Optimism Abroad --- First Week in Addis

From New York City to Addis, Ababa, I'm in a flux, a state of lost and found. Juxtaposed, here for my expertise but in a place and culture I'm the ignorant student. Every sound is a symphony. Smells are pungent, strong, and activate a chamber in me I've let go idle and dark. Have I been in protection? From the harsh 'n familiar matrix of my previous city...The air is thicker here and the axles weaker. Smokey hints of open fires drift in the morning air. Cars map every bump in the road, ringing metallic echoes and discordant songs above the birds. Dogs bark late into the night, and every morning I rise reluctantly to the call to prayer booming from the church on the hill. The sticky morning greets me before the sun breaks the day. And I know it's alright.

For a month, I am staying in the neighborhood of Yeka, in a gated home rented and maintained by a German expat who franchises a technology across Africa that converts biomass into usable gas. She and her two partners also live on the complex. I leave the gates of my temporary homestay, down a quiet one-lane road and wander the streets, clunking through my 5 Amharic phrases and hoping my smile alone will be reciprocated. To my surprise, it has.

Equipped with my Ethiopian phone number, there is infinite possibility. Haddis the Masinqo musician has invited my compadre Trevor and me to play music with him and his band. Getu the stylish bro from the restaurant has offered to guide us on our first chat experience next Sunday. And most surprisingly, Aptamu the police officer has promised to take us to a football game at the national stadium next week.

I have witnessed an awesome willingness to befriend, and it feels both pure in its sincerity and impure in that I ask myself, 'Why? ' Would this level of generosity exist in America, to foreigners without a grasp of English, the first week they arrive?

No way.

But I am not shying away from my privilege or wishing to reject it. I am not bitter and do seek to become more aware of it, to wield it like a tool and not the other way around.

I traveled here for an arts and cultural exchange. In 3 weeks time, I will be premiering a new version of The Darfur Compromised, devised after 2-weeks of workshops, storytelling, theater exercises, and play. I intend to incorporate the knowledges of my fellow 20 theater makers, graduate students, and university actors, with my own and Trevor's. With the support of our gracious, talented, and internationally trained host Zerihun Birehanu, I will facilitate a process of devising that respects our varied styles and desires. We will communicate across our many spoken languages and will devise new ones, with our bodies and gestures. Ultimately, we present our 'findings' to an audience of Ethiopians, internationals, new friends, and fellow students. We have our sights aimed high.

Nurturing ensembles of citizen-artists bound not by skill, but will — this is my dream. I am here doing this for the play, for my fellow theater makers, for the musicians of Addis, the lecturer at the university, the graduate students eager and curious as I to see what comes out of our experiment. And of course, for me.

I invite you to accompany me on the journey. I will be documenting regularly and plan to update the blog regularly to make those of you who can't be in the room feel like you're joining us on this wild ride.

We have 30 hours to work and another 12 to rehearse. Trevor and I have large ambitions — to fill the blank space with laughter, music, dance, and communion, to pack the house and to take our play, this temporary ensemble, and our partnership to greater heights. From my initial 5 days here, I suspect our friends at the university will want that too.