"Bangura challenges you to think out of the box."| 2 February 2023
Christelle Baseke Kaisala (1985) considers herself a mix of many influences. A multiple identity she lets loose through the writers collective Words of Colour and her blog Too Black to be True, she writes opinion articles for KifKif about identity, representation and mental well-being.
As a member of the writers' collective Words of Colour, I had the honour of attending the premiere of Great Apes of the West Coast on the 12th of January 2023 at NTGent's charming, intimate theatre Arca. This performance challenges you to think out of the box.
"Fuck", "Fuck it all": with these phrases, Princess Isatu Hassan Bangura sets the tone of her first solo performance Great Apes of the West Coast. Dressed in a black suit and with her arms clasped around herself, she ‘vomits’ the words. Several times she repeats the four-letter word while making spastic shoulder movements. As if she wants to wriggle away from the label 'black woman' that sticks on her. It’s a beautiful metaphor for one of the things the artist is aiming for with this piece.
But instead of focusing on what was happening on stage, I wanted to know what her intentions were with the play. I was particularly intrigued to know who the person behind Great Apes of the West Coast was. We made eager use of modern technology and met virtually. The first thing I noticed was the energy and enthusiasm splashing off the screen. Was it due to the healthy stress and adrenaline one week before the premiere? I’ll leave that up to you. It became a warm and open conversation about identity and art as a form of expression and being.
With this solo performance, Princess aims to tell a story using her own emotions, observations and feelings. It is the story about an African woman paying tribute to her ancestors from the West African country of Sierra Leone. Serra Leão or Lion Mountain refers to the name the Portuguese called the peninsula when they colonised it in the 15th century. Like the other African countries on the West Coast, Sierra Leone played an important factor in the transatlantic slave trade. A history that, both abundantly and painfully, shaped Princess. She was born and grew up in Sierra Leone until she was 13. She and her family had to flee the civil war and had to move to Europe.
She ended up in the Netherlands where she was confronted with a part of herself she never had to question before: her skin colour. She was no longer African but she was black. An experience that was in strong contrast to what she was used to, because in Africa 'race' wasn’t important. Princess experienced ‘being black’ as very demanding: as a black person, you literally had to confess colour. It required a certain action, a clear opinion and opinion on the overall black experience. She noticed from her experience that being black was associated with pain, anger and sadness. Issues that became painfully clear to her during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020. But she did not find herself in this narrative at all.
The need to break free from it was great and, thanks to theatre, Princess, being a shy girl, discovered her voice. Even more so, she discovered a creative playground to navigate outside the imposed labels, where she could totally be herself. Princess graduated in 2021 as a performance artist from the Toneelacademie Maastricht. Her training was a combination of visual arts, film, music, and literature, which was reflected in her play. But it was only by immersing herself in West African art forms that she found a missing part of herself. A necessary part that she embraced and will integrate into her work from now on.
"My chaos makes sense", she explains. "Life is not manageable; it is chaos. It is everything mixed together." When I ask her if this is a metaphor for life, she agrees. According to her, life is a quest that everybody has to make, including herself.
"As a performer, my goal is to take people on a kind of journey. As a spectator, you feel an experience through the performance and explore with me. You dive into my head, together with me, and you take with you what makes sense to you. This matches with what I experience on stage.” Princess guides you through some important moments of her life. Beginning from fleeing the civil war and her arrival in the Netherlands to worshipping her ancestors. She takes you through her search for herself that is neither linear nor finite. A universe of different appearances and moods in which she reinvents herself again and again.
"Theatre needs understanding, or wants to deliver a clear message, but I turn away from that. I want to tell my story first”, she tells me. What stays with me is that she, in addition to her impressive stage presence, claims her own narrative. And does so in a creative and simply way. She starts from within herself, aware that she is a descendant of a rich culture and history. But she remains connected to the audience. Which should not be surprising since she tries to answer a connecting question: "Who am I?"
- Christelle Baseke Kaisala
Foto credit: Shirin Rabi