Dzikunu (choreographer, kingpin of the absolutely smashing Adzido group) and Nana Danso Abeam, composer and musical director, who has transported to England in music, the anguished cry of a whole people.

The resources of the Ghana National Orchestra and the Ghana Dance Ensemble are pressed fully into use, as is the drumming prowess of Kofi Ghanaba -- one man who, on his own, can still sound like an Atumpan ensemble.

Okay, there were rough edges to the production to be straightened out when I saw it. Most notable was the fact that purists like yours truly thought the non-Akan members of the cast needed to have their pronunciation of Asante names doubly checked by native speakers of the lingo.

But it was all such a great visual extravaganza that one forgave any lapses. The most amazing sight was the spectacle of "dancing masks" -- not just beautiful but garnering their motif from Akuaha dolls -- so that those who could interpret the symbolism of what the eye saw through a backdrop of pure, cultural comprehension. Ecstasy by any other name would be ecstasy. That is howl felt.

I am very glad that this fusion of talents has taken root in London. Too often, artistic temperament has stood in the way of Diasporan co-operation, adding its weight to the very real difficulty of what one might term global comprehension -- i.e. understanding the whole of the Big African/Black Issue.

That it has not only occurred in reality on the stage through Yaa Asantewaa, but has also surmounted the rivalries which could have stood in the way of a British Arts Council grant of, I believe, [pound]148,000, is a pointer to the way forward. Black artists unite! You have nothing to lose but being ignored.

Please write to the Arts Council of Great Britain to bring the show to London!

Yaa Asantewaa, Warrior Queen: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (28 April-19 May 2001); Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham (22-26 May); Opera House, Manchester (29 May-2 June) and Edinburgh Festival Theatre (15-16 June). Website: www.yaaasantewaa.ukart.com
COPYRIGHT 2001 IC Publications Ltd.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.