On the 15th June, Abena Essah showcased their debut play Sankofa: Before the Whitewash to a sold out audience at the Roundhouse Studio Theatre for the Last Word Festival 2022. The work-in-progress performance followed protagonist Abena, a queer Black young person, as they encounter the Ghanaian god of stories, Ananse. Ananse transports Abena through time to a Ghana before colonisation and Chattel Slavery, showing them its abundant queer ancestry. In this way, Essah powerfully opposes the assumption that queerness does not belong in Africa.
The play began with a family dinner at the kitchen table: a familiar setting, yet often an oppressive one for a queer person. Despite jokes from Abena’s mother (played by Princess Bestman) about seeing Abena’s ASOS Men parcels, Abena quickly feels sick at their parents’ disgust of non-conventional gender roles. They try to discuss the burgeoning anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Ghana as a large screen at the back of the stage plays news clips, but their parents refuse to engage, calling queerness a solely white concept. In a breathtaking stylised sequence where Abena asks their father (played by Michelle Tiwo) to tell them stories of Ananse like he used to, they stand up on the table and hold a Ghanaian flag with the LGBTQ+ rainbow attached to it before ripping it off centre-stage. Abena is literally torn between their heritage and their true self.
Michelle Tiwo also acts captivatingly as Ananse, who visits Abena and offers to show them a past version of themselves living in a Ghana that embraces queerness. This links to the play’s title, Sankofa, a Twi language word meaning ‘to retrieve’; Ananse helps Abena to retrieve their true heritage. Thus, they time travel back and Abena wakes up next to their partner, Ama (also played by Princess Bestman), the day before their wedding. Meeting all their supportive family members, Abena becomes overwhelmed: ‘there’s so much blood’. They mean bloodlines, an abundance of familial love around them not despite their queerness but because of it, unlike their parents’ ignorance in the initial scene. However, this evocation of ‘blood’ and violence reminds us of the brutal colonisation that erased these queer African narratives from history, leading to today where it is dangerous for anyone who defies heteronormative conventions to be themselves in Ghana.
In defiance of this devastation, the play underlines queer joy. During the wedding, Abena and Ama danced in colourful, traditional clothing and invited audience members from the front row to join them onstage. There were also touching moments of intimacy, such as Abena serenading Ama with a song, or them telling their partner before their big day, ‘I can’t wait to see what you wear and then take it off’, earning whoops from the audience. Thus, we saw the importance of celebrating queerness and honouring one’s true identity, how much happiness this creates in contrast to the oppression we face.
Sankofa also explored the fluidity of gender, with a focus on Akan people’s names based on different days of the week. For example, babies born on Tuesday (Benada) are usually either called Kwabena (male) or Abena (female). However, Ananse points out, why do we gender a string of sounds? This is especially interesting when we consider how these day names are associated with different elements, such as Tuesday/Abena meaning the ocean. In the play, Essah talked about how they feel like the fluidity of their gender links to the idea of the ocean from their name, to the sensation of all rivers leading into one body of water. Thus, Essah wanted to bring this sense of breaking boundaries to the stage, both between our world and Ananse’s spirit world, and the strict binaries of gender.
Sankofa is an urgent play: LGBTQ+ people in Ghana are being threatened with laws that would imprison them for ten years and conversion therapy is actively encouraged. Alex Kofi, director of LGBTQ+ Rights Ghana, who was featured in the play’s screen newsreels at the start, said that the government is trying to criminalise anything that threatens ‘Ghanaian family values’. Yet Sankofa shows us that ‘Ghanaian family values’ can and have been queer, and wonderfully so. Queerness is not ‘un-African’ and we cannot criminalise people for being themselves. We must fight against such hate in every way that we can.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor