In the Ghanaian Twi language, the word sankofa means to “reach back to move forward.”
The word encapsulates well the mission and spirit of the new Sankofa African American Theatre Company, which mounts its first production this month.
“We’re trying to tell our stories,” said Sharia Benn, Sankofa’s managing director. “We’re doing what other theaters aren’t doing or aren’t able to do, or as often as they want to do it, in our area.”
Sankofa has its roots in Open Stage of Harrisburg, which has produced, and Benn has starred in, several works by African-American playwright August Wilson.
In fact, Sankofa’s first show—“Akeelah and the Bee”—is a co-production with Open Stage, where the play will be staged. Benn will co-direct with Stuart Landon, Open Stage’s producing artistic director.
Adapted from Doug Atchison’s hit movie of 2006, the play centers on Akeelah, an 11-year-old spelling prodigy preparing for a national bee. Among the challenges to Akeelah’s success is pervasive gun violence in her inner-city neighborhood, which took the life of her father less than a year earlier.
Nonetheless, Akeelah is determined, and she enlists the help of Dr. Joshua Larabee, an English professor and potential father figure who lost a girl of Akeelah’s age and is willing to coach her.
Although Sankofa’s efforts center on gaining access to acting and other theatrical opportunities for African Americans, the cast of “Akeelah” is diverse, said Benn, who is particularly “excited” that many of the performers are new to Open Stage.
Megan Mwaura, the lead in the play, is 16 and a sophomore at Bishop McDevitt High School. Though she has been in school plays and musicals, this is the first time she is doing a play with a professional theater company.
“I’m part of Open Stage’s 180 Prep acting program,” Mwuara said. “Through this, I got to know artistic director Stuart Landon, who invited me to the audition for ‘Akeelah.’ That is when I learned more about Sankofa and how it is partnering with Open Stage for this show.”
Meeting Benn increased her desire to be in the production.
“Her vision, along with Sankofa, is to tell the stories of the people whose stories are not often in the spotlight on stage,” Mwuara said. “As an African girl, this is something that is obviously very important to me.”
The play has a great message for young people, she added—to have confidence in oneself.
“No matter who you are and where you come from, you have the ability to achieve greatness,” Mwaura said.
Sankofa’s mission reaches beyond staging plays.
One of its signature programs is “Peer-to-Peer,” which trains teenagers in theater performance and leadership and encourages them to create a curriculum on their own so they can, in turn, teach middle-school students.
“The training strengthens social, academic and life skills,” said Benn. “The students will develop content for the final performance of the program, which could be writing a play or giving a staged reading.”
Aside from Open Stage, Sankofa plans to collaborate with other area theater groups, such as Theatre Harrisburg. Sankofa also is in negotiations with Gamut Theatre Group to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 4). In addition, it will work with other community organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club.
While embracing African-American culture and emphasizing its vital role in the community, Sankofa hopes to use theater as a vehicle for dialogue and social change. Its productions will be directed and produced by African-American theater professionals.
Sankofa also will lend help to anyone outside the formal theater scene who wants to be involved—such as a church youth group aiming to write a play or stage it.
“According to our mission and vision, productions are more of a byproduct,” she said. “Our main focus is on developing awareness in and access to the community to make the community better and stronger. Every time an actor is enriched—those are our productions.”
“Akeelah and the Bee” runs Feb. 16 to March 11 at Open Stage of Harrisburg, 25 N. Court St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-232-6736 or visit www.openstagehbg.com.
For general information about Sankofa, call 717-214-3251, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook page.