Lush green forests, dazzling lights and beautiful costumes worn by the actors as they dance on stage, whirling their swords and sashes sets the scene at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in West Philadelphia during the dress rehearsal of “Ogun and The People,” a classic Yoruba tale of traditional Africa folklore complete with African deities, spiritual beings (Orisha) and their occasional conflicts with humanity.
“Ogun and the People” has all of the ingredients necessary to create an evening of lively entertainment for the whole family, one suitable for marking Kùlú Mèlé’s 50th anniversary. The name Kùlú Mèlé is translated, “voices of our ancestors”.
The first show, on Saturday, Nov. 30, was sold out and so the troupe added a Sunday, Dec. 1 matinee performance. But before guests take their seats and the curtain rises, the performers are hard at work creating the scenes, setting the lights, making sure that the choreography is timed to perfection and stage props are set and sound quality is just right.
Although the play is riveting, the dance is exciting and the plot is entertaining, “Ogun and the People” is more than just a theatrical production, it also transmits through drama and dance the tradition and culture of a people, says Marilyn Kai Jewett, publicist for the production performed by the internationally renowned Kùlú Mèlé African Dance and Drum Ensemble.
“The Yoruba people were from West Africa which is now called Nigeria and parts of Benin,” Jewett said.
“There were a large number of Yoruba people who were taken into slavery and brought to the new world and a lot of us have reclaimed our culture,” she said.
One of the ways in which that culture continues to maintain its existence is through the spoken word, theatrical productions and dance.
Founded by the late Baba Robert Crowder in 1969, the Philadelphia-based Kùlú Mèlé takes its mission very seriously.
“Inspired by the voices of its ancestors, Kùlú Mèlé African Dance and Drum Ensemble preserves, presents and perpetuates the traditional dance and music of West Africa for the African Diaspora,” according to the group’s mission statement.
“They (Kùlú Mèlé) are the oldest, continuously performing African Drum and Dance Ensemble in the nation,” Jewett says. “There are others who started around the same time as 1969 and others who started before them, but they are the only ones still performing so Philadelphia should be really proud of what we have here.”
Performing the role of Oshun, an Orisa (angelic forces of the Yoruba spiritual tradition) who lures the irate Ogun (the warrior, protector, dispenser of justice who brought civilization to the world. He is the creator and owner of all metal) from the forests with her seductive charm, is Crystal Gatling beautifully adorned
“I’m very excited and nervous at the same time because I want to make sure that I portray Oshun in a positive light for people who don’t know anything about African deities,” Gatling says.
“I want them to see Oshun and say, ‘Oh, I understand what she represents, and I see that in me’ so it’s exciting,” she says.
Gatling says did a lot of preparation for the role.
“I watched a lot of YouTube videos of different dancers who have danced the role of Oshun, those from Cuba and Africa and even our artistic director, Dorothy Wilkie — we call her ‘Mama Dottie’ — she’s danced Oshun lots of times so I’ve seen old footage of her and tried to mimic her footsteps,” she says.
“I also did a lot of reading, too. ‘What does Oshun represent’? ‘What should I be thinking while I’m onstage or, like that old commercial ‘what’s my motivation’?” says Gatling with a laugh.
Wilkie, affectionately known as ‘Mamma Dottie’ to the cast and friends, has a long history of dance and has served as the group’s artistic director for more than 30 years.
Like the ensemble itself, she originates from Philadelphia and has traveled extensively to such places as Guinea, Cuba and Brazil to study African dance receiving numerous awards along the way.
And then there is the rhythmic and vibrant dance scenes choreographed by Danys “La Mora” Perez who began performing at 13, was given the opportunity to join Cutumba Cuban ballet company.
The production promises to be as visually stimulating as it is dramatically riveting thanks to the work of set designer Owoo who developed the visual concept for the production.
“I would describe it (the set) to be visually exciting,” Owoo said.
Owoo has extensive background and connections with Kùlú Mèlé to draw from in creating her concepts for the set of the production of “Ogun and the People”.
“I went to Cuba with the group and so with my trip, with my research and working with Dottie Wilkie in trying to create her vision and the story, that’s where my inspiration came from,” she said.
“I have worked with them (Kùlú Mèlé) throughout the years for the last 20-something years off and on but this project is one of the largest and biggest projects I’ve worked on with them where I did everything with them to help them visualize the concept.”