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Women Artists Interpret Ugandan's 'Song of Lawino'

June 15, 1989|SUSAN REITER

A line hung with segments of women's hair is strung across the top of the stage. An "altar" on which cast members place objects with deep personal meaning is a focal point of the set.

A stomping dance inspired by South African gumboot dancing is juxtaposed with women tentatively tottering in high heels. One performer plays a resonant, single-stringed Brazilian instrument; another wails and scats in a voice that evokes memories of Billie Holiday.

These are some of the sights and sounds in "Song of Lawino," a collaborative work that blends drama, music and dance as it distills the story and message of a Ugandan poem. The creative team and 10 performers are all women, as is the poem's central figure, and their roots range from Polish and African-American to Japanese and Sri Lankan, Filipino and Chinese.

In "Song of Lawino," today through Saturday at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), these diverse artists drew on the array of backgrounds to explore differing cultural values and to question the importance of traditions.

Valeria Vasilevski, the adapter and director, came upon Okot P'Bitek's 200-page poem while traveling in Kenya in the early 1980s. Written in 1966, the poem relates the story of a woman from the Acoli tribe whose husband becomes enamored of Western ways and starts to prefer a more Westernized woman. Through Lawino's voice, the poet expresses his own concerns about the importance of maintaining and respecting traditions.

Raised in an Acoli village, P'Bitek attended missionary schools and went on to Oxford. He became director of the Ugandan Cultural Center, where he cultivated his interests in bringing Acoli oral traditions to the stage. As part of a 1968 festival celebrating Ugandan independence, he produced and directed a stage version of "Song of Lawino." But the politics of the piece led to his dismissal and his eventual exile to Kenya, where he lived until his death several years ago.

Vasilevski felt an immediate connection with the poem, which P'Bitek originally wrote in Acoli, then in English. "I identified with the story, with the idea of traditions being lost very quickly," she says.

Seeking a choreographer with whom to collaborate on a new stage version of the work, she found Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, whose New York-based company, Urban Bush Women, performs dances synthesizing contemporary concerns with the African-American cultural heritage. Urban Bush Women appeared at the Los Angeles Festival two years ago.

Two composers with whom Zollar had previously collaborated--Bessie Award-winning percussionist Edwina Lee Tyler and vocalist Tiye Giraud--became part of the project, bringing in a wide range of musical styles and making music a driving force in the work.

"Things developed very organically," Zollar remarks about the collaboration. Some parts came out of research, others developed from improvisation. "I wasn't trying to do anything that was authentic Ugandan dance. I was interested in allowing the piece to come through my own imagination and in using what I know about African and Afro-American dance."

"What is in the poem is personal to each of us," remarks Vasilevski. "We used the poem to tell our story, of how we feel about being moved into the 21st Century, having to make decisions about traditions and customs and rituals--what's expendable, and what's critical."

Each woman in the cast was encouraged to develop her own idea of Lawino, to shape the concerns and find the voice that would reflect her personal connection to the poem. The objects, drawn from their own lives and families, that they place on the "altar" symbolize their individual interpretations of Lawino's story.

"We were pretty free to put in our own interpretation," remarks Giraud. In composing her share of the music, which includes solo and ensemble singing as well as instrumental sections, Giraud kept in mind the wide range of ethnic backgrounds of the cast and collaborators.

"I tried to include music with a lot of different ethnic flavors." Her own opening solo was inspired by Brazilian hill music; another piece is in a West Indian style; a gently mocking number sends up the Supremes.

Helen Oji, a California-based artist, designed the sets, which drew on imagery from P'Bitek's poem. She emphasized water, hair and feet, all of which Vasilevski found recurring in the text. "Everything on the set is another translation of the poem," the director explains.

She and Zollar had their first discussions in 1985; "Song of Lawino" did not reach the stage until January, 1988, at New York's Dance Theater Workshop, which commissioned it. After a return engagement there last December and performances at City College, New York, the work is now touring for the first time.

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