An interview with Stacey Luftig, Jennie Redling and Phillip Palmer, writers of the 2013 Festival show My Heart Is the Drum, about how they explored African society to create such a dynamic piece, their musical and cultural inspirations and how NAMT has evolved their show throughout the Festival process.
What was the impetus to create a story around a young girl with dreams larger than her African village?
Phillip, who had been traveling and studying traditional music in South Africa and Ghana, wanted to dramatize the people and important issues he encountered there, namely the intersection of the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic—particularly for women—and the deep poverty that is so different from what Americans experience. He also wanted to tell a story of a person with great potential who most likely would be wildly successful if she had been born into a middle-class American family, but who had to fight like crazy to have even the most basic opportunities where she happened to be born. Phillip’s original outline also explored the connection between people in different countries, including a separate plot line about a dynastic Virginia cotton farming family that lobbied for the American cotton subsidies that depressed the West African cotton market and drove Efua and her family into poverty. Jennie, who had written several plays with strong teenage female protagonists and who was also a rape crisis counselor, was drawn to the material. Keeping the core characters and setting Phillip created, she reshaped the story and breathed life into Efua and the coterie of strong women who surround her.
The struggle between embracing tradition and moving away in search of progress seems to be a central theme of this piece. What are you trying to negotiate in this discussion?
This has been a big topic for the three of us; not only the theme of tradition versus progress, but education versus ignorance. Efua, our heroine, rebels against tradition. Her main means of rebellion is her pursuit of a college education (rare for girls in her community), because she wants more for her life “than just marriage and babies.” In doing so, she looks down on some of those around her, whom she considers ignorant because they are less curious and more content with their lives. Understandably, her arrogance becomes destructive to these relationships. While she does have some book knowledge, what Efua lacks is experience and wisdom. While seeking the chance for a college education, however, Efua does acquire a degree of wisdom—a quality she didn’t know she needed. Her growth is characterized by a greater open-mindedness, compassion, and a new appreciation of some of the traditional values and beliefs that she pushed away in the first place. However, traditional beliefs
can sometimes contradict, as opposed to complement, what is learned through formal education. This is where “negotiations” became tricky for us. For example, there are characters in our show who believe in curses, and some who believe specifically that “the wasting disease” is brought on by a curse. While we strive to show the power of education in general, and its power to fight HIV in particular, we also worked to convey respect for beliefs much different than ours, and respect for those who hold such beliefs.
A lot of the language both in the script and the score seems rooted in agriculture and images of growth. What inspired you to express ideas in this way?
Stacey Luftig:Speaking as lyricist, there were many reasons for this inspiration. First of all, our main characters, who live in a small West African village where the economy is based mainly on farming, are much more connected to the earth than most Americans are, and are dependent upon its rhythms for survival. Whether or not people have food or the money to buy food is tied in part to global political decisions, but most basically to how well the crops grow. Efua, meanwhile, is trying to nourish her mind so that she, too, can flourish and grow. The first obstacle she faces, when trying to win a scholarship to college, is tied to the land; the day that Efua tries to turn in her scholarship essay, she is taken from school to work on the family farm. So, metaphors and language tied to growth and agriculture felt like organic choices.
There is a really intriguing mix of realism and the fantastical/spiritual in this piece. Was that always the plan, or did it evolve as time went on?
Jennie Redling:No, spirituality was not explicitly a part of the story at its earliest stages, when Phil outlined the piece. But as Phil and I began working together to dramatize the obstacles to advancement that would be typical for a young girl in Ghana, and as these obstacles became actual life-threatening matters, I felt that our heroine would turn to sources of strength that went beyond the human sort. I also had an instinct that the journey for this young woman, who was proud of knowing so much, would be to discover something within herself that she did not know was there. Phil’s concept depended on the language of drums, which led to the idea that the sound of Efua’s heartbeat, like the beating of a drum, might represent the voice of her true self.
My research confirmed the centrality of the spiritual realm in African culture, specifically honoring ancestors, so our story seemed to naturally evolve into one where so much is stacked against the heroine that a spiritual messenger or guide is called for to keep her steady and on course—though not necessarily to save her. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to the heroine identifying with a strong relative, no longer alive, who has always been a protective presence, and from there to all of the villagers having such a spiritual source of strength in the face of the hardships they are up against every day.
As the story progresses and Efua arrives in Accra, we are introduced to the discussion of HIV and malaria. How do those topics tie in to the earlier themes of education in the piece, back in the village?
There are times when becoming educated about certain subjects becomes a life or death proposition, as with health issues such as HIV (and malaria, which is not a main issue for us). And when you are an educated person in general, you are more likely to make informed decisions that not only enrich your experiences, but lead to a more healthy and prosperous life. Efua’s journey starts out as that of an extremely idealistic young person, despite the bleak circumstances of her life. She wants to leave her village unfettered by family of any kind, have exciting experiences anywhere but there and teach children all sorts of subjects. As she accrues life experiences, she gains greater appreciation of the culture that formed her. Although she still pursues her education, she ends up going back to her village to teach the children there not only about poetry and art, but about how to survive in the world. So the term “education” takes on a more layered meaning.
The music is infectious and extremely percussive, at times haunting and exhilarating. What elements did you draw on to help you create this music—specific to the Ghanaian culture, and otherwise?
Phillip Palmer:I’m a big fan of many styles of traditional African music. Being able to incorporate some of them is a part of why I wanted to write a musical set in Africa. The first is traditional West African drumming and singing, which often includes a repeated rhythmic pattern played on a Gonkokwe (double cowbell), interlocking drum or marimba parts and simple, catchy melodies. I used these elements in the songs “Seeds, Dirt, and Cotton,” “Pretty Things” and “Today Begins Your Life.” I also love the tight, layered choir singing we associate with South African groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Gospel Choir, and I used this style in “Funeral Chant.” I employed these types of sounds for the more traditional characters and song moments in the show (though the songs are far from traditional, incorporating a musical theatre sensibility as well). But my favorite songs from the show are those that more thoroughly blend traditional African and musical theater elements, such as “Welcome Sun,” “A World Beyond Kafrona” and “Your Heart Is the Drum.”
The process of tightening and shortening Act I for the NAMT presentation has been a great exercise in discovering what was essential to telling the story clearly. Our advisers and our director have also been enormously helpful in that process. Two changes in particular emerged. First, we were able to identify (and remedy) an important spot where the audience might have lost track of what our heroine was feeling, and do so with a new song—that subsequently got trimmed down, like everything else, for the presentation. Second, we found ways to create a more consistent atmosphere throughout the show—an issue that had been plaguing us for a long time.