School play exchange lets South African pupils collaborate with world-renowned writer
Toluwani Okesokun has become the envy of her classmates after she directed a school play under the guidance of a world-renowned playwright.
The grade 11 learner, who is studying drama at Sacred Heart College in Observatory, Johannesburg, worked closely with acclaimed Puerto Rican writer Carmen Rivera, whose award-winning play La Gringa has become the longest-running Spanish language production in Off-Broadway history.
Okesokun, 16, and her fellow drama-studying pupils in grade 11 participated in a unique project run by the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City that connects high school pupils from around the world to create and study theatre together.
Through video conferencing technology, pupils from the participating schools benefit from live, real-time interaction with a partner school as well as with so-called teaching artists such as Rivera. Video conferencing is also used to view and discuss the live, streamed performance of plays that learners have to write, direct and act in.
Sacred Heart College, a Marist school, is the only one in Africa to participate in this project. Its partner school was Loyola Academy, a Jesuit co-educational preparatory high school college in Chicago, Illinois.
A play written by Okesokun and fellow pupil Tshepang Masuku (17), titled Claim, was directed and performed by pupils from Loyola Academy while Okesokun’s class directed and acted in the play Funny Bid-ness, which was written by pupils from Loyola Academy.
Okesokun said one of the biggest challenges she faced as director of Funny Bid-ness was getting her cast to speak with an American accent. “It was very hard for the cast to have an American accent. However, one of our cast members, Julia Barry, who lived in America for a year, had no problem with it.” Eventually they had to ask two members of the cast, who were struggling with the accent, to drop it.
She was inspired by the guidance and assistance provided by Rivera who suggested that only some of the cast members should speak with an American accent. “She helped me through a whole rehearsal lasting a couple of hours,” Okesokun said.
At first she found directing Funny Bid-ness to be a very daunting task because she found it very hard “to connect with the play”.
“It was so different to what I am used to doing. I found it difficult to understand how the characters were supposed to act. But after doing research and having video chats with Carmen, I found it easier to relate to the play.”
Rivera is attached to the Manhattan Theatre Club and is also a founding member of Educational Play Productions in the US, which brings plays that deal with social issues into the public schools.
Okesokun was also assisted hugely by her drama teacher, Roslyn Wood-Morris, whom the principal, Colin Northmore, said was one of the top 10 drama teachers in the country.
“The play was lacking in some ways and the sentence construction was very poor. There was no punctuation in places but our drama teacher told us we weren’t allowed to change anything. As a director, I had to work around all those errors but in the end it came together,” said Okesokun.
The play, which was recently performed at Sacred Heart College in front of pupils and parents, is about an American comedian on the verge of giving up his job. “As we go through the play, we realise what he needed to make his career successful,” she said.
While Okesokun’s cast struggled with the American accent, their counterparts at Loyola Academy battled to enact the murder scene in the South African play Claim.
Said co-writer Masuku: “They were very confused with the murder scene and didn’t know how to portray it but generally they grasped the essence of what we wanted to depict in the play.”
She said Claim was based on the idea of arranged marriages, adding: “A young girl is thrown into a world she doesn’t understand. She’s in a new family that is completely different from her own. She falls in love with her husband’s brother and it complicates the situation. She then starts to fear for her own life.”
She said they were inspired to write the play after hearing of stories from their parents and grandparents. “We looked at South African society where money means a lot to people and a lot of them marry for money.”
Besides Claim, her classmates wrote two other plays.
Northmore said that one of the true hallmarks of a 21st century education was providing children with experiences “beyond the boundaries of the school and even the country”. “I love the fact that the kids get this sort of interaction time with someone of the calibre of Carmen.”
He said that drama was “the engine room of Sacred Heart College” and that through drama, learners were able to explore different ideas safely.
“They can try on racism, homophobia and taboos without it becoming the personal trauma for them. They are able to process it in an emotionally safe space.”