By Dramaturg Jeanette Sanchez-Izenman
Village Theatre’s 2022 Production of Mamma Mia! brings a new perspective to the familiar story. Read on for more about how the Sankofa lens and a disco soundtrack both enhance the show.
The Meaning of Sankofa
That bird is wise,
Look. Its beak, back turned, picks
For the present, what is best from ancient eyes,
Then steps forward, on ahead
to meet the future, undeterred.
– A. Kayper-Mensah
Mamma Mia! director, Faith Bennett Russell, says, “We’re going to breathe new life into this production of [the show] by reimagining what it could and should look like today. Part of that is having a beautifully diverse cast of storytellers, where we can ground and root the themes of our show in a very real way. All the fun and great songs that we love, anchored in something real, intentional, tangible, and inspiring. I am rooting one of our themes in the West African word, Sankofa. A simple translation means ‘to retrieve’ or ‘go get it.’ A more in-depth translation says: ‘It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.’ In our show, Donna is on her own personal Sankofa, as well as Sophie. Sometimes, you must go back, before you can successfully move forward.”
Sankofa is an Adinkra communicator that originated with the Akan people of Ghana, who speak Twi and Bono, among other dialects of Akan-speak. W. Bruce Willis cited its meaning in 1998 in The Adinkra Dictionary as “Se wo were fin a wo Sankofa a yenkyi” (It is not a taboo to return and fetch it when you forget). Usually depicted as either a heart-shaped symbol or a bird facing backward attending to a gem or an egg, Sankofa is not simply a symbol, or visual representation of an object. It communicates a proverb or a way of living. These communicators are called Adinkra.
Scholar Christel N. Temple writes in her 2010 article, “The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States: A Modern History,”
Adinkra communicators express timeless values and philosophies, not shallow symbols. A symbol is a representation that indicates something else by association, when we describe something as a symbol, we identify a very basic relationship of a material object (a writing, drawing, or shape) to something invisible or abstract. A symbol’s character is basic and mathematical. In contrast, a communicator offers the interchange of ideas, knowledge, wisdom, and philosophy.
In The Language of Adinkra Patterns (1972), A.K. Quarcoo describes the meaning of Sankofa as:
Learn from or build on the past. Pick up the gems of the past. [It is a] constant reminder that the past is not all shameful and that the future may profitably be built on aspects of the past. Indeed, there must be movement with the times but as the forward march proceeds, the gems must be picked up from behind and carried forward on the march.
Sankofa communicators have been found on clothing made specifically for important people in Ghana, only worn on occasions like funerals. It was on a coffin found in 1991, when excavation of a freed-slave cemetery in Lower Manhattan uncovered one decorated with tacks. In Ghana, it was painted onto walls. As it became part of the Ghanaian Diasporan culture in the United States, the two versions of it became ubiquitous in textbooks on Black studies, on coming-of-age event flyers, as tattoos (Janet Jackson has one), on clothing and as business names.
The communicator Sankofa is coded, privileging folks inside the West African diasporan so that outsiders do not comprehend or only faintly know the complexity of the picture when it appears. Dr. Michael L. Blakey, the director for the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of Williams and Mary, gave an interview to Archeology magazine in 2003 talking about the Sankofa found on a coffin in lot 101 in the African American Burial Ground discovered in lower Manhattan in the 1990s. He said:
But the most important thing to many people about 101 is that heart-shaped symbol on his coffin lid. That symbol nagged me for a while. I was sure that I had seen it somewhere before, but it was vague to me. One day, early on in the project, I was sitting in an African American cultural event and the program had several symbols on the cover. And there it was. The symbol that I thought I had seen. I had the lab in New York send me the drawing of the symbol. Then I took it to an art historian at Howard who specializes in this area. I tried my best not to appear too excited. He too saw that it was some version of a symbol called the Sankofa.
And the Sankofa symbol is so perfect. It resonates so completely with the African Burial Ground. It has to do with the idea that you need to go back and search in the past, to let the past be the guide. It has to do with the connection with past and present. That you have to look backwards in order to look forwards. It means to revere ancestors and to respect elders—all these kinds of ideas about the relationship between the past and present are wrapped up in that symbol. I think the African Burial Ground has helped disseminate knowledge of that symbol and its message. Which is a real reversal of the ahistorical thinking that Americans have been bombarded with. It’s also an example of how being an African American put me in a place where I would encounter the symbol.
Later in response to an article that claims this shape may only be a heart shape, he told the New York Times in an email: “We often are unable to ascertain which meanings persons in the past held for the objects they created. … The Sankofa is one of several plausible meanings of the design, and one that most perfectly expresses the meaning of the site for many people around the world.”
Sankofa and Mamma Mia!
Returning to the past to retrieve something essential to their present and their future is essential to the journey of Mamma Mia!, for the characters and the audience alike. For Donna, it is bringing back the self-confidence she had as Donna, head of the Dynamos. Sophie begins on a path to find her father but instead discovers she has everything she needs in her mother (and wisely, finds that there may be more adventures out there for her to enjoy before marrying her Sky). Donna’s former suitors retrieve memories of their youth and their time with her, and it helps them to find joy. Donna’s friends seem most like the bird version of the Sankofa, looking back to the past Donna left behind, and bringing her strength back to her.
The show Mamma Mia! already acts as a Sankofa for the audience, by guiding them back through the music of ABBA to another era, one of pre-AIDS America. Sure, we had a war going on, but back home it was nights in the discotheques and a world where a battle-of-the-bands could launch musical careers like that of ABBA. We go back to an age of disco where BIPOC artists made the fastest-selling albums and dominated the radio waves, so much so that their disco fever sparked a rage in those who preferred familiar rock and roll hits. If disco was a utopia where the party felt like it would never end, then the backlash was the systemically dominant in the United States setting out to reset the structures of power that gave them control. Disco is resistance and always has been.
We journey back to this past to find something we thought was lost or forgotten.
Disco – Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah!
Disco was named for the discothèque of Paris which were nightclubs that resorted to playing records during the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s. In the U.S., the word started being used to describe fashion at first. It later became a name for the clubs that were playing disco music typified by its beats, syncopated basslines, synthesizers, and electric rhythm guitars. It was culture built on subverting the way music had been made before.
Dr. Debi Jenkins, founder of Share the Flame, LLC:
Social equity refers to the systemic levels of oppression. … When we talk about minority status, we could talk about being minoritized because that explains what is happening to a person, but minority doesn’t necessarily explain what’s happening, because it’s not always about the number as it is about the access. …I came up with the language systemically non-dominant and systemically dominant because it keeps the language where the challenges are.
The real challenge is within the systems of oppression. If we focus on systemically non-dominant, it’s about the system that is created and how it impacts specific social groups. Who are the benefactors? Systemically non-dominant, of course, are those who the system was not put in place to benefit. Systemically dominant are those who are systemically benefactors of that system.
This helps us clarify what we’re talking about. It also helps people to understand why we’re not talking about individual experiences or exposure to racial prejudice or any other type of prejudice or whether we’re talking specifically about bias. We’re focusing on systems.
“Disco became popular because it taught white people to dance.” – Gloria Gaynor
Intersectionality at the Disco
Disco was a form of resistance to social systems in the United States that oppressed women, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and gays. It was an intersectional culture of music that grew out of the gay and BIPOC clubs in Philadelphia and New York City and celebrated the movements of the 1960s that shook the establishment and the systems of oppression that kept certain people in power. It united what Dr. Debi Jenkins coined the systemically non-dominant in dance clubs where they could meet, mingle, dance, and celebrate.
“There is an affinity between out gay men and successful black women because we’ve had to swim upstream of the same stereotypes most of our lives and had the same enemies and the same joys.” – Roger McFarlane, 70s NYC Clubber in the BBC documentary, Queens of Disco.
Disco started as a mostly Black and Latino musical genre, coming out of Motown and R&B, laying down syncopated beats and repeated melodic phrases. It made stars of Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”), Donna Summer (“I Feel Love,” Love to Love You, Baby,” and “Bad Girls”), Chic (“Freak Out,” “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah!)”), Earth Wind and Fire (“Boogie Wonderland,” “After the Love is Gone”), and The Village People. Abba’s music came just as the music scene was going mainstream on Pop top lists. Disco author, John-Manuel Andriote said, “What Saturday Night Fever did for disco was precisely what Elvis did for Rock and Roll. There were black musicians making Rock and Roll for years and suddenly you put a white face on it and suddenly it became the hottest thing in the world. And the same thing happened with disco.”
Like Mamma Mia!, which set the record for opening in more cities faster than any other musical in history, the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever sold over 20 million copies very quickly. Katherine Karlin wrote, “The film is wrongly credited with sparking the disco culture; it’s more accurate to say that it marks the moment when disco—up to that moment a megaphone for voices that were queer, black, or female—became accessible to straight white men, and thus the moment marking its decline.”
By 1979, Disco was so popular that it spawned its own anti-disco movement. This movement often consisted of small acts of violence, committed by mostly white men toward the mostly BIPOC and members of the queer community who frequented disco clubs.
July 12, 1979 – Disco Demolition Night in Chicago
From Rolling Stone “Flashback: Watch ‘Disco Demolition Night’ Devolve Into Fiery Riot”
For many fans of traditional rock that had little love for disco, the incident was nothing more than a bunch of drunks having harmless fun on a summer evening. Disco had dominated the charts for the past few years, stealing the spotlight from their heroes or causing them to actually record disco music themselves, and this felt justified.
But for minority groups, the incident had highly disturbing undertones given many of the perpetrators were white men and the genre was incredibly popular amongst homosexuals, blacks and women. “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning,” Chic’s Nile Rodgers once said. “This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco.’”
Disco Demolition Night was an event created and promoted by Chicago DJ, Steve Dahl, after he was fired by a radio station that switched to a disco format and found a job at a rival rock station.
His antidisco movement culminated in attacks on clubs. From a Washington Post article written on October 7, 1979 titled “Stop Disco,” “Dahl’s antidisco legions have staged raucous rallies around Chicago, invading suburban discos, pelting dancers with marshmallows and planting antidisco bumper stickers.” The Disco Demolition Night left Cominsky Field littered with broken records, bottles and cherry bombs, and was called a riot. The city trains and tenement buildings “are decorated with ‘Disco Sucks’ slogans. In Detroit a pair of WWWW morning jocks organized a Death to Disco Ducks (DDD) society, encouraging listeners to parade outside wearing white sheets.”
From “Stop Disco” Washington Post:
For years, the rock establishment ignored disco, dismissing it as a short-lived dance fad nurtured by New York City’s huge ethnic population. As one influential radio consultant said, “You can’t compare New York to anywhere else. It’s the ultimate disco environment. No other city has such a heavy mix of blacks, gays and Puerto Ricans, who’ve always been the cutting edge of any dance craze.”
One plan—still in the discussion stages—calls for huge rallies around the country, heralded by a caravan of jeeps and trucks. Sponsored by the local Abrams station, the road show would feature a rock concert, emceed by Dahl or a local deejay, who would blow up disco records between performances.
“Disco is taking us back to mediocrity,” charged KROO’s Insane Daryl Wayne. “It doesn’t have any intensity or involvement.” So far, Wayne’s disco funerals have been placid affairs. “We don’t want to encourage any violence,” he said. “We just want to bring people’s apathy levels up.”
Learn more about the anti-disco movement in these articles
Lyrics from “I Will Survive”
It took all the strength I had not to fall apart
Kept trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart
And I spent oh-so many nights just feeling sorry for myself
I used to cry
But now I hold my head up high…
“I think that the people who started that sort of disco sucks and all of that craziness were people who were making their money in other genres of music and really wanted disco to die, but it hasn’t died yet.”
– Gloria Gaynor
Lyrics from “Mamma Mia”
Mamma mia, here I go again
My, my, how can I resist you?
Mamma mia, does it show again
My, my, just how I missed you?
What is a Dramaturg/Dramaturgy?
A dramaturg is a dedicated person on the creative team whose primary task is to support the play’s development by asking key questions, starting conversations, researching, providing context, and helping the artists as they work together to tell the intended story.
Since each piece of theater is unique, the role of a dramaturg is further defined on a project-by-project basis. Each process requires a customized approach that begins with a deep understanding of the play and of the generative artist’s goals.
Alexander Campbell, Nia. “Being a Black American Woman in Athens.” Black Girls Abroad: Giving Voice to Underrepresented Experiences. Jan. 19, 2020. https://www.blkgirlsabroad.com/single-post/black-american-woman-in-athens
BBC. “Queens of Disco As told by the BBC.” YouTube. BBC. Apr. 30, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aqyw0_xAD90
BBC. “When Disco Ruled the World.” YouTube. Dec. 30, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-MDun9lyDk
Chan, Sewell. “Coffin’s Emblem Defies Certainty.” The New York Times (New York, NY), Jan. 26, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/27/arts/design/27sankofa.html
Dahl, Steve. “The 1979 Night That Keeps Staying Alive.” The Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), July 8, 2009. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2009-07-09-0907080604-story.html
Goldstein, Patrick. “Stop Disco.” The Washington Post (Washington, DC), Oct. 7 1979. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/10/07/stop-disco/b74d0a54-022b-4307-9279-f2ede292a627/
Greene, Andy. “Flashback: Watch ‘Disco Demolition Night’ Devolve Into Fiery Riot.” from Rolling Stone. July 12, 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/flashback-watch-disco-demolition-night-devolve-into-fiery-riot-206237/
Hann, Michael. “ABBA lifted the Political Gloom of the 1970s, Who Will Save Us Today?” The Guardian. July 4, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/music/shortcuts/2017/jul/04/abba-lifted-political-gloom-1970s-exhibition
Jenkins, Debi. “About Us.” Share the Flame, LLC. https://www.shareflame.com/about-us
Karlin, Katherine. “What We Don’t Remember About Saturday Night Fever.” Bright Wall/Dark Room. Issue 72. June 12, 2019. https://www.brightwalldarkroom.com/2019/06/12/what-we-dont-remember-about-saturday-night-fever/
Svedenland. “ABBA’s Secret Political Agenda.” Svedenland Blog. June 26, 2011. http://svedenland.blogspot.com/2011/06/abbas-secret-political-agenda.html
Temple, Christel N. “The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States.” Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 41, No. 1. pp. 127-150, 2010.
The Village Theatre. “Mamma Mia!” 2022 Season. https://villagetheatre.org/shows/mamma-mia/?tribe-bar-date=2022-06&tribe-bar-search=%3Ci%3EMamma%20Mia!%3C/i%3E