By David Gramling, University of Arizona
Dodowa is a town west of Accra with red-dirt roads, loads of free-roaming chickens, heavy-laden plantain trees, and a steady incline up from the Accra seacoast toward the mountains. When in Dodowa you ask directions to Noyam, people will not seem to know how to direct you. But if you say “National Theater,” they will point you up the road to Noyam. It is a big cement structure on a slope near a river, about the size of a small city church. There’s room enough in it for a large dance ensemble (of 20-25 members) to dilate comfortably onstage, and for about two hundred more to sit in the audience, before the stage or in the balcony. Noyam seems always somehow under construction and on the verge of discontinuation due to lack of resources, but in the off-hours (when official rehearsal and tech work is done), the young people of the Noyam company hold the stage deep into the evening—free-styling, playing the booming sound system, and greeting the neighborhood cats and birds that wander in.
Normally, we might translate the local word “Noyam” into English as “development”—but that word has a range of entanglements, histories, and usages that Noyam, in the local languages, does not.
Yes, the company (including cooks, taxi-drivers, dancers, support personnel, researchers, tech designers, choreographers, dramaturges, costume designers, and toddlers) is collaboratively “developing” a piece of musical dance theater. Yes, the company is also “developing” its company members’ technical capacities and its sense of multilingual and intercosmological community. Yes, Noyam is “developing” a new hub of creative livelihood in Dodowa, Accra, and Ghana. Yes, Noyam is “developing” a new method of working and creating (indeed, researching) multilingually—across Twi, Dangwe, Ewe, English, French, Danish, Arabic, and other enumerable languages.
But what else is Noyam doing? Speaking only for myself, I experienced at Noyam profound new forms of belief, hope, and dialogue—of seriousness-in-play and care-in-movement. From the dishwashers to the dramaturges, a sense of unabating respect, gentleness, ease, and accountability partnered the creative work from notion to idea, from devising to staging. For me as a relatively traditional (read: stodgy) university-based researcher / writer, what Noyam did was to recenter the world for me around new methodological and aesthetic principles that are at once accommodating and uncompromising. After working at Noyam, for instance, I will no longer be willing to uphold the fictional distinction between research and creative practice, between humanities, social sciences, and fine arts, nor between teacher and taught.
As the time passed at Noyam, the young people grew more and more comfortable making jokes about me, asking me questions, inviting me into their meals, bestowing upon me ever-new and often unflattering nicknames. I became less isolated and unsure of my position in the space, and came to believe that a complex but thoroughgoing good faith was the only idiom that mattered here. The conversion experience was social, aesthetic, spiritual, and political for me at once—and I am only now beginning to understand its contours a bit. What I can do, perhaps all I can do for now, upon going home to Arizona, is to hold this work that Noyam has welcomed me into—as a kind of “true north” for what it is that engaged scholarship is asked to do in a suffering but healable world.