The stage, they say, is black to symbolize its capacity as a universe onto itself – capable of housing, enabling and being all things and places and times. I personally believe that. I also believe that the universal stage, simply as a biproduct of that symbolism, speaks towards the spiritual nature of theatre itself. It’s a nature that we don’t engage with often in this century, but is critical not only to theatre’s vast history, but to its very existence. If the Greeks didn’t believe in a God, we may not have had a stage.
‘Ajo’, the debut production of the Trinidad and Tobago Orisha Performing Company does one thing incredibly well, even better than a clean and stellar stage performance. They remind us of the spirits that inhabit the stage, and our lives, and and the sincerity and power that resides in their portrayal and our consumption of their energy as audiences. It is just as important as the sermon and fellowship, if not more so, because we are called to not just assume our connection to these deities and the world they live apart from us, but to witness that connection (often with a rawness and sincerity that separates itself from the sometimes sterile classical performance) and experience the possession by those deities themselves as they attempt to reestablish that connection with us in that moment through dance and song and the desire to be embued with power instead of subtlety.
The play, written and directed by Adam Pascall, is at first an interrogation of the connection of the diasporic African – the Afro-Caribbean – to their biological ancestors before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. From the position of the nameless lead character (also played by Pascall), there may be no direct connect between us and our ancestors from a land and culture that we no longer share with them. In the process of that interrogation, he in visited upon by various Orishas that set in motion the process of his self-education about his history and lineage – the journey of his spiritual awakening. After all, the Yoruba word ‘Ajo’ means ‘journey’.
Instead of falling into the trap of mourning centuries-old slavery and begging for reparations through theatre, ‘Ajo’ does a couple much more powerful things. First, it offers similarly curious Afro-Trinidadians with answers about the rich culture of faith that were not destroyed from their ancestors. Second, it incidentally gives its own reparations to the African diaspora – that we are the sons and daughters of powerful and Loving Orishas who will not allow us and our culture to be erased. And it doesn’t do either of these things technically or theoretically. It does it practically, by sharing with us the faith in performance instead of its doctrinal insights, live on stage.
It doesn’t matter at all whether you believe what the actors and actresses of spiritual theatre believe – they believe it enough for you. But, when it’s done with a sincere connection and praise to the gods, the unbelieving witness cannot walk away thinking that there is no power and truth there. In a way, that is another function of this sort of performance – this is not to proselytize, but to simply to come together in faith and praise and power, and to share that with all who wish to witness. One might say that the audience of plays of this nature are not us mere humans. In the case of ‘Ajo’, the audience are the Orishas under whose patronage we live, whose energies the performers wished to channel and respect and represent. In the process, the earthy audience will be entertained, educated and invited to join in the praise. But, if not, the gods will still be pleased. They must.
Of course, this niche of performing arts is still fundamentally about fellowship, in ways that this humble atheist may never quite fathom. The majority of the performance of ‘Ajo’ went with a few murmurs here and there about the performance, the monologues, the lighting. Then Ella Andall sang. And there was an immediate, visceral understanding of the power of her voice, the song that she filled Naparima Bowl with, a song that I had heard before but could not ascribe the same meaning to. Later in the play, Shango emerged from the chorus, entering straight into dance, and the audience burst into life, cheering the dancer on, singing almost in competition with the chorus, some eager to join the performers on stage in the thanksgiving to the gods.
Spiritual theatre, like maybe all theatre at its core, is about faith – on the infinite stage, what we believe is always being challenged, forgotten, rediscovered, shared and celebrated. This sort of theatre can be sharp and technically sound, and it can be entertaining. Those things may make it good. But what makes it great it far outside of that – it’s great because it is intimate, and filled with mysterious power, and invites you to come on stage. To stop being a distant audience member. To dance and sing with the performers that you paid money to see. To become one of the many displaying the mystery of their faith.