Coalescence Theatre Project led by ISU professor takes national stage

By Dave Fidlin for Chronicle Media

Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum in “Walking With My Ancestors” a play she wrote. The Illinois State Universtiy professor is also a member of the Coalescence Theatre Project. ( Photo by Russ Hawkin)

To say a lot has happened within the upstart Coalescence Theatre Project within the past year-and-a-half would be an understatement, in the words of the group’s director.

As the second half of 2019 unfolds, the Bloomington-Normal group reportedly has even greater sights on the horizon.

Coalescence, which was created with the goal of fostering an environment of inclusiveness through a global prism, is about to represent the Great Lakes region at the American Association of Community Theatre, or AACT, national festival in Gettysburg, Pa.

During the festival, Coalescence member Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum will perform in the play, “Walking With My Ancestors,” which she wrote and based on first-hand experiences.

Aduonum, a professor of ethnomusicology at Illinois State University, spent time in the slave dungeons of Elmina Castle and Cape Coast in Ghana, her native country.

“It was an overwhelming and humbling experience to sit in those spaces, and imagine what the enslaved Africans — my ancestors — went through,” Aduonum said in a statement.

Aduonum said she was so moved by her experience that she performed it at TedXNormal, the local iteration of the global conference series that shines a spotlight on thought-proving ideas.

Speaking further about the experiences the enslaved Ghana natives endured, Aduonum noted, “They were separated from families and children and held for months — shackled and languishing for months at a time in those dark, damp and insect-infested spaces.”

In an interview with the Chronicle, Don Shandrow, art director of the Coalescence Theatre Project, said the organization’s presence next month at the AACT festival is notable on multiple levels.

“This is the first time an Illinois theater company has gotten the honor to perform (at AACT),” Shandrow said. “It’s a very impactful festival.”

Shandrow said a performance such as Aduonum’s “Walking With My Ancestors” demonstrates the types of performances Coalescence hopes to bring before audiences in the years ahead — either locally, in McLean County, or on a larger platform.

“We’re here to provide an unheard voice in the community,” Shandrow said. “We have a vision that’s going to be a little different from other theater companies in town.”

When the opportunity came to bring Aduonum’s “Walking With My Ancestors” into the fold of the group’s work, Shandrow said, “We kind of just jumped at the chance to do it. It’s really perfect.”

Rehearsals and all of the behind-the-scenes work occurred at a rapid clip, Shandrow said, pointing out the first rehearsal occurred Jan. 31.

“It’s been a mad dash,” Shandrow said. “But it’s also been very exciting.”

While Aduonum’s performance is set on the other side of the globe, Shandrow said there are concepts that resonate all too close to home, including the concepts of stepping outside one’s comfort zone and social justice — or, as Shandrow prefers to call it, “emotional justice.”

“It’s a clearer term than social justice,” Shandrow said. “(Emotional justice) is also less of a loaded term. We heal rifts by hearing other people’s stories. If you just listen, then you start hearing the real story.”

Coalescence, Shandrow said, “gives you the opportunity to do just that — listen.”

Once the AACT festival wraps next month, Shandrow said details about Coalescence’s future projects will surface.

“We’re going to have a full season announced for the next year,” he said. “Doors are starting to open for us. There won’t be any rest for us. We’re going to go full steam ahead.”

In addition to Aduonum and Shandrow, other principals involved in “Walking With My Ancestors” are Kim Pereira, who directed it, and Tabitha Miller, who is serving as stage manager lighting designer. Also, Kojo Aduonum and George Jackson are stage crew members.