Nimely Napla’s “The Forbidden Bush” addresses the little known deforestation devastating most of West Africa in a production presented by Diamano Coura West African Dance Company.The performance tells a stark, scary story that is unfortunately all too true. Though Napla’s “Bush” looks at the relationship between global warming and rain forest depletion in his native, Liberia, the work is emblematic of the clearcutting of virgin forest throughout Africa.
In much of Africa where there is bush or forests, boys carry chainsaws like cowboys toted pistols in the old west. Quick to draw, despite sagging pants, boys complete over how fast they can chop a tree down.
The production continues to be topical, whether we are looking to the 2015 production on the eve of climate talks in Paris or at the shaky truce at Standing Rock in 2016 or at President Obama using his authority to save and preserve public lands as monuments with the Antiquities Act.
The full production, which included a short documentary, was presented at Diamano Coura’s annual fall program at Laney College Odell
Johnson Theatre in November.
The story begins with a single mother needs wood to cook dinner. Her neighbors, both men and women, refuse to share their supply with her as they pass by her home.
One suggests that she send her daughters into the woods to gather wood. She warns the girls to avoid the sacred forest as she gives both of them machetes.
The children set off, yet once they arrive at the forest it is full of stomps . . . the trees have been chopped down. The girls see a lit path which takes them deeper into the woods or Forbidden Bush which is only safe for Zoe, medicine people and spiritual masks.
Zinnah (Laija Loving) escapes, but her sister Ma Titah (Sia Bandabaila) is captured. The Zoebah masks are huge creatures – all Black, layers and layers of raffia with a white crown and white designs on its faces.
There is an even bigger mask (Gbatu), which grows large and then collapses to the floor when he dances. It is the one-eyed monster that
terrifies the men from the village who promised Ma Yatta (Betty Robinson), they would save her daughter.
In the Bush mortals are clearly disadvantaged. Without magic there is not much they can do to protect themselves, not to mention save a child, but they do.
Clever often trumps magic, and when the brave village men (Diony Gamoso, Phillip Amo Agyapong, Akebulon) subdue and then kill the beast, the Zoe or chief medicine women (Mama Naomi Diouf) removes the spell from Ma Titah and she returns home with the elders.
Each scene is characterized not only by the superb dance – a fusion of traditional and folkloric, but by colorful amazing Napla’s costume design. Yes, he is also the choreographer.
The forest, the girls’ capture, then the village celebration which includes the Zoe and her entourage are stunning especially the Mystical Fire which grows from four women to 20 (or so it seems) and the stunning solo by the Zoekeyah.
The film, which looks at programs which address deforestation on Liberia and facts about the environmental impact on Liberia’s loss of rainforest which between 1980 and 2001 has been losing 2.6 percent of forest a year. The decrease has only grown faster since, increasing by 17.3 percent to 1.74 percent per annum. What is a tragedy is that Liberia has much of what remains of the rainforest in Africa. While Forbidden Bush doesn’t offer a consummate solution, it does pose strategic and thought-provoking scenarios and resources for the audience to get involved.
Next up at Diamano Coura is its 22nd Annual Collage des Culture Africaines March 9 – March 12 at Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts.