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Touching Souls, Awakening Spirits : Self-awareness: Through her autobiographical performances, Akuyoe Graham tries to make youths realize that 'what's in you is the key, the secret.'

March 23, 1995|ERIN J. AUBRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — It is a gorgeous morning, the sun already hot as it climbs over the San Gabriel Mountains, but Akuyoe Graham shivers and pulls a leather jacket around her as she treads a snow-filled path of her imagination.

In a classroom at a juvenile hall facility, about 30 young men dressed in identical baggy pants and T-shirts watch intently as she performs an excerpt from her autobiographical show, "Spirit Awakening."

Sighing deeply, she stretches out her arms and laments the move her family made from its native Ghana, "where we cooked under the trees," to a cold, ash-gray London as oppressive as anything out of a Dickens novel. The actress deftly becomes a tight-lipped English headmistress, her spirited mother, her own 6-year-old self in cultural rebellion. Laughs, muted exclamations of sympathy and disbelief from the audience break the silence.

Fifteen minutes later, most of the boys are bent over papers writing out what Akuyoe, 36, hopes is the beginning of their own scripted journeys into their lives and, ultimately, into themselves.

After the session, which Akuyoe stresses is only for those who wish to participate, she thanks the group and prepares to leave. No one volunteered to share his work, but now several hands clutching papers venture up; perhaps, the boys say, Akuyoe would like to read them to herself. She immediately obliges and circulates around the tables, praising each effort no matter how brief or hastily scrawled. Even though she has a noon audition and time is short, only reluctantly does she finally leave.

"You all were wonderful," she says earnestly. "Believe me, this is only the beginning. I'll be back."

So liberating has this voyage of self-discovery been for Akuyoe, she has spent the last four years not only performing "Spirit Awakening," but also conducting autobiographical workshops for high school students, at-risk and incarcerated youth around the Southland. The workshop program has led to the establishment of a Spirit Awakening Foundation that Akuyoe hopes will spread the gospel of self-awareness through creativity among young people.

Juvenile Hall teacher Pam Larson, whose group includes high-risk offenders in isolation, says Akuyoe's efforts are more than good impulses. The workshops, she says, are therapy that works for many teen-agers at the facility.

"Akuyoe is real powerful and straight and focused," Larson says. "She's like a laser beam. She cuts through the crap. Her own courage in expressing herself touches the kids; they respond to that. After she left my class one day, a boy said, 'That was cool, what we did.' These kids are looking for anything that will support them making a change. Akuyoe puts them in a very powerful place where they can start searching themselves."

Says Akuyoe, whose full name is Akuyoe Charlotte Katherine Graham, "What I want to share with young people is, 'What's in you is the key, the secret. Don't put that aside because ultimately, that doesn't serve anybody, or any community.'

"That isn't a Pollyanna notion. Joy and fulfillment are powerful."

*

Deep down inside my life is twisting and turning

My feelings hurt so bad they feel like they're burning

My head inside is so confused

I feel like I've been abused.

Fight you ask?

It's just a mask

Life, life, you can't be like this.

--Jeremy

*

Born a tribal princess in Africa, raised in London as a child and in America as a young adult, Akuyoe is no stranger to identity crises. She is quick to tell audiences and workshop students alike that as recently as six years ago, she wouldn't have been able to perform a show like "Spirit Awakening," much less school others on the finer points of self-revelation.

"I hated myself," she says in softly accented English. She is direct but unfailingly warm and gracious, given to wearing long, flowing dresses that accentuate a natural elegance. "I was African, but not; had an English accent, but was not English; here, I wasn't American. The difficulty has been learning to love myself. I believe that's a journey everyone has to make."

Akuyoe studied theater in New York, attending the High School of Performing Arts and later training with such legendary teachers as Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner. Disappearing into characters and bypassing her own suited her. She could temporarily forget about all the things that made her different from most other Hollywood hopefuls, things she had secretly grown to detest--full lips, coffee-colored skin, short hair curled tight. Although her name means "blessed woman" in the West African language of Ga, Akuyoe often felt anything but.

"I am dark-skinned, and I had this dark-is-bad connection in my mind," she says. "I didn't even realize I felt this way. I had to come to some terms, some meanings that supported this dark woman. 'Spirit Awakening' gives me plenty of opportunities to live certain truths I wasn't living then."

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