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Lua Shayenne integrates African traditions with her own values in Yassama and The Beaded Calabash at JUNIOR

Lua Shayenne by Dahlia Katz
Lua Shayenne says that Yassama and The Beaded Calabash is for people of all ages. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

When Lua Shayenne was growing up in Ivory Coast, she had a habit of napping with her mom and dad in the same bed. And her mother would always read her stories, ranging from nursery rhymes to an adapted version of Rapunzel.

“One thing that I found about the traditional tales is that they were very short,” Shayenne tells the Toronto Spark over Zoom. “They got to the point very quickly.”

Many of the old tales were also very patriarchal. But as artistic director and choreographer of Lua Shayenne Dance Company, she wanted to tell children’s stories that reflected her values. As a follower of the Bahá’í faith, Shayenne embraces a unifying vision about humanity that upholds equality between men and women.

“Modern tales have gender equality,” Shayenne says.

In addition, they often have an ecological component. So, she brought this to the forefront in Yassama and The Beaded Calabash, which she will perform at JUNIOR. The large children’s festival takes place at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre from Saturday to Monday (May 18 to 20).

Rooted in African tradition, Yassama and The Bearded Calabash tells the story of a young girl who saves her village from drought. She accomplishes this with help from a Baobab tree. This deciduous, tropical fruit tree is common in sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s about the relationship that we have with Mother Nature—and it’s a spiritual relationship,” Shayenne explains. “She nourishes us. And if we’re destroying her, what does it really say about us?”

In Yassama and The Beaded Calabash, the villagers forget to store food. They also lose sight of their ceremonies celebrating Mother Earth. However, Yassama listens to the Baobab tree and promises to deliver the message.

Lua Shayene
Percussionist Cécé Haba will be on-stage with Lua Shayenne at JUNIOR. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Shayenne aims for the heart

This is the fourth installment in Shayenne’s Tales and Dances Around the Baobab series. She reveals that her dad was a writer whose university thesis was about Malian historian, ethnologist, and author Amadou Hampâté Bâ.

Shayenne writes from her imagination and she tells the Toronto Spark that her artistic practice is always evolving.

“To me, it is important to share the good—to inspire hearts, to spur spirits—because that’s what humans are,” Shayenne says. “Another big part of my artistic practice is to always surrounding myself with better artists than me in the hope that I can learn from folks who can enhance my work.”

She is quick to credit all of her mentors who’ve helped her along the way. They include York University theatre prof Erika Batdorf, dancer and academic Funmi Adewole, and singer Fides Krucker, who served as the voice coach and dramaturgist on Yassama and The Beaded Calabash.

According to Shayenne, Krucker helped not only with her breathing and vocal work, but also with physical aspects of the production.

“She really understands my work,” Shayenne says.

In her shows at JUNIOR, Shayenne will be joined on-stage by percussionist Cécé Haba, who’s from Guinea in West Africa. He specializes in djembe and dundan. Furthermore, he’s toured with Yassama and the Beaded Calabash since it premiered in English and French at the 2022 WeeFestival.

The show is directed by Karine Ricard; Lynda Hill provided dramaturgy and acted as educational consultant. Costumes are by Rachel Forbes; backdrop design is by Quentin VerCetty; Logan Raju Cracknell oversees lighting; and stage management is by Joey Lau.

Remaining credits go to Djennie LaGuerre for translation dramaturgy and Carlyn Rahusaar Routledge for sewing costumes.

Watch a trailer for Yassama and The Beaded Calabash.

A story for everybody

This year, Shayenne was nominated for the 2024 Muriel Sherrin Award. The Toronto Arts Foundation grants this to an artist or creator for contributing to the cultural life of the city through outstanding achievement in music or dance.

Shayenne also celebrated another highlight this year after 25 years in Canada. She became a Canadian citizen.

“It was very emotional,” she acknowledges. “It took me a long time to get my permanent residency because I came here as a student and an artist.”

As the interview draws to a close, Shayenne concludes with a message for adults about Yassama and the Beaded Calabash.

“It’s a story for everybody,” she promises. “I think it’s also an important story for folks to see that show other ways of telling stories for children. There are other ways of doing theatre, especially for children. They should come and check it out. They will not be bored!”

JUNIOR presents Yassama and The Beaded Calabash at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday (May 18) and Sunday (May 19) and at 12:30 p.m. on Monday (May 20). Lua Shayenne will perform the shows in the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront Centre. For more information and tickets, visit the Harbourfront Centre website. Learn more about diverse communities from the Toronto Spark website. Follow the Toronto Spark on X @TOSparkOfficial.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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