It began as a direct message conversation between two black creatives: Ghanniy Oyedele from Nigeria, and Todd Sullivan from the United States. We met through a Taipei Facebook Writing Group, and were soon chatting about the possibility of starting an African inspired web-series. This was in early 2020 when Covid still raged around the world. Despite the stringent pandemic restrictions in Taipei, Ghanniy and I decided to meet in person. Ghanniy suggested we go to a 10-minute play festival, Taipei Shorts, which is a collaboration of local talents with the stated goal of keeping English theater alive in Taiwan.
On a humid, sweaty night in June, we sat down to watch several plays at Fu Jen University. During the intermission, we stepped outside to chat. Under the sprawling trees of Fu Jen University, we discussed the lack of representation of black and African narratives in Asia. We wanted that to change, but instead of waiting for someone else to take the initiative, we decided to do it ourselves. Thus was born Under the Iroko Tree, with the goal of spreading black narratives throughout Asia.
We were soon joined by two other black creatives, Sizo Mnguni and Marcus Tutt. Together, we collaborated on creating an African inspired web-series, which we titled For the Gods Open Eyes. Ghanniy Oyedele and I wrote the screenplays, setting the narrative in Taipei and incorporating the Nigerian gods, Esu and Milla, as central characters. Over the course of several months in 2020, we were joined by more than a dozen black, African, white, and Taiwanese actors. Five episodes, or approximately thirty minutes of content, were shot in various locations throughout Taipei.
In December of 2020, Under the Iroko Tree disbanded, and Ghanniy and I shifted our focus to playwriting. Ghanniy created BLiM Theatre (Website, Facebook) several months later, and I moved back to South Korea in the summer of 2021. Despite being separated by an ocean, we maintained contact online and kept to our goal of bringing black narratives to Asia. We continued writing plays centered around African philosophy and current events. Ghanniy, originally from Abeokuta, supplied the philosophical and cultural core of each narrative within a Taiwanese setting. Having moved to Taipei thirteen years earlier, he was intimately familiar with the culture. While living there, he had met and married Flora Chien, a Taiwanese woman, and had two young sons, Harley and Lex.
I provided the structure to the plays. I only lived in Taiwan for two years, but had lived in South Korea from 2009 to 2019, so was quite knowledgeable about Asian culture. With a Bachelors in English from Georgia State University and a Masters in Creative Writing from Queens College, I already had several novellas and novels released through independent publishers in America, as well as numerous poems and essays published globally. From the outlines Ghanniy sent me, I developed plot, character, and dramatic situations.
For a solo project, Ghanniy wrote the play For the Gods Open Eyes, loosely based upon the process of creating the web-series, whose name the play shares. In November 2022, it was performed alongside several other plays in Taipei Shorts. The play starred Ghanniy Oyedele, Darla Howell, Khanye Fakudze, Palesa Tshabalala, and Chak Sam Wong. It ran for six nights over two weekends. For the Gods Open Eyes was later spotlighted for its cultural significance on Formosa TV English News of Taipei.
As of this date, Ghanniy and I have co-written five plays incorporating black and African themes in Asian settings. These include I Am Your Father, a drama about an African man who commands his son to move to Japan to work at a friend’s restaurant; Star Pupil, a romantic comedy between the human incarnations of the African gods, Esu and Milla, first featured in For the Gods Open Eyes web-series; Musa, a comedy about an African man traveling at the end of the Covid pandemic to see his daughter living in Asia; Egungun, a heartwarming Christmas story with a traditional African Santa Claus; and The O’Yang Family, which is loosely based upon Ghanniy’s experience living, getting married, and having children as an African man in Taiwan.
Three of the plays were performed under the heading Night of the Gods at the Taipei Metro International Hall on Christmas Eve 2022: Musa starring Olla Michaels, Flora Chuang, and Chak Sam Wong; I Am Your Father starring Olla Michaels, Chak Sam Wong, and Hsi Meng Yu; and Star Pupil starring Hank, Elaine, and Chak Sam Wong. The music for the plays was done by Anton Botes. All of the plays were directed and produced by Ghanniy Oyedele. This night of English performances included African and Asian actors, and had Mandarin translations displayed on the stage projector for the mainly Taiwanese audience, making it truly a bilingual cultural event of east meeting west in Taipei.
The Christmas Eve 2022 performance proved to be a great success, and Ghanniy and I have already started writing plays for the next theater night, tentatively scheduled sometime in the Summer of 2023. We are working towards a bigger international audience as we continue to pursue our goal of spreading black and African narratives throughout Asia.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.
This post was written by Todd Sullivan.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.