Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Anna Bernath, center, Beixin “Sunny” Zhong, right, and Sophia Strautmanis, I.S. 89 after-school students in “A Farmer’s Life,” a play written by their sister school in Sierra Leone.
A play from the mouths of Sierra Leone children
By Chelsea-Lyn Rudder
The Manhattan Youth Players crossed language and cultural barriers last weekend to bring a piece of Africa to I.S. 89’s auditorium.
“A Farmer’s Life,” was more than a play for the 15 students in the production. The show, performed by members of Manhattan Youth’s after-school drama program at I.S. 89, provided an opportunity to learn about Sierra Leone, the West African nation which is recuperating from a civil war that persisted for 11 years.
“I learned more than I would have expected,” said 12-year-old Sophia Strautmanis who played one of the village leaders. “ It was fun to learn about their everyday lives and how people grow into adulthood.”
Layna Fisher, organized the exchange program which brought “A Farmer’s Life” from Africa to Battery Park City. Fisher traveled to Sierra Leone in 2008 after writing and performing a one-woman show called “Truncated,” about the correlation between the global economy and Sierra Leone’s diamond market. While in Sierra Leone she was asked to create a drama program for students at the MADAM school, a remedial school that specializes in rehabilitating at risk youth. “It is a really great program, they bring in students who have dropped out of school,” stated Fisher. “I really wanted to share the experience. So I had the idea to have the students write the play in such a way that it would explain a lot about life in the village. The kids learned things like how to clear a farm… I feel we accomplished our goal and that makes me happy.”
“A Farmer’s Life” touches on the common milestones of life in an agricultural society, while also exploring timely, universal themes. The play’s main character Pa Bai, played by 14-year-old Anna Bernath, is a successful farmer who eventually goes into debt. He is enticed into spending more than what he can afford by societal pressures to exhibit wealth. At the conclusion of the play Pa Bai is arrested for defaulting on his loans. “I got into the mind set of a character from another culture,” stated Bernath who hopes to attend a performing arts high school in the fall. “It helps with my acting to portray a character of another gender, race and nationality.”
English is the official language of Sierra Leone, but the children at the MADAM school primarily speak an African language called Temne. In preparation for the play the students learned about 20 words in Temne, and several traditional songs and dances. Students from both schools have exchanged questions via internet video. The costumes and props for the play were from Mikali, a town near the MADAM school. The elementary school students of P.S 234 got in on the act by writing short plays which will be performed by students at the MADAM school.
“This was a good lesson for my daughter,” said Levar Daniels whose 11-year-old daughter Alyssa was in the play. “There was meaning to it. They learned about the different things that the kids over there go through.”
Lance Windish, one of the directors of the show, said the purpose of the play was to make the world a little smaller. “This was an international experience,” he said. “Our students were able to connect with people on the opposite end of the spectrum.”
In writing the play, the students in Sierra Leone were able to speak to an audience about the ups and downs in their daily lives. The show portrayed a simple lifestyle, but Windish hoped that the audience recognized the commonalities as well as the differences. “Because it was a theater project it allowed us not to get too bogged down by the hardships. We wanted to show the connection to our society by pointing out some of the similarities,” said Windish.