Professor of Ethnomusicology Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum won the Outstanding Achievement in a Leading Role award from the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT) National Festival in Pennsylvania.
She won for her performance in Walking With My Ancestors, a play written by Aduonum and directed by Professor of Theatre Kim Pereira and produced by Bloomington’s Coalescence Theatre Project under the direction of alumnus Don Shandrow’ 76, which also earned high marks at the national festival. Walking With My Ancestors was one of four finalists for the AACT Overall Outstanding Production award. It was the first time in nearly 40 years that a theater company from Illinois had a production advance to the National AACTFest.
Walking With My Ancestors depicts Aduonum’s experiences in the slave dungeons of Elmina Castle and Cape Coast in Ghana, and the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal. “It was an overwhelming and humbling experience to sit in those spaces, and imagine what the enslaved Africans—my ancestors—went through,” said Aduonum, who also performed a TedXNormal talk on her journey. “They were separated from families and children, and held for months … shackled and languishing for months at a time in those dark, damp, and insect-infested spaces.”
Aduonum uses live African drumming, original poetry, singing, acting, and dancing to offer fresh perspectives on the experiences of the “forgotten” enslaved Africans and to demonstrate how today’s racial and cultural problems connect with truths of our shared and painful pasts.
During one of her explorations in the dungeons, Aduonum allowed herself to be shackled and left alone. “I asked a lot of questions, and was granted with a lot of ancestral knowledge,” she said.
“Directing this play was more than a theatrical experience,” said Pereira, who noted that throughout rehearsals and adaptations the work was a window into a piece of history. “The power of art is such that it revitalizes events and journeys in ways that offer us new perspectives, modern interpretations of stories of horror and survival that force a new reckoning. The spirits of the dead refuse to stay dead. They are always at our shoulders, reminding us that we should never be allowed to forget.”
Several people from the Bloomington-Normal ranks journeyed to the AACTFest competition in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As executive artistic director of Coalescence, Shandrow said the energy surrounding the production was present from the beginning. “From the first read through, we all knew we were producing a powerful and important play,” noted Shandrow. “Dr. Aduonum’s impactful writing and moving performance coupled with Dr. Pereira’s insightful direction lead us to wins at state, regional, and finally to our place as one of the top four productions at the national AACTFest in Gettysburg.”
Walking With My Ancestors won three awards at the Illinois Theatre Festival for outstanding original work, outstanding use of music, and outstanding performance this spring. The play also won three awards from AACT’s Region III competition this spring, including outstanding performance.
Aduonum said the play will deliver the message to rise in the face of struggle. “For generations to continue, we must choose to survive,” said Aduonum. “The lesson for me was that we have to keep moving on. We cannot live in fear.”