A Different Reality

The Robert H. Jackson Center planned to offer our community a chance to meet a talented young author and an opportunity to experience a reality which is very far from our experience, here in Western New York, on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the event was canceled this week.

Ishmael Beah, a native of Sierra Leone, on the western coast of Africa, was scheduled to be present at the Jackson Center to discuss his autobiographical book, recently a No. 1 bestseller: ”A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” and to describe for local audiences his experiences in being dragged against his will into the turmoils of a civil war and forced to fight and to kill before reaching his teens.

This week, I’d like to give you the facts about Beah, and then tell you about his book. Finally, because it won’t fill the entire space for the column, I’ll tell you about some other reading which I’ve done, and which might stir your interest:

BEAH AND HIS BOOK

I always think it is important to share a bit of background information about artistic subjects. Starting with the speaker’s native land, Sierra Leone is a country on the western coast of Africa, at the point at which that continent is at its widest. It is a relatively small country, with less than 30,000 square miles of land. Its population is approximately 5.5 million people, most of whom are Muslim, although there is a large Christian minority. The official language of the country is English, although 90 percent of the people speak Krio, a blend of English with words from a variety of native languages.

The country has been richly blessed by nature, with large deposits of diamonds, gold, titanium and bauxite. The capital city of Freetown has the third-largest natural harbor in the world. Despite these riches, resources estimate that approximately 70 percent of the population lives in poverty.

The country was first visited by Europeans in the 15th century, when Portuguese explorers named it ”Serra Leoa,” which means ”Lioness Mountains.” In the early 19th century, the capital city of Freetown was created by British forces, attempting to create an African homeland for slaves who had been emancipated in the British Empire, half a century before emancipation in the U.S.

In 1961, Great Britain publicly accepted the former colony’s independence. Between then and 1999, independent Sierra Leone has had relatively stable parliamentary government, although it has suffered a number of military coups and has executed several of its political leaders, including a vice president. For a number of years, it operated under a one-party political system.

Between 1991 and 2002, a civil war broke out which spread beyond the governing circle and engulfed the population in general. More than 50,000 citizens were killed in this fighting, including a great many non-combatants who took no part on either side of the conflict. By the war’s conclusion, approximately two million people, or 40 percent of the population, had fled to neighboring Liberia and Guinea as refugees. It was into this conflict that Beah was drawn and forced to participate.

Beah was born in 1980, in the southern-most province of Sierra Leone. His father worked for an American mining company. His first encounter with civil war happened when he was 12-years-old. He had journeyed to a neighboring town to take part in a talent contest as part of a rap and breakdancing group with his older brother and a friend. Even in the isolation of a small African village, they had seen a number of violent American films and had recordings of violent music.

While they were away, a unit of rebels against the government came into his hometown and started shooting people and destroying homes.

The book goes on, describing how the trio of boys wandered around, seeking their families, sometimes adding other wandering children to their group, and sometimes being feared and even taken prisoner or being shot at by villagers who assume they are part of either the rebels or the government forces, either of which might behave similarly to the attack on their homes. What Beah captures so well is his and his comrades’ essential lack of knowledge of what was going on. They survive as best they can, eventually driven to steal from people.

Eventually, they are found by a government army unit, and are forced to choose between joining up and death. Astonishingly, a country which doesn’t have enough food and shelter for its people has enough weapons and elements of destruction for two different armies. They are armed and trained to kill and to forcibly enlist other young citizens. The child soldiers are deliberately addicted to cocaine and amphetamines and are encouraged to smoke marijuana by their captors, which blunted their understanding of the violent acts they were performing and kept them needing the company of their army to fulfill their addictions.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the section which described what happened when Beah was liberated from the army by United Nations peacekeepers, and placed in a camp which attempted to free him from his addictions and to teach him how to live peacefully with his fellow humans. His candid descriptions of his own misdeeds is touching, and the kindness of U.N. employees whom he and his fellows often betrayed and harmed is deeply impressive.

In 1997, Beah was sent to New York City to meet with officials of the United Nations and to help them to understand what was happening in Sierra Leone, through the eyes of someone who actually lived there. In New York, he was taken in by an American foster mother. He attended the United Nations High School. He reports that his fellow students in New York City often asked him why he had left Africa all alone and come to the U.S. He would tell them only that it was because of a war in his homeland. ”Did you actually see people running around with guns, shooting each other?” he was often asked, and he always said that he had seen such sights, although at the time he did not tell them that he had actually participated in the killing. Their universal reply to his statement was ”cool.”

In 2004, he graduated from Oberlin College, in Ohio. His book was completed in 2007, and he now lives in Brooklyn. With the support of a number of people and institutions, he has formed the Ishmael Beah Foundation, which supports efforts to help other young people like himself to escape from the mentality which has made them violent killers before they were old enough to drive, and to help them to live successfully in a better situation. In 2007, during an interview on the television program ”The Daily Show,” he told host Jon Stewart that he found that it was much easier to be converted from a peaceable child to a roving, drug-addicted killer, than it was to be converted from a killer to being a responsible and positive adult.

Beah’s use of words is effective and easy to read, although his subject matter is often not easy to endure. I found it best to read a few pages at a time, to better face and to think about the truths it examines.

”A Long Way Gone” was published in 2007 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in New York City. It has 227 pages. and is priced for sale in paper bound edition for $12, and for electronic download at $10. Find it with ISBN number 0-374-53126-9.

THE OPEN CIRCLE

I once read a printed review of an opera production which went into considerable detail about everyone’s costumes and never mentioned the fact that anyone had sung.

People love the performing arts for a great many reasons. I have recently completed reading a book about the theater, which deals entirely with the buildings in which plays are performed, and the effects which the authors believe the locations have upon the play, the performers, and the audience.

The book is ”The Open Circle: Peter Brook’s Theatre Environments,” by Andrew Todd and Jean-Guy Lecat. The focus of the book was a series of experiments by a company of actors, under the direction of British film and stage director Peter Brook. His company is the International Centre for Theatre Research. It recounts Brook’s frustration with traditional stages, especially proscenium theaters which he considers to be divided into two distinct areas which he believes continually remind the members of the audience that they are outside the action presented on stage.

Author Todd is an architect and a musician, and author Lecat is a set designer. Both have been active participants with Brook in creating productions of plays, ranging from traditional classics to exotic, unknown works, especially the nine-hour ”Mahabharata,” which toured three continents, with performances beginning at sunset and lasting through sunrise, with breaks at which the audience was fed meals.

The experiment began in Paris, where Brook and his designers discovered a derelict theater called the “Bouffes du Nord,” which is located in a high crime area of Paris behind the busy train station the Gare du Nord. Although the walls are stained and the seating was generally unusable, Brook found the freedom to rip out and to build in to be perfect in conveying his ideas of the plays he directs.

The theater is still operating in Paris, even though the walls remain unpainted and stained and it is necessary to put in temporary seating or even bleachers in the location which best suits the director’s ideas.

Brook’s company travels around Europe and the rest of the world, ”finding” other possible sites. These range from ancient Roman amphitheaters to abandoned convents, train stations, automobile repair facilities and the like. Stone quarries seem to be the favorite.

One of the company’s ”finds” was the former Majestic Movie Theater, located in Brooklyn, about a block from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which had been abandoned and was leaking and dirty and had been declared unusable. Today, the Majestic is known as “the Harvey,” and it is one of the principal performing venues of the BAM. The theater is marked by walls which are still weather stained and colored a mud brown, and by seating for the audience which consists of long wooden benches, divided into individual seats by short wooden dividers, much too short to be used as an arm rest.

I personally found the book difficult to read as just reading for pleasure because there are a great many words of architectural jargon. Truthfully, I confess to a strong prejudice toward the intellectual elements of plays, rather than an analysis of the site in which they are performed, although I understand clearly the importance of the latter. As a resource book, it could be invaluable.

”The Open Circle” was published in New York City in 2003 by Palgrave, an imprint of Macmillan publishers. It has 252 pages and no index, other than a chronological listing of performances by Brook’s company with dates and site names. It is being sold by a contemporary online bookseller for $22, in hard bound edition. Find it with ISBN number 1-4039-6362-2.

THE GREAT NATION

Just as theatrical information can be used by different people for many different reasons, so the history of nations can hold information which is fascinating to some and can hold little interest to others.

English historian Colin Jones has undertaken a history of France, beginning with the death of Louis XIV through the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, after the conclusion of the French Revolution. He titles his book ”The Great Nation.”

Like ”The Open Circle,” I did not enjoy reading it, for the sake of reading. Like the other book, I found it a very useful reference, which will find it being pulled off my bookshelf frequently, to support ideas and narratives.

Much happened in the period covered by the book. Louis XIV was called ”The Grand Monarch,” and was respected, feared and imitated by rulers for thousands of miles from his capital at Versailles. His descendants lost that respect and fear, lost their colonies in India and in America, and eventually lost their heads to the guillotine, only to have a low-born soldier bring the glory and the glamour back, creating the greatest European empire since Ancient Rome. The book ends before it crashed down on him.

The book drones along, going from minister to minster and from power grabbing mistress to mistress, thoroughly examining the cost of food, the improvement of quality of life obtained from improved dentistry, and the like. Once the middle and lower classes began forming the great revolution, he largely abandons royalty and goes into great depth about the political power bases of various political parties and individual politicians. If you’re doing a particular study, you may need these specifics. If you’re looking for analysis of what happened and why, you may not find it here.

The author devotes just slightly more than one page to the effect on the nation of the public killings performed during the Reign of Terror, for example. To me, one of the most interesting themes of the French Revolution is the rapid disappearance of respect for human life, and the loss of thousands of people, many the nation’s most productive and talented. If they set up a guillotine in Brooklyn Square, would we get up at dawn and bring our folding chairs and our knitting to count the heads as they fall into the bucket, I wonder?

The book has 580 pages, plus extensive supporting research and index, in paperbound edition. It was printed in 2002 by Penguin Publishers, and is marked for sale at $18, although I found it for sale on the computer for $12. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-14-013093-5.