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A new play highlights Oromos quest for cultural identity

ertranamara
Written by Mohammed A

by Mohammed Ademo

More than 200 people packed into the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, Minn. to watch the play, ‘Oromiya’s Retun’ on Sunday, April 29.

 For many in the audience, this was the first time they ever heard the name Oromo or Oromiya. Set in an ancient Oromo country, in north east Africa, the 30-minute play by Jerrie Steele, presented by Bedlam’s Cedar Riverside Art Zone for Youth, was based on a book by Janet Curiel and Lina Abdulaya, Once Upon a Time in Oromiya (Sheeko Sheeko): An East African Traditional Folktale.

“When I read the book, I needed to understand more about the Oromo people,” said Steele in an email to OPride. “I was moved to tears as I read about some of the abuses they have endured and the assault on their language and egalitarian way of life.”

Played by a diverse cast of local East African actors, the show was a nostalgic look at Oromiya’s glorious past. This was evident from the name chosen for the play as well as the names of some of its cast members like Oromiyaa, Kush River, Waaqa, and Gadaa.

Shortly after 7p.m., in accordance with an Oromo custom, the soldout play opened with a blessing from Mr. Galata Dagago, a local Oromo elder. Dagago offered a brief overview of the Gadaa system, a democratic political and social institution that once governed the life of every Oromo. Speaking through a translator, Dagago said Gadaa was an egalitarian system where everything and everyone was respected, even animals and trees.

It was also what inspired Steele to frame the play around Oromo people’s cultural heritage. “I believe their [Oromo] society may have been the forerunner of democracy as we know it today,” she said. As an African-American playwright, Steele found parallels between African American history and the plight of Oromo as marginalized and abused people.

The metaphorical play delves slightly into Ethiopia’s political history. According to historian Mohammed Hassan, before the fall of Oromo country around 1880s, “the Oromo led an independent existence as masters of their destiny and makers of their own history.”

On two occasions during the play, an Amhara and Tigre stranger offers food to an Oromo and persuades him to change his name – a hint at how Oromos in Ethiopia had to change their names to be accepted.

The Oromo people make up half of the Ethiopian population. A sizable number resides in Kenya, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia. An estimated 20,000 Oromos live in the Twin Cities metro area alone. Despite their majority status, the Oromo people however remain politically marginalized in Ethiopia.

In the play, while on his deathbed, Gadaa, the main character, tells his oldest son to pay everyone that comes to him claiming his father owed him or her money. As it turned out, someone was listening –– and suddenly everyone in the village comes asking to be paid.

As a result, a once wealthy Oromo family becomes bankrupt and loses everything, including each other. Later, one of Gadaa’s sons, Oromo – now a destitute father – jumps into the Kush river to kill himself after his wife left him for a wealthy man. But he re-emerges from the bottom of the river with a miraculous healing power, which he then uses to reunite his broken family.

Thus, returns the glory.

The show was preceded by an energetic cultural performance by the local Oromia Youth Association. 

“It was a really joyful moment for the Oromo community as well as the Americans,” said Curiel. “I am hoping we will do more of this and expand the play.”

According to the Artistic Director, Maren Ward, Bedlam is receptive to developing the play into a fully realized version with a possibility of nationwide tour.We are seeking Oromo partners who would be interested to take a leadership role in the project helping to determine next steps,” said Ward.

At the conclusion of the event, Ward thanked the audience and the sponsors before calling cast members on the stage for audience comments. According to her, the audience expressed appreciation to the performers for capturing the essence of the past while also displaying the steadfast quality of the Oromo spirit.

Others requested the show to be repeated and even offered to help raise funds to expand the project. One speaker likened the play to the Broadway phenomenon, the Lion King.

“The show was fun, entertaining, and yet, very informative,” said Kitesso Chiri, one of the handful Oromos who attended. “It depicted our history, it depicted a human culture, a human history.”

Audience Reacts to the play

— Cultural Dance by Oromia Youth Association — 

*Check back soon for the review and clips from the play*

Videos and additional reporting by Big Z Kadir. Subscribe to his public updates at Facebook.com/opride. Follow us on Twitter at @OPride.

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