A History of Connecting Cultures: Dehkontee Artists Theatre at 40


Dehkontee Artists Theatre Uses African Culture and History to Reconnect Blacks around the World in Celebration of Its 40th Anniversary

The inception of Dehkontee Artists Theatre began forty-two years ago at Carroll High School in Nimba County, Northern Liberia, when Liberian playwright, theatre director, and educator Dr. Joe Gbaba received his calling from the Lord in 1974.

Dr. Gbaba recalls hearing a strange voice call out his name two different times early one morning at about two a.m. while he was sound asleep but when he awoke he saw nobody.

However, he went back to bed but this time remembering the passage he read in the Holy Bible about Samuel and Eli the high priest during which God had called Samuel twice and Samuel thought it was Eli calling him.

Nevertheless, Eli realized then it was the Lord calling Samuel and so he advised Samuel if he heard the strange voice calling him for the third time then Samuel should say: ‘Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.’ Hence, Joe said he went back to bed remembering the passage in the Bible; and the third time when his name was called he said he had a vision.

“Immediately I woke up, grabbed a pencil and some paper and began to write a play about what I could remember from my dream and I titled it: ‘Life Story of Kekula’.

It was the very first drama I wrote, directed, and produced forty-two years ago and it was staged at the Open Door Theatre in October of 1974 in Yekepa, Nimba County. That was how my career as a playwright, theatre director, actor, and educator started.

Since then, one way or the other my plays have always been focused on advocating for the rights of the underprivileged in society wherever I go. I have been promoting unity among Blacks whether in Liberia, or on the continent of Africa; or, whether it is reconnecting Blacks around the world with those on the continent of Africa, by preserving and promoting African culture and history through the performing and visual arts.”

“Also, what is interesting about my first play (“Life Story of Kekula”) that set the tone for my career is its theme: “National Unity and Integration for all Liberians”, Dr. Gbaba states.

“Back in the day, there was so much division among the people of Liberia with respect to ‘Who know you’ or ‘Country versus Congor’ and there were fewer inter-ethnic marriages than there are now. So, the play set the pace for a national conversation in that Kekula, an Indigenous Liberian fell in love with Susie who was an Americo-Liberian girl and they both had children that became the core lineage of the Liberian society.

Nine years after the play was staged I also married an Americo-Liberian lady named Ariminta Porte and our kids are now related to both sects of the Liberian society. So, I am confident inter-ethnic relationships will improve in Liberia over the course of time and there will be sustainable peace and rule of law soon.”

It was out of this calling that Dehkontee Artists Theatre was founded thirty-nine years ago when Gbaba enrolled at the University of Liberia. First as President of the Silver Jubilee Freshman Class, Gbaba formed the UL Freshman Class Dramatic Club in 1976.

He wrote, directed, produced, and acted in his “No More Hard Times”, a satire that reflected the socio-economic hardships of the poor of the Liberian society. The group toured different parts of Liberia including Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, Sanniquillie, Nimba County and traveled as far as Harper, Maryland.

Then in 1977 Dehkontee Artists was established and its major production “The Chains of Apartheid” received national and international raving reviews for the vivid portrayal of the ill-treatment of Black Africans by white supremacist regimes in Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

President Tolbert and the Sierra Leonean leader took great interest in Gbaba’s work and through their support Dehkontee Artists staged several State House and Executive Mansion performances in honor of President Tolbert, Ghanaian Head of State Fred Akkuffu, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, and First Vice President S.I. Koroma of Sierra Leone, as well as members of the diplomatic corps accredited near Freetown and Monrovia in 1978 and 19779, respectively.

Under the auspices of the Liberian government Gbaba pursued graduate studies in Drama at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNC-G) in the early 1980s.

The American version of Dehkontee Artists was established at UNC-G in 1982.

There Dr. Gbaba linked up with 4 African American students many of whom had little or no knowledge about Liberia let alone Africa in general.

“Most of the time Americans I met at UNC-G and other places in the U.S. always mistook Liberia for Libya when I told them I was from Liberia.

They did not even know freed slaves were repatriated from the United States that helped to establish the modern Republic of Liberia.

However, my African American friends and European Americans as well, they showed interest in my work and participated in “The Chains of Apartheid” when I staged it at the Aycock Auditorium at UNC-G as a mainstage and thesis production for my Master’s degree.

The audience that watched the play and those who participated were awestruck to learn about the vicious treatment Africans were receiving from their colonial masters on the continent of Africa.

One Caucasian classmate of mine even threatened to shoot me for portraying white supremacists on stage ill-treating Blacks. He said it reminded him of the slave trade in the United States.” Dr. Gbaba narrated.

Dr. Gbaba reorganized Dehkontee Artists Theatre when he returned to Liberia after he completed his studies at UNC-G in 1983. This time around he began producing more challenging productions that were focused on re-conceptualizing the way Liberians think of themselves and the others around them.

“What was and still is a challenge is that Liberia’s history and culture is deeply buried and suppressed in the rubbles of slavery and the oppression of Blacks by Blacks. For an example, the national curriculum in Liberia emphasizes teaching Liberians to think western and act western and to better appreciate western culture and degrade its indigenous culture.

Also, the status quo who were then or are now in the minority were and are mostly very ignorant about the culture of the majority they led or are now leading and so it was a difficult task finding appropriate ways to communicate the message of change and to convince Liberians to stop hating themselves.

In most instances, those in authority were very upset when I spoke the truths and told them they were bringing destruction to Liberia by downplaying or distorting Liberian history and culture.

Also between the years 1983-1989 before the inception of the rebel incursion the leadership structure of Liberia had changed dramatically and many of those in key positions of public trust and power were either semi-literate or completely illiterate with respect to being au courant with running the affairs of government, or being able to read and write.

To be exact, the leadership structure was based on tribalism, sectionalism and nepotism; and, the old “Who know you” or ‘What tribe are you’ syndrome had sunk into the Liberian socio-politico-and cultural system once again.”

Three significant Gbaba plays that emerged during the era of the 1980s were “The Resurrection”, “The Minstrel’s Tales”, and “Yah” (“Vision”). In his “The Resurrection” Gbaba had an implicit message for all Liberians and the world at large.

Jesus was not portrayed as a Caucasian as he was presented to Africans/Liberians by freed slaves that settled in Liberia in the early 1800s or by colonial missionaries who came to Africa with the Holy Bible in one hand and the gun or pistol in another.

Instead, Jesus was portrayed as a Black African born in the Nile River valley as the true history of Jesus was presented by our African forebears. In this light, Jesus was not portrayed in Gbaba’s “The Resurrection” as a European with blue eyes and blond 5 hair as he is portrayed on stained glass windows in Western and African Christian churches.

So, many Liberians who watched the play were sort of disturbed by the stance the controversial author and playwright took to present the historical truths about the story of Jesus being a man of African descent.

“The reason why I took this stance, even though I knew it would be shocking to many ‘obey-the-wind Christians’ is that religion is used in Liberia, Africa, and around the world as an opium to drug the minds of innocent and illiterate people who are weak of mind.

They are made to understand that the God they worship is different from their skin color but that this God who is different from their color and culture is the one that will deliver them—that will free them from sin and give them ‘salvation’.

Therefore, they should worship and feverishly obey this ‘alien God’ and consequently desecrate and abandon the religious beliefs that were handed down to them by their ancestors. For this reason, Liberians in particular and Africans in general are caught in a quagmire or dilemma in which they are enslaved to those who stand on the pulpit and preach to them about what they should do and not do in order to be saved.”

Gbaba’s “The Minstrel’s Tales” (1987) presents a different scenario but similar storyline with respect to the adoration of our African cultural heritage. In the drama, the Minstrel narrates fables about how the fictional village of Polah was once a very beautiful place to live until a Stranger came in and introduced his ‘strange ways’ which the villagers of Polah adapted and that changed their lives forever. The author further states:

“In this production, I meshed traditional African village storytelling techniques with role play, singing and dancing and rhythmical drum beats to present the storyline. At that time, I was a faculty member at Cuttington University located in cultural rich Suacoco, in Bong County, Central Liberia. I was also the Director of the Cuttington Dramatic Club so I invited a traditional Kpelle minstrel named Jokpankpan to participate in the production.

He was from a Kpelle village called Sangei which was adjacent to Cuttington University campus. Guess what! We had a blast because the play resonated very well with the local Kpelle people and the students that participated in the play learned a great deal about Liberian history and culture in the production process. They loved the storytelling, dancing, and singing aspects of the play, and I did too.” Gbaba added.

In 1988, Dr. Gbaba was appointed Principal of Zwedru Multilateral High School (ZMHS). Again, as a scholar/artist he wrote, directed, and produced “Yah” (“Vision”). As the meaning of the play depicts, it was centered on a vision the playwright had—about a dramatic change that was to come in Liberia—but it was presented through a biblical storyline—the same as the Joseph story in the Bible.

ZMHS was one of several World Bank projects built during the administration of President Tolbert to provide middle level manpower. It had three different streams of programs: vocational, technical, and academic and it was the largest secondary school in Southeastern Liberia.

Further, the school was of historical importance to Dr. Gbaba because his great ancestor named Yarlee-Gbanh founded the City of Zwedru, the capital City of Grand Gedeh County in Eastern Liberia—home of the Krahn ethnic group of Liberia.

Interestingly, the President of Liberia, Samuel Kanyon Doe also hailed from Grand Gedeh County so one would have thought Dr. Gbaba would get all the support he needed to upgrade the school to a junior or community college while he was principal but that never happened.

“As I stated earlier, the eighties were just about the turning point in Liberian cultural and political history. Many semi-educated individuals had ascended the political ladder in Liberia due to the military coup that brought Doe to power.

Even among his own Krahn ethnic group sectionalism was very rampant. I was not from his Gborbo section and so I was looked at as an outsider even though I had great plans to improve the school and upgrade it to junior or community college level if I had the support but it was lacking. Nonetheless, I received massive 7 support from the students and the ordinary folks who wanted quality education for their kids.

I revived most of the programs in the school and kept them up and running with little help from private donors, family, and friends but that was not enough to bring about the change I wanted for Zwedru Multilateral.”

“Artistically”, Gbaba continued, “the “Yah” (“Vision”) production was effective. I involved the best traditional Krahn zoes, musicians, dancers including the likes of Bah-Beh, Gayeebah-Pahboo, Gayah-Ninnenh and performers (even including two very famous traditional Krahn dance masks—Voorpen and Zaryea) in the overall composition of the play and for the very first time I took the school theatre group on tour to Monrovia for two weeks.

Our aim was to raise funds to improve our programs and to provide exposure to the kids most of whom were from the hinterland but that had not participated in such academic and cultural production at that scale.

Also, educationally and artistically, the production was successful because the performance was outstanding. In addition, the message that a change was to come in Liberia was clearly stated but only those with eyes and ears could see and hear the clear message that was written on the wall”!

The role of Dehkontee Artists Theatre during the civil war in Liberia was very pivotal. Dr. Gbaba served as a cultural consultant with UNICEF and DATI was the non-governmental implementing agency for UNICEF and other United Nations agencies from the time of the first cessation of hostilities in 1992 until Dr. Gbaba’s flight in exile to the United States.

Dehkontee Artists Theatre, UNICEF, and the Christian Health Association of Liberia (CHAL) were instrumental in establishing the UNICEF Kukatonon Peace Education and Conflict Resolution program in Liberia.

The program was so successful that it was later used by the United Nations and UNICEF in other conflict zones around the world. Dr. Gbaba and Barry Hart were co-authors of the UNICEF Kukatonon Conflict Resolution Manual that was used as text to hold workshops for school teachers, educational leaders, and local governmental officials in various regions of Liberia that were controlled by different warring factions and warlords.

Also, Dr.  Gbaba directed the UNICEF/DATI Children’s Peace Theatre that consisted of children between the ages ten to fifteen who performed conflict resolution dances, songs, and dramas in various parts of Liberia that were under rebel control.

Through this initiative many child soldiers and former combatants were disarmed. Also, Dehkontee Artists staged other educational programs to create cultural awareness and national consciousness among traumatized Liberian citizens.

Some of the UNICEF-funded projects included a live traveling theatrical production titled “Weh-gba” (Bad sickness in the Bassa language). It was about HIV/AIDS and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

Another program that was very effective was the radio drama series that was entitled: “Mardea”. It was a play about gender equity and women empowerment. Consequences of that campaign included the nomination of Madam Ruth Sando Perry as first female Head of State of Liberia, and of course the election of Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first elected female President in Africa!

Other significant contributions made by Dehkontee Artists included its regular weekly radio program on LBS and Radio Veritas called “Dehkontee Theatre”, a thirty-minute cultural awareness program which presented many different topics on social, political, and cultural issues.

Also, Dr. Gbaba worked as a consultant with the Elections Commissions and worked with the Public Awareness Campaign unit before his departure to the United States in 1997.

Since its reorganization in the United States Dehkontee Artists Theatre has been engaged in reconnecting Africans in the diaspora with those on the continent of Africa through its Afrocentric literacy and performing arts programs.

Part of that process includes visiting local schools, communities, and mounting public performances depicting the diverse history and culture of Africa through dance, music, African fireside storytelling, literature, etc. For instance, on January 9, 2016 DATI performed at the Bowie Center for the performing Arts and featured Joe Gbaba’s “The Frogs and Black Snake in Frogsville”.

“DATI’s programs are gradually making a great impact in the United States because many of the students, school teachers, and even adults and senior citizens that attend our shows display little or no knowledge of African history and culture” Gbaba stated.

“We were deeply touched when during our recent visit to an old folk retirement home many of the senior citizens in their late eighties and early nineties said they appreciated our visit and that our show was very educational for them because they had never watched an African performance and were never told anything positive about their cultural heritage other than the story about the slave trade.”

Apart from being entertaining, DATI programs are very educational and research-based. Dr. Gbaba’s doctoral research focused on the development of Afrocentric curriculum and the production of textbooks that reflect the true culture and history of Africa.

He strongly believes that Africans should write their own history and literature and that these Afrocentric texts should be used as textbooks in schools in Africa.

Also, he is a strong advocate for Africans to run their own educational systems and not entrust the education of African kids to foreigners but that natives of various African countries should be in the forefront of educating the youths of Africa.

In a recent Board of Directors meeting, Dr. Gbaba pressed for more material and financial support to enable him publish some of his works which he hopes will eventually be used in schools across the United States and hopefully in the Liberian school system.

Hence, much of the focus of DATI’s programs for Fiscal 2016-2017 and 40th Anniversary will include the publication of four books written by Dr. Gbaba, an African fashion show and a dinner, dance and fund raising event to be held in the State of Maryland during the week-end of September 30, 2017.

Those who wish to support DATI’s cultural awareness programs may do so by logging on to the DATI website at www.dehkonteeartiststheatreinc.com and clicking on the “Donate” button to make a kind donation which is tax deductible.

Published by the Public Relations Unit of Dehkontee Artists Theatre, Inc.