An African Tale

Yemandja

Angélique Kidjo, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, Kerry James Marshall

Musical theatre about love, betrayal and the injustices of slavery

Drawing inspiration from her ancestors, her family and Africa’s resilience, singer Angélique Kidjo tells a story that is a wake-up call to her audience.

In a 19th-century West-African village where slavery is in full swing, the young woman Omolola receives a god-given gift in secret. Yemandja, the spirit of water and fertility, gives her the power to change the world through music. However, this power is only effective when her heart is pure. When a Brazilian slave trader makes a deal with the local king and kills or enslaves the people around Omolola, a desire for revenge threatens to outweigh her positive strengths.

Yemandja is a tale that combines family drama and historical thriller, and is drenched in themes like love, betrayal, honour, free will and the horrors and injustices of slavery. With this performance Angélique Kidjo shows her personal perspective, colored by her roots and childhood in Benin. The piece shows what happens when people are robbed of their culture. Kerry James Marshall, one of the great visual artists of our time, designed the set with modest means.

Yemandja to be performed in an altered form due to logistical delays

The container containing the set and costumes for the musical theatre piece Yemandja from associate artist Angélique Kidjo has not arrived in time for the performances in Amsterdam. The shipment from the United States was supposed to occur in early May, but was postponed several times because the shipment of relief supplies to Ukraine was given priority. In consultation with the festival, the company has decided to perform the piece anyway with the original direction and choreography, but in a more sober visual form.

The video projections from Rasean Davonte Johnson, which are part of the design, will be shown, but the set, a design by visual artist Kerry James Marshall, will be missing. An alternative solution has been found for the costumes. The Holland Festival is sorry for this turn of events but is happy that the audience will still be able to see this performance, an important part of the programming surrounding associate artist Angélique Kidjo.

dates

Thu June 16 8:30 PM

Fri June 17 8:30 PM

Sat June 18 8:30 PM

Prices

  • default from € 30
  • CJP/student € 15

language & duration

  • English surtitles: Dutch

  • 1 hour 30 minutes (zonder pauze)

Meet the artist

After the performance on June 17, there will be a conversation led by Dorothy Blokland with playwright Naïma Hebrail Kidjo and choreographer Beatrice Capote.

Programme note
by Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, playwright of Yemandja

'Yemandja was born from a deeply personal place: hearing my mother’s childhood stories of growing up in Benin. There, the mythical and the mystical were intertwined with the modern. Her youth in Africa always struck me as bright: filled with life, community, tradition, and music. This was a contrast to my upbringing between France and America, where mysticality was “primitive” and the individual was paramount. 

This piece is my attempt to reconcile all the worlds I grew up between, and all of the worlds within. To build my own bridge in order to help you build your own. Because no matter your background you also contain dualities — even simply by virtue of being the child of two different people. So, through words and song, we hope to take you on a journey both outside of yourself and within yourself. The destination? Healing and a more open heart.  

What are the ramifications of fostering fear, of responding to hatred with even more hatred? What does it mean that our modern thriving economies are built on the slave trade and slave labor — both historical and in new forms of modern slavery? Who does war, pain, and division really benefit? What is the impact when we think only of short-term gains when long term harm is inevitable? These are all big questions posed by this piece.  

My aim is not to rewrite history, minimize the importance of accountability, or simplify the complexities of the human experience but, instead, to remind us that individuality placed above community is not a sustainable solution. We may be separated by miles of beliefs, mountains of appearances, oceans of hurt, but since the dawn of the human race we have all been intertwined genetically, historically, and spiritually. All the divisions have been our own making. So when the world feels too big, Yemandja is a reminder that we are all linked and that we have all the power to change the world with empathy, be it through small everyday kindness, or grand heroic acts of humanity.

A river does not flow and forget its source.
Actions have consequences.' 

Meet the artist

After the performance on June 17, there will be a conversation led by Dorothy Blokland with playwright Naïma Hebrail Kidjo and choreographer Beatrice Capote.

Programme note
by Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, playwright of Yemandja

'Yemandja was born from a deeply personal place: hearing my mother’s childhood stories of growing up in Benin. There, the mythical and the mystical were intertwined with the modern. Her youth in Africa always struck me as bright: filled with life, community, tradition, and music. This was a contrast to my upbringing between France and America, where mysticality was “primitive” and the individual was paramount. 

This piece is my attempt to reconcile all the worlds I grew up between, and all of the worlds within. To build my own bridge in order to help you build your own. Because no matter your background you also contain dualities — even simply by virtue of being the child of two different people. So, through words and song, we hope to take you on a journey both outside of yourself and within yourself. The destination? Healing and a more open heart.  

What are the ramifications of fostering fear, of responding to hatred with even more hatred? What does it mean that our modern thriving economies are built on the slave trade and slave labor — both historical and in new forms of modern slavery? Who does war, pain, and division really benefit? What is the impact when we think only of short-term gains when long term harm is inevitable? These are all big questions posed by this piece.  

My aim is not to rewrite history, minimize the importance of accountability, or simplify the complexities of the human experience but, instead, to remind us that individuality placed above community is not a sustainable solution. We may be separated by miles of beliefs, mountains of appearances, oceans of hurt, but since the dawn of the human race we have all been intertwined genetically, historically, and spiritually. All the divisions have been our own making. So when the world feels too big, Yemandja is a reminder that we are all linked and that we have all the power to change the world with empathy, be it through small everyday kindness, or grand heroic acts of humanity.

A river does not flow and forget its source.
Actions have consequences.' 

Background
‘Some people forget where they come from, but Angélique always comes back...’ This is what a group of women sang to Angélique Kidjo in her mother tongue Yoruba one day during one of her journeys through Africa, as shown in the short documentary series EVE(S).

As a singer who enjoys success throughout the world, dividing her time between France and the United States, Angélique Kidjo never forgets where she comes from. She sings about Africa, visits her birth country Benin, travels through other African countries, and everywhere she goes she connects with the people and the music. She is particularly moved by these women: ‘Everywhere I go I encounter extraordinary, beautiful and brave women at the centre of their communities.’

‘It’s increasingly relevant to create awareness about my culture and this country’s past,’ Kidjo says, referring to the painful role Benin played in the history of slavery. The kingdom, then called Dahomey, profited off the slave trade and was known as the ‘Slave Coast.’ There are still many things that point to this time in the capitol Ouidah, where Kidjo is from.

Kidjo: ‘It isn’t just my history but my daughter’s ancestry and heritage as well. Naima would often come travel through Africa with us and knew my stories and the stories about slavery. I spent a lot of time explaining to her how this affected my family and what kind of story I want to tell about it. In essence, this story is about coming together to heal wounds.’

From generation to generation

Yemandja is based in part on Kidjo’s life. She was baptised according to Yoruba tradition. Naima Hebrail-Kidjo incorporated elements from her mother’s experiences in the script, alongside historical details about Benin such as the divisions between the Beninese people. These stem from its history of slavery, which continues to affect people from generation to generation. Kidjo: ‘Everyone knows which families did or did not collaborate and profit off of slavery. This awareness and pain is passed on from generation to generation. It is also a story about passing on because of how we work on it as a mother and daughter. And the baptism ritual is about different generations as well: ancestors that influence future generations. Our story spans centuries, up until the present.’

But the story is also larger than Africa. For instance, the makers delved into Beninese traditions that turn out to share striking similarities with other cultures throughout the world, such as parallels between gods and myths from Yoruba and ancient Greece. Kidjo: ‘We forget that we all share the same origins. We worship the same gods, but under different names. Yemandja exists in other cultures as well.’

Cast and crew with affinity

While this is not the first time for Kidjo to be acting as well as singing (she made her theatre debut as a young girl in her mother’s theatre), it is her first time bringing such a personal and emotional story to the stage. She shares the stage with nine actors and four musicians, who all sing and dance themselves as well. ‘The music will help us put across the emotional intensity - but also the lightness, the pleasure and sometimes the aggression.’

Doing justice to the Beninese traditions is a great challenge for the makers: the music, costumes, set - everything has to be as authentic as possible. It was essential to gather the right cast and crew. The piece is directed by theatre veteran Cheryl Lynn Bruce, and the set is designed by visual artist Kerry James Marshall, who is famous for his critical paintings about African American history. He purposefully designs a set that is simple and fitting to the story. Both were personally approached by Kidjo because of their good understanding of and affinity with Africa and its ties with other continents and cultures.

Springboard for a conversation

The main message Kidjo wants to put across with her story is that people need to talk about colonisation and history of slavery more, as well as about the marks this left throughout the world. ‘Remaining silent and not teaching the youth about history is not the way to process this trauma. People who stood up against slavery at one point pay a price for that to this day. It is a sensitive subject and complex situation. We hope to give as nuanced an impression as possible, supplemented with music and magical elements, to serve as a springboard for conversation. We should have an honest conversation without feelings of guilt. We can agree or disagree, but it’s only by talking that we’ll bridge our differences.’

Notes on a cultural context

Orishas

The orishas are spirits that play a key role in the Yoruba religion of West Africa and several religions of the African diaspora that derive from it, such as Cuban and Puerto Rican Santería and Brazilian Candomblé. They are also venerated by the Edo of southeastern Nigeria; the Ewe of Ghana, Benin, and Togo; and the Fon of Benin (who refer to them as voduns). An orisha may be said to arise when a divine power to command and make things happen converges with a natural force, a deified ancestor, and an object that witnesses and supports that convergence and alignment. An orisha, therefore, is a complex multidimensional unity linking people, objects, and powers. The story of Yemandja explores the relationship between two orishas: Yemandja and Oro.

Yemandja

Yemandja is the goddess of water and healing, and is honored throughout West Africa and the Caribbean as the mother of the sea and the moon. She is the keeper of the female mysteries and a guardian of women. She aids in the conception of children and their birth, protecting and blessing infants until they hit puberty. She is a healing goddess, showing compassion and kindness to those in need.

Depending on the region and country, the spelling of Yemandja’s name differs between Yemandja, Yemoja, Yemaya, and other slight variations.

Orò

The word Orò means fierceness, tempest, or provocation, and Orò himself appears to be personified executive power whose approach is always preceded by a roaring wind and whirring sound. In precolonial times the Orò cult performed legislative, executive and judicial functions in Yoruba society. Orò is known as the Yoruba deity of bullroarers and justice. Orò executed criminals, could exile persons out of town (or sold them into slavery), and cleansed the community of witchcraft.

Synopsis

Scene 1
Human world and spirit world wait for a special baby being born on the full moon and the night before the Egungun ceremonies. Ancestors vie for a chance to be Omolola’s guiding spirit. In an unusual twist, Orishas Orò and Yemandja throw their hats in the ring – the latter wins! Yemandja tells us about herself and that she will be our guide.

Scene 2
We meet a grown up Omolola and her fiancé Olajuwon, mixed-race son of the slaver DeSalta. Omolola's parents interrupt their flirting with an argument about the slave trade. We learn about Adefola's hatred of slavery, Loko's role as a general in the trade, the impact of the latter on Olajuwon. Omolola on the other hand has still to form a firm opinion. Loko, Adefola, Omolola, and Olajuwon have a family debate about the role and implications of slavery in their lives.

Scene 3
Their discussion is interrupted by a procession of enslaved people leaving their shores. Yemandja and Adefola sing a farewell to their people Adefola spots Babalao, tries to free him.

Scene 4
DeSalta arrives and proclaims his honesty, but chaos ensues at his refusal to free Babalao. Omolola sings to try and fix the situation but, blown astray by Orò, her desire to hurt DeSalta corrupts her song. Enraged, DeSalta kills Adefola and Babalao.

Scene 5
Omolola and Loko mourn Adefola, Loko rallies troops to get his vengeance. Omolola and Loko weave together a lament for Adefola which transforms into an awakening. Loko fights and is joined by other enraged villagers.

Scene 6
Omolola wants to abandon her gift but Yemandja tries to reassure her.

Scene 7
Omolola and Olajuwon’s relationship starts to fissure under grief and suspicion’s strain.

Scene 8
DeSalta forces Naguézé to spy on Loko for him. We understand how ambitious and power-hungry DeSalta is. Omolola overhears.

Scene 9
Naguézé comes to Loko but she proclaims her loyalties are not with DeSalta. She asks him to marry her to let her prove her loyalty and to protect her from DeSalta. Naguézé recounts her plight as a princess and DeSalta’s betrothed but vows to regain her power and help Loko and their people. Loko agrees to an engagement.

Scene 10
Omolola sings of the gulf between what people predicted she would become and who she has become.

Scene 11
Yemandja sings as Loko sets his plan in motion, he will let leak to DeSalta that he plans to attack the next day, but in fact attack that night! Orò and Yemandja face off once more as Orò beats his drum, inciting violence in the humans.

Scene 12
DeSalta plans to strike this very night. Loko and DeSalta are proclaiming their intentions and power. At the end of the song DeSalta surprises Loko and a fight ensues. Loko and DeSalta fight, Orò and Yemandja fight, Omolola is weaving in and out, at a loss. Suddenly she is the focus of the fight. She tries to sing to escape, her song fails, and Yemandja intervenes.

Scene 13
Now in the spirit world with Yemandja, the two revisit the moment right after Yemandja made the oceans. She regrets her anger, but Orò is inspired.

Scene 14
Yemandja takes Omolola to DeSalta’s path where as a 16 year old he is being taught how to be brutal in order to gain power and prosper. Omolola is incredulous that Yemandja would want her to feel sympathy for DeSalta. Yemandja teaches that in order to build bridges we must try to understand.

Scene 15
Yemandja takes Omolola to a moment right after she first used her powers. Babalao recounts the moment she sang unity to the children of the village who had previously wanted to bully Olajuwon. Omolola feels the weight of her failure, but Yemandja teaches her that anger can be empowering – if one taps into the love within.

Scene 16
Yemandja takes Omolola to the moment when Olajuwon asked Loko and Adefola for Omolola’s hand. He proclaims his love for Omolola and paints a picture of their life together.

Scene 17
Yemandja’s last wave of vision shows Omolola that when she is gone, things fall apart. Loko and Olajuwon fight. Then, Olajuwon and DeSalta disagree; DeSalta decides to sell Olajuwon into slavery before he becomes even more dangerous to him…

Scene 18
Omolola is outraged by DeSalta’s plan and at last is ready to intervene. She turns to ask Yemandja to send her back, but she is gone. Omolola sings a short song that transports her back to her world, she finally is ready to use her power again. Omolola finds Olajuwon and warns him. Omolola sings her love for Olajuwon and sings of the duality in all of us that makes the world stronger.

Scene 19
Omolola and Olajuwon interrupt DeSalta trying to convince Loko to pledge allegiance to him. Omolola sings the story of the world breaking apart and weaves us back together. Yemandja closes us out.

Read less
  • Yemandja © Doug Mason

    © Doug Mason

  • Yemandja © Doug Mason

    © Doug Mason

  • Yemandja © Doug Mason

    © Doug Mason

  • Yemandja © Doug Mason

    © Doug Mason

  • Yemandja © Doug Mason

    © Doug Mason

  • Yemandja © Doug Mason

    © Doug Mason

  • Yemandja

  • Yemandja - Rasean Davonte Johnson

    © Rasean Davonte Johnson

  • © Naïma Hebrail Kidjo

  • © Mary Jane Marcasiano

  • © Kerry James Marshall

  • © Kathy A. Perkins

  • © Darryl Archibald

  • © Cheryl Lynn Bruce

  • © Beatrice Capote

  • © Angelique Kidjo

credits

concept Angélique Kidjo, Jean Hebrail, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo text Naïma Hebrail Kidjo music Angélique Kidjo, Jean Hebrail direction Cheryl Lynn Bruce set design Kerry James Marshall costumes Mary Jane Marcasiano choreography Beatrice Capote sound Kumi Ishizawa musical direction John Samorian lights Kathy A. Perkins lighting adaptation Theatermachine projections Rasean Davonte Johnson make-up design Beckie Kravetz dramaturgy Iyvon E. sensitivity specialist Ann C. James casting Andrea Zee production stage manager Meghan Maureen Williams cast Angélique Kidjo, Briana Brooks, Michael de Souza, April Nixon, George L Brown, John Carlin, Frank Lawson, Kendrick Marion, Hallie Chapman, Indigo Sparks stage manager Violet Tafari keyboard John Samorian guitar Dominic James bass Michael Olatuja percussion Magatte Sow production The OFFICE performing arts + film commissioned by Holland Festival, MassMoCA, Arts Emerson, The Broad Stage at Santa Monica College, Brown Arts Institute, Cal Performances, Ruth and Stephen Hendel, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Yale Schwarzman Center with support by W.L.S. Spencer Foundation

This performance is made possible by

Meet Angélique Kidjo

Meet Angélique Kidjo

The French-Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo is associate artist of this year’s Holland Festival, together with theatre director Nicolas Stemann. Shows to be featured at the festival in June are Mother Nature, Yemandja and Ifé.

Watch our conversation with Angélique here and click here to read a conversation about her work and motivations.