At first it was hard to tell when this play began. Before the houselights went down, there was an ensemble already onstage, and by the time five minutes had passed, these musicians, singers, and dancers had conjured the spirit of a West African village with a vibrant drum circle and dancing. Soon, however, the lights did go down, slowly, and three of the actors came forward to issue the customary preshow cautions about turning off cell phones and other electronic devices. Then the audience settled in for a very satisfying evening of drama and performance.
Making extensive use of their multiple preexisting skills, director Irwin Appel’s large cast wove a moving tapestry of group performance with acting, singing, dancing, music-making, and even bird calls as integral parts of the whole effect. Together they told the tragic story of Anowa, a Ghanaian woman with the bad luck to have been born into history, and in particular into 19th-century African history at the height of the slave trade. While avoiding the clichés often associated with such historical dramas, Anowa took the audience very close to the core dilemma of the slave trade as seen through African eyes. Recognizing that her husband is “dipping his hands with the strangers” — an African expression for working alongside and supplying the transatlantic slave trade — Anowa enters a harrowing, apparently decades-long period of existential doubt, a doubt compounded by the lack of children in her union with Kofi Ako. Erin Pettigrew was outstanding in the title role, and Donald Molosi also provided several memorable moments as her father. This unusual offering demonstrated the great potential of world theater as a new area of exploration for the UCSB drama program.