Crossing a Deep River: A Ritual Drama in Three Movements has had staged readings at Harvard University on November 18, 1998, and another at the College of William and Mary on May 25, 2000. I am grateful to Ms. Amma G. Tagoe, then a student member of the Harvard African Cultural Society, for directing the W.E.B. DuBois Institute Colloquium reading, and also to Dr. Jasmin Lambert, then a member of the William and Mary faculty, for directing the Monuments of the Black Atlantic reading. Selected scenes from Crossing a Deep Riverwere workshopped at the 2004 Ensemble Studio Theatre Summer Playwright conference in Lexington, New York. And the full three acts, directed by David Downing, were presented as an A-listed play in the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop Readers Theatre Series of New Plays at the 2005 National Black Theatre Festival. Thank you, David, for bringing your extraordinary gifts to my work.
In writing Deep River, I have been influenced by Adrienne Kennedy, Lorraine Hansberry, Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertold Brecht, Douglas Turner Ward, Wole Soyinka, and by African and African American ritual practices. Dr. Akinsola Akiwowo’s unpublished essay “Ancestorization Rites for Past African American Heroes,” provided a compelling source of inspiration, as did the drawings of Tom Feelings. Some of the characters are loosely based on the lives of persons born in West Africa around the middle of the eighteenth century, but in most aspects they are completely original. The characters of Crossing a Deep River have their very own lives. I met them in Brazil, Cuba, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
Because the director needs artistic freedom to bring his or her own gifts and visions to Crossing a Deep River; I have gone light on stage directions. While almost everything of this nature has been left appropriately to the discretion of the director, costume and set designers, et.al., I do wish to make a few suggestions. Concerning the set, I believe that the old adage of “less is more” holds true for this piece. Because the play is emotionally large, I would suggest a minimal set-something very spare with the actual spaces to be defined by the work of the actors and the director. As for costumes, I suggest the sort of unisex flowing tunics and slacks that frequently come from Pakistan and India (or something similar)-in a natural or sea colored fabric, except in those scenes where costuming is clearly noted. Articles of clothing can be added or taken off. Not only will this approach give continuity, it will strengthen the ritual component which is the heart of Crossing a Deep River.
Both the initiation ritual in the second movement and the ancestorization rite of the third are authentic. The former comes from the Ashanti people. “How Oyepola Appeased His Ancestors,” is a traditional Yoruba divination poem. The version quoted in Crossing a Deep Riveris a variant of individual translations by Dr. ‘Wande Abimbola, and is cited with permission.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
August 5, 2005