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'Sankofa' playwright follows in grand-uncle's footsteps

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

The grand-niece of a pioneering Ghanaian playwright is debuting her first semi-autobiographical show at a London Westend theatre house in early 2024 ( the play was due to be showcased in September 2023 but this has been rescheduled).

Nicole © Michael Brosnan Photography

Nicole Acquah, the grand-niece of Asiedu Yirenkyi, will showcase ‘Sankofa’ – an 80-minute monologue that weaves together live music, storytelling, and traditional pottery.

Nicole's show explores legacy, heritage, and what it means to 'belong' as part of the African diaspora.

These themes are captured in the meaning behind the Akan word sankofa.

Sankofa comes from the ancient Akan writing system Adinkra and is often associated with the proverb: “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi," (It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten).

Understanding sankofa

Nicole's show draws on the meaning behind sankofa and ties it to her own journey of self discovery.

san - to return

Nicole's grand-uncle was a playwright, who helped to shape the landscape of Ghanaian theatre.

Nicole writes plays, thousands of miles away in London but she is unaware of this connection to him.

ko - to go

Discovering her grand-uncle’s work sets Nicole on a journey to learn more about her lineage. Touring her own work around Europe, she is faced with the significance of her heritage, her Blackness, her art. Is there something connecting her and Asiedu - something stronger than culture, than bloodline even?

fa - to fetch

Before she returns to England, Nicole will have to learn what it truly means to go back into the past in order to move forward into the future.

“I’ve been writing and performing since I was a kid,” says playwright and actress Nicole Acquah

The four-week performance, which was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Playwriting in 2021, will showcase at the Seven Dials Playhouse near Covent Garden.

Live music

“In the show, you can expect live music inspired by different regions, particularly music inspired by African influence in various parts of the world through the Diaspora,” said Nicole, who runs theatre company Acquah&co.

“There’s a lot of humour mixed with a lot of serious topics. You can expect to be taken on a journey as the character is quite literally touring during the narrative of the show.

“There is movement and dance, too. It is vibrant, touching and authentic. The show is performed ‘in the round’ [a theatre space where the audience surrounds the acting area], which is a fun challenge as a performer,” said Nicole.

Image of Nicole Acquah © Ella Wright
Image of Nicole © Ella Wright

Theatre in the family

Nicole has been an actor and playwright since she graduated in 2017 but told AKADi Magazine she has been writing and performing since she was a child.

Writing and acting runs in her family too. Nicole's grand-uncle was a member of Ghana's first experimental theatre group in the 1950s.

“He performed at the opening of the Efua Sutherland Drama Studio in the 1960s. He was also the younger brother of Ghanaian actor, filmmaker and director Reverend Kofi Yirenkyi,” she said.

Asiedu Yirenkyi wrote ‘Kivuli and other plays’ (1980), ‘Dasebre: a play on African rituals and games’ (1990), ‘Two Plays: Dasebre and The Red Ants (2003), and also ‘The Firefly and Amma Pranaa’.

"He made history by becoming the first Ghanaian to win a grant to study drama in the States," said Nicole.

Her grand-uncle attended Yale University, before returning to Ghana to work as a writer, performer, lecturer and later, a minister for the Provisional National Defence Council.

“He was one of the writers working in the emergence of Ghanaian Independence, which saw a new birth of experimental theatre by playwrights such as the late Ama Ata Aidoo and Ben Abdallah.

"His work was concerned with experimental adaptations of folklore work," Nicole said.

"And he helped establish a new style of experimental theatre throughout Ghana - post-independence. He also served as the head of Ghana's National Folklore Board.”

Image of Nicole Acquah © Ella Wright
Image of Nicole © Ella Wright

Heritage archive

Nicole's 'Sankofa' performance is part of a wider Sankofa Project that includes a digital heritage archive.

The archive will take the form of an online exhibition in October, that showcases the work of Ghanaian artists and members of the community, from all over the diaspora.

“Our aim is to connect members of the diaspora, and to have a place to showcase the creativity and culture of Ghanaians worldwide. A place to come together and share experience.

Image of Nicole Acquah © Ella Wright
Image of Nicole Acquah © Ella Wright

One of the inspirations for the Archive came from performing an earlier iteration of the show.

Nicole explained that some members of the audiences were so inspired by the show, they went in search of their own histories and stories.

"We had people dig up old letters and photographs and undergo revelations about their history. We realised there was a need for this connection and a space for people to share their experiences.

"We especially want to bring connection to second-generation Ghanaians who may feel disconnected from their roots - whether that be not understanding Ghanaian languages, having not yet had the opportunity to return to Ghana, or else are disconnected from Ghanaian family.

"The Archive is therefore also a place for healing, learning from those in Ghana or the Diaspora and for discovering our roots,” she said.

The Sankofa Project is a crowdfunding project in that highlights Black stories and African storytelling.

If you like reading about more plays like this, click below:

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