Sierra Leone students bring back theatre to examine modern life

‘Entertainment is such a good way to bring forth change,’ says play’s narrator

They cast three people in each role, on the assumption that two would drop out before the final performance, and rehearsed most nights on an old basketball court in a girls’ secondary school, without overhead lights. For the University of Sierra Leone Theatre Group, the show would go on.

"Can't miss this play redefining the views about gender, sexual orientation and power in Africa, " read the advertisement for The Throne, which was performed for the first time to hundreds of people at Freetown's City Hall in February and promoted as the "rebirth of theatre in Sierra Leone".

Some said it was the first live theatre performance in decades. A cast of about 30 rehearsed for months, contributing some of their own money to buy costumes and construct the set, and the final show included dancing, singing and drumming.

It was sold out, leading to a second performance. Now, the cast is going on the road for a third, in the city of Makeni, in the west African coastal country's north.

“It is a big deal,” says Sarafina Nicolsesay, a 22-year-old mass communication graduate and the play’s narrator. “I think the culture has died for a long time . . . In Sierra Leone one of the struggles that we’ve had with marketing this event is most people are not interested in theatre.”

Nicolsesay fell in love with acting as a child, listening to satirical radio programmes, and later began to watch shows such as Hamilton on YouTube. To join the theatre group, she had to ignore criticism from her mother, who saw acting as a waste of time because it wouldn't earn her decent money. Staying involved has been an uphill battle.

Many of the cast and crew were born during or since Sierra Leone’s civil war, which devastated the country in the 1990s and early 2000s. It again suffered through the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak and the Covid-19 pandemic. Local cultural activities – particularly theatre – have been a casualty, those involved in The Throne say, as many Sierra Leoneans haven’t learned to value them.

Nicolsesay doesn’t know of a single functional theatre in her home country, but she hopes an industry can begin to develop. “Entertainment is such a good way to bring forth change,” she says, with clear enthusiasm.

The plot of The Throne, written by Sierra Leonean writer Oumar Farouk Sesay, follows the demise of the king of the village of Norkorba. The only two people in the line of succession are his son – a married gay man who lives in the diaspora – or his daughter, who, as a woman, challenges the patriarchal structures that prop up the monarchy.

“It’s going to be a culture shock to a lot of people, especially the part about the gay characters,” Nicolsesay says in advance of the opening performance. “The first time I heard the synopsis of it, I was like, Are you sure this is going to be cool, because we don’t have people who are out and proud in this country,” she says. “But that’s what we’re trying to show . . . you’re trying to get people to understand a certain type of subject that is taboo.”

Homosexuality between men is illegal in Sierra Leone, and can, in theory, be punished with life imprisonment, though this has not been recently enforced.

Nicolsesay says she hopes the play will start a conversation about feminism as well. “Women are always trying to go for leadership roles and they’ve been shut down, they’re always demoralised, and so that’s something that unfolds in the play as well.” Both topics are “pushing the boundaries”, she says.

From October 2021, the young people rehearsed almost every night, passionate both about the story and the talent they wanted to display. "If it gets dark it doesn't matter, we use our phone lights," says Alvin Momoh, sitting on a bench at dusk, as he watches a full run-through. The fashion designer, who also works on a Sierra Leonean TV show called Slay Or Nay, helped organise the costumes. "Sometimes we stay late into the night."

Speaking after the first two performances, the play's director, Bilal Jalloh, says there has been no negative reaction. "They love what we did," he says, though "some people choose to reserve their opinions" on the plot.

Martin Simah Jnr (23), who played the king's gay son, says he did not invite friends and family to attend the initial performances because he was worried about their reaction. But he had his own revelation, finding the experience "wowing". Performing the role helped him to understand both the discrimination same-sex couples face, as well as the "relevance of women in the political arena", he said.

Benjamin Thomas, a 23-year-old political science student, played Toni, the husband of the would-be king. Initially, he was hesitant too. "Even during the casting everyone shied away from the role, nobody want[ed] to play the role . . . Obviously LGBT is not legal in Sierra Leone so it was really super challenging," he says. But later, he began to see himself as an "ambassador for tolerance".

“I think there are people who really want to come out but [they don’t] because of society, stigma,” he says. “One of the roles of theatre is to pass on information, so the information has been passed, it’s left for people to accept.”

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