Tuesday, March 10, 2020

New play uses song, dance and story to tell tale of 16th century slave rebellion leader

     The empty rehearsal room was quiet in late afternoon, a peaceful contrast to the hustle and bustle of buses, cars and people visible through the windows looking out on 125th Street, one of Harlem's busiest thoroughfares. Darrel Alejandro Holnes had come here to talk about his latest play, Bayano, which two weeks later would have its first public exposure in a workshop presentation upstairs at the National Black Theatre.

     It's been a two-year journey to get to this point, from first applying to NBT's I AM SOUL Playwrights Residency program, through acceptance and writing and rewriting the play. Using The Odyssey as inspiration, Holnes wanted to tell the story of Bayano, a 16th century enslaved African king who led the largest slave rebellion in Panama against the colonial Spanish.

     "He was the Harriet Tubman figure of Panama," Holnes says. "He was the greatest colonial liberator anywhere in Latin America."

     Throughout the creation of Bayano, as he has with his other work and his life, Holnes has been strengthened by his Catholic upbringing and the African spirituality that mingled with it in Panama. He wears a silver cross containing sand from Jerusalem, a gift from his mother, over his cream-colored sweater, an outward sign of his faith. This faith is needed now more than ever, he says, when he has trouble finding anything hopeful in the news.

     "Faith is ultimately where I find my optimism," he says. "It's helped me move forward through this process despite many setbacks."

     Born in Houston, Holnes was raised in a suburb seven minutes outside of Panama City. He returned to the United States at 17 in 2005 to attend Loyola University in New Orleans but never completed the first semester because Hurricane Katrina left the school under water. He transferred to the University of Houston, then went on to the University of Michigan for graduate school.

     It was his grandmother, "the spiritual center of our family," who influenced his faith formation. She moved to Panama from Costa Rica in the early 20th century.

     "The church gave her pride, place and a sense of community. So much of her life was shaped by her commitment of faith."

     But Holnes is also aware of the church's role in protecting the institution of slavery in Panama. Portraying this along with creating a theatrical drama of song, dance and story around Bayano's life was important. Holnes had first learned about Bayano in elementary school, but mostly it was in relationship to news of rebellions and slave escapes. He wanted to explore the history, spirituality and liberation of this man.

     "The story was well documents but never from his perspective or a black perspective. I've done my best to try to honor what his perspective was and give him a voice. It's the story of a great liberator and also tells the story of the struggle with faith."

     And he's worked to understand both sides of the church in colonial Panama.

     "The church's role in faith helped Africans get up in the morning but religion was also used to explain and use slavery."

     In addition to a solid body of work and awards, Holnes also has the distinction of being the first Panamanian-America to receive a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship -- in 2019 for his poetry -- and is one of only two artists of Panamanian descents to ever receive the honor. In addition to writing, he teaches at New York University and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

     "In a lot of my plays the characters are always struggling with their faith," he says. "To believe is to ask questions. My characters are always asking questions about life and its responsibilities."

     While he still sees Catholicism "as part of my community" and worships at Sagrado Corazon de Jesus Catholic Church when he is in Panama, he now attends Middle Collegiate Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side because its practices of service are much closer to those those he experienced as a child.

     "I grew up with a community of Catholic churches that were incredibly active in social justice. I grew up thinking that being Catholic is volunteering in a soup kitchen. I felt the Catholic Church was to be a voice of the poor and needy. I feel the Catholic Church in the United States has a different dynamic. Middle Church is very activist-oriented and really lives by faith."

     Throughout the 45-minute interview, Holnes holds a hand-carved wooded staff with the head of an African man that he bought in Cuba.

     "It makes me feel close to this project. I think what it would be like to be someone enslaved. They take everything from you so you own nothing. You would want something of your own so you go out and make it."

     After Bayano's March 11 through 15 workshop presentation Holnes will work toward getting the show into a fully staged production, which he hopes will make people feel empowered.

     "What I admire about Bayano is that he really took his freedom into his own hands. We should be able to do even more. We can break from things that oppress us. I hope people will try hard to feel they can free themselves from anything they feel is holding them back."

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