Last updated: January 11, 2013 9:43 pm

Migrators and shakers

Written by five playwrights and with a plot that spans four continents and 300 years, ‘Feast’ is an ambitious production about Yoruba culture
Rehearsals for ‘Feast’, with Yanet Fuentes in the centre©Richard Hubert Smith

Rehearsals for ‘Feast’, with Yanet Fuentes in the centre

Most writers work alone, only showing their work to editors or directors when it’s nearing completion. Too many cooks spoil the broth, goes the saying. But, occasionally, the broth needs a lot of cooks. Feast, which opens at London’s Young Vic this month and is jointly produced by the Royal Court, is one such concoction. Written by five playwrights from as many different countries, its story – which spans four continents over 300 years – is also told through music, dance and film projection.

Something as ambitious as this could not exist without the multiple viewpoints that have shaped it. The play traces the paths of three sisters, Oya, Oshun and Yemoja, who are separated at a crossroads on their way to a feast; part-human, part-deity, they travel the world inhabiting different black women through the ages.

It opens in Nigeria in 1700, during the Atlantic slave trade; moves to Brazil in 1888, the year slavery was abolished there; then to America in the 1960s, for the civil rights sit-ins; to 2008 in Cuba, where the beliefs carried by slaves from west Africa to the New World still hold strong; and finally to present-day London, where black teens grapple with unwritten social codes. After meeting in London to discuss the play’s main ideas and themes, each writer penned the section set in his or her country and they were then stitched together.

“It’s a very difficult way to work,” admits Feast director Rufus Norris, whose recent credits include London Road and Vernon God Little. “But this is also an immensely difficult subject to treat with any authenticity if you just take one person from one place. Some of the details in the Cuban scene, only a Cuban would come up with; and nobody who isn’t from London could have written what Gbolahan [Obisesan, the Nigerian-born British playwright] has written.”

Feast explores how a belief system – specifically that of the Yoruba people – migrates and adapts. “Yoruba” describes the people speaking a common language in the interior of the Bight of Benin (which runs from present-day Ghana to Nigeria) since at least the 16th century. No single political unit ever encompassed all Yoruba speakers, and they did not exist as a self-conscious group until the diaspora was far advanced.

Although the Yoruba comprised a minority of African slaves, the cultural influence of its diaspora is huge. Perhaps this is because it was one of the last tribes to be pulled into the slave trade, in the early 19th century: its culture was not subsumed by that of subsequent victims. But many, including Norris, believe there are deeper reasons for its influence.

“What we’re looking at is why this particular belief system equipped this particular people for this particularly horrific test,” he says. Norris argues that the Yoruban belief in orishas (deities with different characteristics who inhabit people) and in knowing one’s true ori (literally “inner head”) is key. “If you know yourself – your weaknesses and your strengths – then it means in any given situation you have a choice: whether you go for what your orisha would have you do, or go against that. And if you have a choice, then on some level that is the opposite of slavery.”

In Feast, Oya, Oshun and Yemoja are different female characters in each setting, yet they are linked by their namesake orishas, who on some level define their temperaments.

Like many migrants, the slaves in Cuba went to great lengths to hold on to their beliefs, even disguising their orishas as Catholic saints. Santería, the syncretic Yoruban-Catholic belief system that grew out of this, is still practised widely in Cuba. A scene in Feast sees a Cuban prostitute cover her statue of San Lázaro with a sheet before she undresses, explaining to her American client, “Babalú Ayé is very jealous. If a woman gets undressed in front of him, then later on she’ll find it very hard to get men. He’s a complicated Santo.” For her, Lazarus and the orisha Babalú Ayé are the same.

Cast of the play, 'Feast'©Richard Hubert Smith

From left: drummer Sola Akingbola with director Rufus Norris; Ira Mandela Siobhan; writer Gbolahan Obisesan with Naana AgyeiAmpadu

According to Rotimi Babatunde, the Feast writer resident in Nigeria, “the practice of Yoruba traditions is, ironically, stronger in places like Cuba than in Nigeria”. It was Nigerian interest in Cuban Santería that provided the impetus for Feast. At the end of a workshop for emerging writers hosted by the Royal Court’s international department in Lagos in 2007, the tutors spoke of their next writing workshop in Cuba. There was great excitement among the Nigerians, curious to know how Yoruban traditions manifested themselves on the other side of the Atlantic. Four months later in Havana, Cuba, the reaction was similar: “Please bring us some soil from Nigeria!” the writers cried. When the Royal Court discovered that playwrights in Brazil were equally enthusiastic – the Candomblé religion having the same Yoruban roots – Feast began to take shape.

“Your home is your culture; it’s not the ground you live on, it’s the belief system you carry with you,” Norris tells me. But the idea that your culture is unaltered by your present location can be problematic. When does a diaspora community become a ghetto?

The play does not shy away from such questions. The scene set in present-day London – written by Obisesan, who moved there from Nigeria aged nine – explores the tensions that persist even in a city that considers itself “post-multicultural”. Oya, a young black athlete, is harassed on the street by Legua and his girlfriend Oshun. Their taunts about the nature of Oya’s relationship with her white coach – does he really respect her or is she “just some prized pony”? – raise questions about racial and sexual ownership. “Your snatch is for a black man to catch,” Legua tells her.

When I ask Obisesan about the scene, he says that some black men have a heightened awareness of “how they are represented and how some of the things they are projecting into society might be construed. It’s that thing of them trying to police themselves – but also everyone else.”

In this way, Feast holds a mirror up to contemporary society, particularly that of London. Yet it is by no means wedded to realism. “Because it’s a piece about [Yoruban] culture, it has to reflect that culture in the kind of theatre it is,” Norris explains. “So it needs to be carried through movement and music as much as through text, otherwise all we’re doing is a different form of colonialism.”

With Cuban choreographer George Céspedes, drummer Sola Akingbola of Jamiroquai, as well as hosts of dancers on board, the production is a bold mix of the traditional and contemporary. Although it’s impossible to predict whether it will work theatrically, such a collaborative approach seems appropriate to a belief system as adaptable as that of the Yoruba. In Feast, culture is something porous and constantly evolving. As Esu, the transforming trickster orisha, says in the prologue: “Culture cannot stay still, it is in a constant state of growth. Like a yoghurt culture. Cultivation. It grows.”

‘Feast’, Young Vic, London, January 25-February 23, www.youngvic.org

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Life & Arts on Twitter

More FT Twitter accounts