Azmari Bets: Day Five of the Theatre Stage Directors Workshop in Addis Ababa

Meaza Worku (Ethiopia), Habiba Issa (Tanzania), and Deborah Asiimwe (Uganda).

Philip Himberg, Producing Artistic Director, Theatre Program

Friday night might be Shabbat on the Upper West Side, but in Addis Ababa, it’s “Azmari Bets” – meaning “House of Singers”. The tradition is to move from home to home to listen to authentic Ethiopian music – traditional and contemporary. Our Ethiopian hosts treated us to a magnificent dinner and then onward to the Azmari Bets. In our case, we were in more like an intimate ‘club’ on a side road – and it is packed from wall to wall with young professional local folks. Maybe a couple of hundred squeezed shoulder to shoulder. It didn’t seem possible that there would be a space for us, but they made it, and we sat, plastered to one another, drinking sweet red wine (Is this the only thing the Ethiopian Jews left behind, I think? – African Manischewitz? Never mind, it’s tasty. And then them music starts. . .

I am not enough of a writer to articulate the power of the beat, the gorgeous melodies and harmonies, the intensity of the five musicians – a traditional flute and three traditional stringed instruments and the drums. The drums! I sit beside the percussionist and watch him as he moves inside of his beat. Eyes shut tight, lips hard. I cannot actually remember being moved in my heart and practically to tears by musician/artists and the sounds they create (well, okay at that third farewell Streisand concert but . . .) after the band had played a few numbers, out came the gorgeous vocalist and then – the dancers! A quartet of young men and women – heads rolling, scapulae vibrating, hips undulating – how do their bodies do that? My colleagues said my mouth dropped open in awe and stayed that way for the next 90 minutes. Finally, a much older vocalist appeared – Christopher whispered that she was the “Elaine Stritch” of Addis. Whatever. That the younger artists honor the older, touched me more than I can say. And as she sang and moved, I did not feel as though I was watching her. I felt I was her. (Is it that Addis wine? I wonder.) And then—the finale—dancers, singer, and band went at it, and the room rose to a frenzy. I forgot we were one of the only “white faces” in the room, forgot that I wasn’t “home”, and whooped and yelled and clapped along with them all.

Later we stand and mingle outside in the night air, and once more, I feel that blessing. To witness this culture – this theatre – is a gift beyond measure. I know I will return.

Earlier that day, which was the final day of our workshop, director Liesl Tommy asked each participant to share what they were feeling after five days of intensive work together. One by one, these remarkable people dug deep inside – not simply to say “thank you”, but to endeavor to express the magic of our meeting – the stunning revelation that we all share, the inspiration to move forward, individually and in partnership. I look over at Deborah Asiimwe, my Sundance colleague and playwright extraordinaire. She gets up from her chair, muttering something about ‘wasn’t it hot in there’ and she needed to open a window. It was not hot. She was feeling what I was feeling and was embarrassed as I was – holding back a flood of tears, and once she stood, it was next to impossible to not let go. How much love and admiration I have for these artists. How grateful to begin to understand their world, their visions, their dreams. How astounding that we share this expression of our humanity through something called theatre. How proud I was of our little Sundance staff – who set up this visit to a strange new land from our tiny Soho, New York, office, and executed it with grace, and power, and insight.

The following morning, Saturday, we invited the ‘cultural leaders’, the older generation of theatre makers to join us for a sharing. I spoke about the theatre in the U.S.– commercial and not-for-profit, showed some “I AM THEATRE” videos from TCG, and tried hard to give everyone a snapshot of what it meant to create work for the stage, back in the States. Likewise, the four older Ethiopians who joined us, told of their history. When one of them spoke of “doing theatre and surviving through three regimes,” the tears welled up again. The challenges of making art, of being heard, in a system that tries night and day to censor and ban, made me angry, and made me realize how fucking easy we have it in the U.S. Do we really complain about not getting the grant, about someone else getting the recognition? Do we really need to whine? I think not. I think not.

I come away from the last week tied to new friends, sad to depart.

Tomorrow, Liesl Tommy, David Diamond, Roberta Levitow, and I head north for a quick two day, two night trip up north, to the region of Gondar – where ancient kinds ruled, where ruins of castles abound, and where we hope to spot a Baboon or two. Think I might be “off the grid” for a bit – so – love to you all!

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