There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Vera Oye Yaa-Anna paints a white angle from temple to cheek, and another, and another, until she stares out of white bars like a captive, which she was once. Next, Yaa-Anna, a Liberian refugee and performance artist, smushes the end of her brush into a plastic pot of body paint and touches it to her neck, chest, upper arms, and belly. The cowry shells dangling from her bustier softly rattle with her every movement as she prepares for a rehearsal in the tiny dressing room at Dance Place.
The adjacent Dance Place auditorium vibrates with the sound of rumbling drums and thumping feet. The founder of a troupe called Coyaba/
Dance Place is leading a class in West African dance. Yaa-Anna’s face flushes with the pulsing rhythm. In a few minutes, she will join the group for its first run-through of a performance they have planned for Aug. 11 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She stokes her imagination in anticipation of the practice.
Finally, Yaa-Anna, part storyteller, part entertainer, part oracle, struts toward her audience in the auditorium. She balances a basket of fruit on her head. She clasps a filagreed gourd in her hands. She treads on a python skin. “Abliwe, batio, abatio, abatio” (“My people, you come, you come”), she chants. Cameroonian Joseph Soh Nga pounds his drum.
Then there is a lull in the rhythm. Yaa-Anna pours liquid into one cup, then another, in ritual fashion. “In my place, we offer cola nuts and water to visitors,” she explains. The idea is to let tension and fear flow out like the water. “This is the world’s troubleall of the problems in our head. This is how we open the Palaver Hut.”
The Palaver Hut”palaver” is taken from the Portuguese word meaning dialogueis supposed to summon a Liberian village meeting ground where men gossip and women serve beer and food. It’s Yaa-Anna’s canteen Africa, a campy culinary theater that combines vaguely African rituals and stories with pop-psychology homilies and anecdotes from Yaa-Anna’s American experiences.
To make both ritual and victuals palatable to U.S. audiences, she bestows book-learned lore and blends African staples such as collard greens and melon seeds with herbs from elsewhere, such as cilantro. She offers a pidgin re-creation of pan-African drama each month at her transplanted Palaver Hut at Capitol Hill’s Lutheran Reformed Church.
In Liberia, Yaa-Anna says, she would rarely condescend to cooking. And she enjoyed only superficial contact with the traditional stories and songs of the country’s indigenous tribes. Liberia is a country colonized in 1847 by former American slaves, called Americo, who formed a ruling caste. Yaa-Anna’s father, an Americo, could only learn about African customs from othershe didn’t live them. Her motherfrom the Grebo tribesometimes told stories drawn from her heritage. But the adult Yaa-Anna is an urban indigeneshe knows more about marketing and balance sheets than about juju. “I was not into all of these traditions,” she admits.
Yaa-Anna’s mother and brother moved to Los Angeles in the late ’70s, and she moved easily between that city and Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, with her husband. Nonetheless, Yaa-Anna got caught in her home country’s perilous politics. After four years in Los Angeles, she settled in Liberia with her husband in 1983; in Kakata, about 50 miles from Monrovia, she launched a business importing lubricants for ship engines. She employed cooks, maids, and chauffeurs. “I was part of the people who controlled the country,” she purrs. “I adore being served.”
Her business required Yaa-Anna to bribe and wheedle the thugs running the government of President Sam Kanyon Doe, one of Africa’s most Kafkaesque, cruel, and corrupt leaders. Though Yaa-Anna successfully cavorted with the elite, she was still outspokenwhich made her a threat, she says. “In 1985, I had problems with [Doe’s] government,” she recalls. “They arrested me wrongfully….They wanted to kill me that night. [But] there was one friend who begged for my release. He said, ‘Let her be my prisoner into the morning.’ It was like over a dozen soldiers, all with weapons. They were drinking every kind of liquorgin, brandy, champagne. They were saying, ‘Let us bury her.’ They are talking [about] me like I am already dead.”
Yaa-Anna’s friend had enough influence with the government to keep her out of prison, she says. Five years later, Charles Taylor, a former high-ranking civil servant accused of embezzling, marshaled a Dadaesque battalion of teenagers toting AK-47s, who stormed the capitol. Doe’s government fell that July. Yaa-Anna fledabandoning her business and her servants. Whatever order remained in Liberia collapsed as the rebels splintered into rival factions. Combatants as young as 12 gobbled hallucinogens and amphetamines, slicked on face paint or donned Halloween maskssome wore duck beaksand practiced both random assassinations and ruthless tribal pogroms.
Yaa-Anna would be safe in Los Angeles. But her husband suddenly longed to recoup his lost business, his lost Liberia. She refused to go back and had to make her own way. For a person inured to the whims of Africa’s big men, America’s travails seemed insignificant. With her elegant African English, Yaa-Anna easily landed a job at a headhunting firm for lawyers (where she had worked in the ’80s). But she says she was too distraught to work much. “How do you make money on commission when you can’t think straight?” she asks. “In the beginning, I made no money….There were days I went hungry. I prayed five times a day.”
She describes her inspiration to entertain African style as a gift from Godto help her survive impoverished periods. Yaa-Anna hosted her first feast in her L.A. apartment. She fashioned long tables by unhinging the doors of the laundry room in her building and laying them atop stacked cinder blocks. “We sat on the floor because I couldn’t afford chairs,” she recalls.
The impromptu quality of that first show and her occult leanings belie the business acumen she plied for her avocation. She acquired a Rolodex, she says, of 500 contactsword-of-mouth swelled her audience. She did her own PR; she goaded photographer friends to take free shots. She eventually persuaded a Methodist group to allow her to use church space. Her act got written up in the glossy (and gushing) Los Angeles magazine.
But in 1996, she left L.A., her family, and her friends behind for the second time to come to D.C. Two Washington businessmen on a junket in L.A. had invited her to perform at an inauguration party. The plan fell through, however, and she has been stranded in the District ever since. In D.C., as she did in L.A., she’s made a business of schmoozing with church officials and acquiring free space for her performances. She earns money through temping and teaching, and she has built a coterie of allies to help put on her shows, among them Silvia Soumah, founder of Coyaba/Dance Place, whom she met last year.
Coyaba rehearses with Yaa-Anna at Dance Place for two nights running while Nga pounds the drum. While she is watching, Yaa-Anna’s chest shakes and her hips twist.
By the time the dancers relax, Yaa-Anna has transformed herself into a village hostess, bowing to the audience, pouring libations into blue paper cups. She dishes up a quick prologue and then invites dancers and observers to rest while she serves them steaming dishes of rice, collard greens, and plantains.
The recipes are inspired by West African cuisine, but since Yaa-Anna never prepared them herself in Liberia, she’s not bound by tradition. Absent are the multiple varieties of peppers that lend pizazz to a Nigerian stew, for example; there’s no piquant peanut sauce. She doesn’t challenge the dancers with strange new tastes.
Still, her guests gorge themselves as Yaa-Anna launches into full story mode.
She begins a morality tale almost in a whisper: “This is Africa,” she murmurs. “It’s dry season. So it’s warm. You can hear the crickets….”
Yaa-Anna’s characters and their conflicts are archetypal. “This woman, she loved her man so much. She loved the marrow of his bones,” she says. “But this man loved so many women.”
She adds, “You know how African men are.” The spectators nod in agreementor compliance.
“So, [the woman] decided to find some kind of mechanism to grab him; some kind of plan…
“The woman goes to a spirit in the tree. The spirit tells her to go into the bush and find a female leopard with cubs. ‘When you find her, bring the milk to me,’ [the spirit tells her]. ‘Soon, your husband will come to you in the same way.’”
“‘That’s all, just go to the bush and bring back a little milk?’” Yaa-Anna inquires softly, her eyes widening in surprise. She repeats the interchange before reverting to hyperbole. The woman character can’t express enough gratitude. “‘I’m so happy!’” she chants. “‘What do you want for this?’”
“‘What kind of spirit are youthat does something, but doesn’t want anything?’” Yaa-Anna crinkles her nose and squints disdainfully. The audience chuckles.
“‘Let’s do the work first,’” the spirit booms. “‘Bring that milk. I will make something. Your husband will never look into the eyes of another woman.’”
As the woman character, Yaa-Anna tromps into the imaginary forest, her body and legs bent as she mimes a long journey.
“For six months, this woman stayed in the bush,” Yaa-Anna narrates. “Every time she would get close, the animal would bite her.”
The frustrated character returns to her spirit mentor. “‘What can I do?’” the woman implores, Yaa-Anna’s tone turning weepy. “‘How can I manage? The only thing I want is this man’s love.’”
Finally the spirit ends the woman’s despair with a lesson that bites as it heals. “‘Do you know that patience you had in the bush?’” the spirit inquires.
“‘Yes,’” the woman answers. Yaa-Anna pauses for few silent seconds.
“‘Go back and exercise that patience with your husband.’”
Between stories, Yaa-Anna chatters informally. She portrays characters from various African countries by modifying her accent. “Nigerians are the most arrogant of Africans,” she says, puffing her chest out and strutting to imitate a proud man. The audience chortles. She feigns mordant humor when she describes the subtle racism that follows every step of her life in the United States, and she jokes about conflicts between Africans and African-Americans. Always, she portrays herself as a woman with fewer mental resources than were clearly required to survive her struggles. But her audience seems to buy it every time. CP