On the final weekend of October 2022, I had the privilege of attending two showings of The Mud People, a dance performance choreographed by Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, at Terra Alta. Despite having spent 10 years of my life as a dance student, I wasn’t confident in my ability to understand an entire contemporary dance performance. But the dancers were talented, the emotional energy was distinct, and I was able to piece together meaning with much less difficulty than I’d anticipated.
The Mud People was a dance performance in three acts, tied together by a central narrative that has layers upon layers of meanings, only a few of which I believe I understood. And yet, I can’t help remarking how thematically coherent it was. The fitting title of the show was referenced in several literal and metaphorical ways, down to the set design. The “stage” was a rectangle of soil which extended forward into a T-shape, and on each end of T’s upper line was an upside-down African broom fanning out behind a mound of peat. Simple, yet elegant.
The show opened on four dancers—Mary Addis Ababa Ackwerh, Sunday Whedoku, James Brown, and Aguy Sibailly—apparently dancing in the mud in excellent synchrony and silence. They broke out of synchrony to perform domestic gestures: sweeping, carrying water, pounding fufu, fanning a fire, sleeping, and waking up. The most interesting part of their daily rituals, however, was one that did not seem to be related to domestic productivity at all: a dancer would occasionally position themselves upside-down, with their head entirely obscured by an ambiguous prop. Considering the title of the show, it was hard not to draw connections to the expression of having one’s “head stuck in the sand”, the sister-expression of being “stuck in the mud”, and all their associated connotations of avoidance and resistance to progress. Once the metaphor occurred to me, it became impossible to unsee. All at once, the queerest part of the dancers’ all-black costumes—the fact that their heads were all covered with black fabric—made so much symbolic sense.
There was something strange about the way the dancers moved through their domestic routines and head-in-the-sand rituals. There was a sense of mindlessness and a lack of emotion, and although the choreography, the blocking, and the lights were aesthetically gorgeous, those first moments made the characters seem two-dimensional. I was reminded of a stereotypical painting style: black stick-figures of African people going about mundane tasks, no definition to their facial features, but only, at most, the shapes of their silhouetted bodies and their clothing. Throughout the first act, the basic movements, attire, and narrative felt like something from humankind’s earliest history. Watching it, I felt as though I had time traveled.
The dancers’ dispassionate routine began to disintegrate when Sunday’s character doused himself with water and seemed to “wake up” to his potential. His head was uncovered; no longer was he stuck in the mud. His awakening was dramatic, a performance rife with lithe, sweeping, grand motions. Change had arrived. But would it be accepted?
Sunday tried to “wake” someone else up: one of the female dancers, Aguy. The two had a beautiful duet, which spelled hope for another awakening. Alas, Aguy’s reluctance returned in full force when Sunday tried to remove her face covering. She resisted being fully lifted out of the mud and separated herself from Sunday entirely.
The music—composed by David Addo Gyan—up until this point, had been rhythmic, simple, heavy with the percussive sounds of sticks and drums, and evenly paced enough to avoid evoking too-strong emotions. However, when Sunday’s stint with Aguy prompted her to team up with the other two—James and Mary—to punish Sunday for his deviance, I could feel sinister energy permeate the music and the entire atmosphere of the show.
The co-conspirators started to create music using their own bodies as instruments as they prowled around in a circle whose circumference was defined by their bodies, patting their thighs and clapping their hands in a way that was reminiscent of Ghanaian childhood games, and yet felt far from playful. Again, dance became a literal representation of an idiomatic expression: where two co-conspirators, James and Mary, literally “put their heads together” as to what to do about Sunday.
Sunday tried desperately to create a sculpture out of mud—what for? Perhaps to leave a legacy, or a last attempt to create something that could help guide his community into progress once he was not available to do so himself—until he was dragged away and violently killed. The two co-conspirators turned into a single, large figure, in a feat of acrobatic prowess and abdominal strength.
The first act ended with a projection on a screen: a graphic of Sunday’s head, surrounded by a halo of earth, which was in turn surrounded by a body of water. The projection changed afterwards to a looping clip of water with a toxic green tint, a riverbed distorting from the motion of the water. In the interim between the first and second acts, a drummer, Akiva, performed onstage while a short lamentation on the screen read:
“OH, I WHO SO WANTED TO OWN SOME EARTH,
AM CONSUMED BY THE EARTH INSTEAD:
BLOOD INTO RIVER
BONE INTO LAND
THE GRAVE RESTORES WHAT FINDS ITS BED.”
At this point, I began to understand one of layers of meaning to this show, beyond being a narrative of an outcast punished for daring to be different: environmental commentary. After reading this quote, Sunday, for me, began to represent the unjust death of African agency regarding our own natural resources. Those of us who try to take charge of our own destinies and the ways in which we use the natural resources that are our birthright and heritage, are deprived of the chance to manage what is ours. And yet, at the end of that lamentation, there is a glimmer of hope. A possibility of regrowth. If “the grave restores what finds its bed”, if even a dead body, rubbish, and waste, can meld with the earth and become fertile again, the essences that they contained could very well be born again in different forms.
The second act was the most abstract, the most difficult to understand. Mary emerged onto the stage, wearing white now and dancing with a metal bucket, reminiscent of a crustacean or gastropod. There was something furtive about her movements, making me wonder if she was a small, slow animal, like snail or a tortoise, trying to avoid a predator. She rotated in her shell, and from within the bucket, did a dance with her legs that made her look like an overturned crab. While she did her shell dance, Aguy returned as well, also in white, and her movements were jerky, body making distinct, unnatural angles, as though she was trying to disguise herself as a tree. Her head moved a little like a snake’s or a lizard’s. I got the sense that these characters were not necessarily the same people they were in Act 1. These ones might not even be human.
Aguy’s unnatural motion was unsettling, made worse by the words projected on the screen behind her, an accusatory question: “DID YOU DROWN THE CITIES?” Evidently, whatever happened to Sunday had much larger ramifications than the death of a single man. Somehow, he may have caused a flooding disaster to an extent that could wipe out entire civilizations.
Eventually, a character who did seem human—Elisabeth Efua Sutherland herself, the choreographer—emerged onto the stage, at once dominating the audience’s attention with her movements and introducing a certain fluidity which, hitherto, no other dancer had moved with. Her actions, which flowed smoothly from one to the other, were almost as defined as the dancers’ movements in the opening scene. I could believe, through her gestures, that she was somehow bringing down the sun; I could believe that she was introducing the concept of farming.
As Elisabeth danced, Aguy some paces behind her, the text on the screen changed to read, “DID YOU SELL YOUR SOUL FOR GOLD?” This surely had implications related to galamsey, the illegal mining of gold in Ghana, but I struggled to understand how this could be related to the narrative of the performance so far, or the dancing that was occurring onstage with the question as its backdrop. Unable to connect the ongoing narrative to galamsey, I interpreted Elisabeth’s character instead as some sort of teacher, arrived from a distant land, to bring guidance and direction into a place that seemed to have lost both. I could noy help thinking about colonization. Soon, Mary and Aguy became what look like Elisabeth’s “converts,” dancing in a line with Elisabeth as the leader, adapting to the new status quo of fluidity where before, they had been rigid, timid, and inhuman.
This marked the end of Act 2.
Another drumming interlude by Akiva occupied the space between Acts 2 and 3. This time, his drumming was backed by the sounds of the ocean.
The dancers—James, Aguy and Mary, three of the original four—danced their way onto the foreground with their hands over their ears. They moved like a single organism, and repeated their sinister circle dance from Act 1, patting their knees and clapping their hands as the atmospheric audio changed sneakily from ocean waves to sounds of heavy wind. The dancers’ circular movements reflected the energy of wind, as did their flowing white clothing. James, for some reason, still had the black covering over his head, though the two women did not. Perhaps this spoke to his absence from the second act; whatever transformation may have occurred for Aguy and Mary during that time, James did not equally benefit from it.
The three dancers descended to the floor like a singular organism, heads resting on one another’s shoulders in a beautifully choreographed pose of unified stability. Sunday had also returned to the stage, the only dancer still in black, lying there as dead as they left him in Act 1.
It seemed that almost all the attempts at transformation for the three living dancers had largely failed. The only changes that stuck, it appeared, were superficial; changes in appearance alone. James picked up Sunday’s limp body, and, astonishingly, attempted to make his corpse repeat the domestic actions executed by the four in Act 1. A word of praise regarding Sunday’s performance: he was extraordinarily good at being dead. His head and limbs moved like there was no life in them at all. It was hard to convince myself as an audience member that the dancer wasn’t actually unconscious, and utterly impossible to not be impressed.
Eventually, James contorted Sunday’s dead body into the upside-down position from the opening act, with Sunday’s head stuck in the sand. Together, the living three enacted a ritual of dumping mud all over Sunday’s corpse. This did not feel like a respectful burial, but like stubbornness and incorrigibility, the desecration of a soul who tried to break out of a stagnant routine, by forcing him, even in death, to follow that routine. In death, the stripping away of agency was made complete.
By the end of the show, I was shaken and provoked. The conclusion of The Mud People simultaneously prompted self-reflection and reflections on the Ghanaian citizenry: Are we mud people—stuck in our ways and murderously hostile towards members of our communities who see wisdom in doing things differently? Are we taking charge of, and care of, our environment, or have we let greed take the lead? The performance’s answers to these questions, in my opinion, were far from optimistic, and unfortunately, rightly so.