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Theatre review: Grandad Anansi by Elayne Ogbeta (touring)

14 October 2022

Katy Hounsell Robert sees a Black History Month children’s play

Marcus Hercules as Grandad and Jazmine Wilkinson as Abi in Grandad Anansi

Marcus Hercules as Grandad and Jazmine Wilkinson as Abi in Grandad Anansi

GRANDAD ANANSI is a play with music co-produced by Z-arts Manchester and Half Moon Theatre, London, for children and their families to celebrate Black History Month in October. It tours UK theatres and libraries throughout October.

Elayne Ogbeta, the writer, whose father was of the Windrush generation who came to the UK in the 1960s on the invitation of the British government to “help build the economy”, believes that, besides continuing serious debate about how badly they were treated here, this play gives a taste of the happy but simple life in Jamaica and helps people to relate sympathetically to those who left it in the hope of a better working environment and found that they were largely ostracised.

In particular, those used to a friendly and outgoing form of worship found the churches here cold and narrow, but led the majority-black Church, which had its humble beginnings in the early 19th century in Portsmouth, under the minister John Jea, to grow vastly in numbers.

Anansi is a character going long back in folklore, part spider and part man, much loved in Africa and the Caribbean. He is ambitious and takes on challenges against stronger and more powerful creatures and wins not by size or strength, but by guile. Most importantly, he is a great teller of stories, which always have a moral lesson and incorporate Christian values. Ten-year-old Abi calls her grandfather Grandad Anansi because he seems to have these characteristics.

So, for 40 minutes, we are transported to the grandfather’s allotment, where he and Abi plant seeds and water vegetables and fruit while he recalls life in Jamaica and tells her Anansi stories. In one tale, the King offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever can mount and ride the tiger. The monkey and dog boast that they can do it easily, and they fail miserably, but Anansi, by pretending to be ill and needing to be carried, persuades the tiger to allow himself to be saddled, and wins the princess. It’s told in delightful rhythmic Caribbean patois: “Me smart, me cool, and me have de knack. Just watch me ride Brer Tiger’s back.”

But, behind the gaiety, we also learn how Grandad is praying to God to help him to decide whether he should return to the land where he would be truly at home, and leave the family that he has brought up over here.

The music is composed and directed by Tayo Akinbode, and the play is directed by Chris Yarnell.

Full list of tour dates and venues at www.halfmoon.org.uk

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