Yemandja – An African Tale

Yemandja – An African Tale

Programme note, background and synopsis

by Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, playwright of Yemandja

'Yemandja was born from a deeply personal place: hearing my mother’s childhood stories of growing up in Benin. There, the mythical and the mystical were intertwined with the modern. Her youth in Africa always struck me as bright: filled with life, community, tradition, and music. This was a contrast to my upbringing between France and America, where mysticality was “primitive” and the individual was paramount. 

This piece is my attempt to reconcile all the worlds I grew up between, and all of the worlds within. To build my own bridge in order to help you build your own. Because no matter your background you also contain dualities — even simply by virtue of being the child of two different people. So, through words and song, we hope to take you on a journey both outside of yourself and within yourself. The destination? Healing and a more open heart.  

What are the ramifications of fostering fear, of responding to hatred with even more hatred? What does it mean that our modern thriving economies are built on the slave trade and slave labor — both historical and in new forms of modern slavery? Who does war, pain, and division really benefit? What is the impact when we think only of short-term gains when long term harm is inevitable? These are all big questions posed by this piece.

My aim is not to rewrite history, minimize the importance of accountability, or simplify the complexities of the human experience but, instead, to remind us that individuality placed above community is not a sustainable solution. We may be separated by miles of beliefs, mountains of appearances, oceans of hurt, but since the dawn of the human race we have all been intertwined genetically, historically, and spiritually. All the divisions have been our own making. So when the world feels too big, Yemandja is a reminder that we are all linked and that we have all the power to change the world with empathy, be it through small everyday kindness, or grand heroic acts of humanity.

A river does not flow and forget its source. 
Actions have consequences.'

‘Some people forget where they come from, but Angélique always comes back...’ This is what a group of women sang to Angélique Kidjo in her mother tongue Yoruba one day during one of her journeys through Africa, as shown in the short documentary series EVE(S).

As a singer who enjoys success throughout the world, dividing her time between France and the United States, Angélique Kidjo never forgets where she comes from. She sings about Africa, visits her birth country Benin, travels through other African countries, and everywhere she goes she connects with the people and the music. She is particularly moved by these women: ‘Everywhere I go I encounter extraordinary, beautiful and brave women at the centre of their communities.’

‘It’s increasingly relevant to create awareness about my culture and this country’s past,’ Kidjo says, referring to the painful role Benin played in the history of slavery. The kingdom, then called Dahomey, profited off the slave trade and was known as the ‘Slave Coast.’ There are still many things that point to this time in the capitol Ouidah, where Kidjo is from.

Kidjo: ‘It isn’t just my history but my daughter’s ancestry and heritage as well. Naima would often come travel through Africa with us and knew my stories and the stories about slavery. I spent a lot of time explaining to her how this affected my family and what kind of story I want to tell about it. In essence, this story is about coming together to heal wounds.’

From generation to generation
Yemandja is based in part on Kidjo’s life. She was baptised according to Yoruba tradition. Naima Hebrail-Kidjo incorporated elements from her mother’s experiences in the script, alongside historical details about Benin such as the divisions between the Beninese people. These stem from its history of slavery, which continues to affect people from generation to generation. Kidjo: ‘Everyone knows which families did or did not collaborate and profit off of slavery. This awareness and pain is passed on from generation to generation. It is also a story about passing on because of how we work on it as a mother and daughter. And the baptism ritual is about different generations as well: ancestors that influence future generations. Our story spans centuries, up until the present.’

But the story is also larger than Africa. For instance, the makers delved into Beninese traditions that turn out to share striking similarities with other cultures throughout the world, such as parallels between gods and myths from Yoruba and ancient Greece. Kidjo: ‘We forget that we all share the same origins. We worship the same gods, but under different names. Yemandja exists in other cultures as well.’

Cast and crew with affinity
While this is not the first time for Kidjo to be acting as well as singing (she made her theatre debut as a young girl in her mother’s theatre), it is her first time bringing such a personal and emotional story to the stage. She shares the stage with nine actors and four musicians, who all sing and dance themselves as well. ‘The music will help us put across the emotional intensity - but also the lightness, the pleasure and sometimes the aggression.’

Doing justice to the Beninese traditions is a great challenge for the makers: the music, costumes, set - everything has to be as authentic as possible. It was essential to gather the right cast and crew. The piece is directed by theatre veteran Cheryl Lynn Bruce, and the set is designed by visual artist Kerry James Marshall, who is famous for his critical paintings about African American history. He purposefully designs a set that is simple and fitting to the story. Both were personally approached by Kidjo because of their good understanding of and affinity with Africa and its ties with other continents and cultures.

Springboard for a conversation
The main message Kidjo wants to put across with her story is that people need to talk about colonisation and history of slavery more, as well as about the marks this left throughout the world. ‘Remaining silent and not teaching the youth about history is not the way to process this trauma. People who stood up against slavery at one point pay a price for that to this day. It is a sensitive subject and complex situation. We hope to give as nuanced an impression as possible, supplemented with music and magical elements, to serve as a springboard for conversation. We should have an honest conversation without feelings of guilt. We can agree or disagree, but it’s only by talking that we’ll bridge our differences.’


The orishas are spirits that play a key role in the Yoruba religion of West Africa and several religions of the African diaspora that derive from it, such as Cuban and Puerto Rican Santería and Brazilian Candomblé. They are also venerated by the Edo of southeastern Nigeria; the Ewe of Ghana, Benin, and Togo; and the Fon of Benin (who refer to them as voduns). An orisha may be said to arise when a divine power to command and make things happen converges with a natural force, a deified ancestor, and an object that witnesses and supports that convergence and alignment. An orisha, therefore, is a complex multidimensional unity linking people, objects, and powers. The story of Yemandja explores the relationship between two orishas: Yemandja and Oro.

Yemandja is the goddess of water and healing, and is honored throughout West Africa and the Caribbean as the mother of the sea and the moon. She is the keeper of the female mysteries and a guardian of women. She aids in the conception of children and their birth, protecting and blessing infants until they hit puberty. She is a healing goddess, showing compassion and kindness to those in need.
Depending on the region and country, the spelling of Yemandja’s name differs between Yemandja, Yemoja, Yemaya, and other slight variations.

The word Orò means fierceness, tempest, or provocation, and Orò himself appears to be personified executive power whose approach is always preceded by a roaring wind and whirring sound. In precolonial times the Orò cult performed legislative, executive and judicial functions in Yoruba society. Orò is known as the Yoruba deity of bullroarers and justice. Orò executed criminals, could exile persons out of town (or sold them into slavery), and cleansed the community of witchcraft.


Scene 1
Human world and spirit world wait for a special baby being born on the full moon and the night before the Egungun ceremonies. Ancestors vie for a chance to be Omolola’s guiding spirit. In an unusual twist, Orishas Orò and Yemandja throw their hats in the ring – the latter wins! Yemandja tells us about herself and that she will be our guide.

Scene 2
We meet a grown up Omolola and her fiancé Olajuwon, mixed-race son of the slaver DeSalta. Omolola's parents interrupt their flirting with an argument about the slave trade. We learn about Adefola's hatred of slavery, Loko's role as a general in the trade, the impact of the latter on Olajuwon. Omolola on the other hand has still to form a firm opinion. Loko, Adefola, Omolola, and Olajuwon have a family debate about the role and implications of slavery in their lives.

Scene 3
Their discussion is interrupted by a procession of enslaved people leaving their shores. Yemandja and Adefola sing a farewell to their people Adefola spots Babalao, tries to free him.

Scene 4
DeSalta arrives and proclaims his honesty, but chaos ensues at his refusal to free Babalao. Omolola sings to try and fix the situation but, blown astray by Orò, her desire to hurt DeSalta corrupts her song. Enraged, DeSalta kills Adefola and Babalao.

Scene 5
Omolola and Loko mourn Adefola, Loko rallies troops to get his vengeance. Omolola and Loko weave together a lament for Adefola which transforms into an awakening. Loko fights and is joined by other enraged villagers.

Scene 6
Omolola wants to abandon her gift but Yemandja tries to reassure her.

Scene 7
Omolola and Olajuwon’s relationship starts to fissure under grief and suspicion’s strain.

Scene 8
DeSalta forces Naguézé to spy on Loko for him. We understand how ambitious and power-hungry DeSalta is. Omolola overhears.

Scene 9
Naguézé comes to Loko but she proclaims her loyalties are not with DeSalta. She asks him to marry her to let her prove her loyalty and to protect her from DeSalta. Naguézé recounts her plight as a princess and DeSalta’s betrothed but vows to regain her power and help Loko and their people. Loko agrees to an engagement.

Scene 10
Omolola sings of the gulf between what people predicted she would become and who she has become.

Scene 11
Yemandja sings as Loko sets his plan in motion, he will let leak to DeSalta that he plans to attack the next day, but in fact attack that night! Orò and Yemandja face off once more as Orò beats his drum, inciting violence in the humans.

Scene 12
DeSalta plans to strike this very night. Loko and DeSalta are proclaiming their intentions and power. At the end of the song DeSalta surprises Loko and a fight ensues. Loko and DeSalta fight, Orò and Yemandja fight, Omolola is weaving in and out, at a loss. Suddenly she is the focus of the fight. She tries to sing to escape, her song fails, and Yemandja intervenes.

Scene 13
Now in the spirit world with Yemandja, the two revisit the moment right after Yemandja made the oceans. She regrets her anger, but Orò is inspired.

Scene 14
Yemandja takes Omolola to DeSalta’s path where as a 16 year old he is being taught how to be brutal in order to gain power and prosper. Omolola is incredulous that Yemandja would want her to feel sympathy for DeSalta. Yemandja teaches that in order to build bridges we must try to understand.

Scene 15
Yemandja takes Omolola to a moment right after she first used her powers. Babalao recounts the moment she sang unity to the children of the village who had previously wanted to bully Olajuwon. Omolola feels the weight of her failure, but Yemandja teaches her that anger can be empowering – if one taps into the love within.

Scene 16
Yemandja takes Omolola to the moment when Olajuwon asked Loko and Adefola for Omolola’s hand. He proclaims his love for Omolola and paints a picture of their life together.

Scene 17
Yemandja’s last wave of vision shows Omolola that when she is gone, things fall apart. Loko and Olajuwon fight. Then, Olajuwon and DeSalta disagree; DeSalta decides to sell Olajuwon into slavery before he becomes even more dangerous to him…

Scene 18
Omolola is outraged by DeSalta’s plan and at last is ready to intervene. She turns to ask Yemandja to send her back, but she is gone. Omolola sings a short song that transports her back to her world, she finally is ready to use her power again. Omolola finds Olajuwon and warns him. Omolola sings her love for Olajuwon and sings of the duality in all of us that makes the world stronger.

Scene 19
Omolola and Olajuwon interrupt DeSalta trying to convince Loko to pledge allegiance to him. Omolola sings the story of the world breaking apart and weaves us back together. Yemandja closes us out.

(In order of appearance)

1. A Story (Yemandja and Company)
2. Prelude to a Claiming (Monifa, Abeni, Babalao)
3. Claiming Song (Monifa, Abeni, Babalao, Yemandja, Oro and Chorus)
4. A Story (Reprise) (Yemandja)
5. Smart and Beautiful (Omolola)
6. Special (Omolola, Olajuwon and Chorus)
7. So Far, Too Far (Yemandja)
8. Farewell (Adefola and Chorus)
9. Business (DeSalta and Chorus).
10. Magic and Then (Omolola)
11. Lament (Omolola, Loko and Chorus)
12. Awakening (Loko and Chorus)
13. A Woman is Human (Princess Naguézé)
14. Song of Bitterness (Omolola, Yemandja)
15. A Story (Reprise) (Yema ndja)
16. Two Rams, One Watering Hole (Loko, DeSalta and Chorus)
17. A Story (Reprise) (Yemandja)
18. So Far, Too Far (Reprise) (Yemandja, Oro)
19. Be a Man (DeSalta and Chorus)
20. Olajuwon’s Heart (Olajuwon, Loko, Adefola)
21. Omolola’s Return (Omolola)
22. Two Hands to Lift the Calabash (Omolola, Olajuwon)
23. Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow (Omolola, Yemandja and Company)

Ogbón ju agbára.
Wisdom is much greater than strength.

Adùn ní ńgbèhìn ewúro.
The aftertaste of the bitterleaf is sweet.

Odò kì í ṣan kó gbàgbé ìsun.
A river does not flow and forget its source.

A kì í nàró ká ọdún.
You cannot stand upright all year.

Àjèjé ọwọ kan ò gbégbá karí.
One hand alone cannot lift the calabash to its head

Nì palaba, ní wonko, ẹ̀rẹ̀kẹ́ á ṣèkan.
The cheek must be either sunken or swollen, but not both.

Bí ó bá bá ojú, á bá imú pèlú.
Any disaster that befalls the eye, is a disaster that will befall the nose.

Ìgbé lẹtu mbá erin gbé.
The forest is home to the antelope and elephant both.

Okòòkan là ńyọ ẹsè lábàtà.
One foot at a time is how to extricate oneself from a mire.

'Will you journey through the past that can tomorrow forecast?'

'Each of us alone is a single feather, but bring us all together and we make a mighty wing.'

'Every person has two things in common: imperfection and the desire to be seen.'

'But how can you build a solid bridge without looking at the other side of the river? Perhaps one day you will see, like I did, that the opposite of violence is the desire to understand.'

Conceived by
Angélique Kidjo, Jean Hebrail, and Naïma Hebrail Kidjo
Book and Lyrics by Naïma Hebrail Kidjo
Music by Angélique Kidjo and Jean Hebrail
Developed with and Directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce
Production Designer Kerry James Marshall
Costume Designer Mary Jane Marcasiano
Lighting Designer Kathy A. Perkins**
Lighting Adaptation for Holland Festival Theatermachine (Mike Evers, Floriaan Ganzevoort)
Projections Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson**
Choreographer Beatrice Capote
Sound Designer Kumi Ishizawa
Music Director John Samorian
Dramaturg Iyvon E.
Sensitivity Specialist Ann C. James
Makeup Designer Beckie Kravetz
Casting Andrea Zee
Production Stage Manager Meghan Maureen Williams*

Yemandja Angélique Kidjo
Omolola Briana Brooks*
Olajuwon Michael de Souza*
Adefola / Princess Naguézé April Nixon*
General Loko George L Brown*
Mr. DeSalta John Carlin*
Orò Frank Lawson*
Babalao / Lanre / Olujimi Kendrick Marion
Abeni / Oni / Abiona Hallie Chapman* 
Monifa / Folade Indigo Sparks

Stage Manager Violet Asmara Tafari*

Music Director, Conductor, and Keyboards John Samorian
Guitar Dominic James 
Bass Michael Olatuja
Percussion Magatte Sow 
Assistant Music Director Jake Eisner
Music Supervisor Darryl Archibald

Executive Producer Xtina Parks
Produced by THE OFFICE performing arts + film
Co-commissioned by MASS MoCA, ArtsEmerson, The Broad Stage at Santa Monica College, Brown Arts Institute, Cal Performances, Ruth and Stephen Hendel, Holland Festival, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Yale Schwarzman Center
THE OFFICE is grateful for the support of the W.L.S. Spencer Foundation.

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
**Member of the United Scenic Artists, the union representing scenic, costume, lighting, sound and projection designers in live performance.

Producer THE OFFICE performing arts + film
Founder and Director Rachel Chanoff
Managing Producer Erica Zielinski
Lead Producer Gabrielle Davenport
Producer, Assistant Director Bruna D’Avila
Associate Producer, Company Manager Zion Jackson
Producing Assistant Jose Alvarado

THE OFFICE performing arts + film 
Laurie Cearley, Olli Chanoff, Nadine Goellner, Lynn Koek, Noah Bashevkin, Catherine DeGennaro, Chloe Golding, Kyla Gardner, Scout Eisenberg, Tess Peppis, Huiqiu Sun

Production Manager and Technical Director Brendon Boyd
Assistant Technical Director Max Helburn
Assistant Choreographer Maya Imani
Assistant Lighting Designer Jared Gooding
Sound Engineer Jonin Fehlmann
Projections Associate Michael Commendatore
Assistant Stage Manager Henry Pedersen
Makeup Designer Beckie Kravetz
Wardrobe Supervisor Sarah Gardner
Assistant Costume Designer and Costume Builder Linda Simpkins
Assistant Costume Designer and Costume Builder Hiywet Mimi Girma / Yesaet 
Casting Associate Jason Styres
Casting Assistant Richard Glover