Akiba Abaka has been thinking about connecting communities to storytelling since she was a member of the Strand Teen Players in the ’90s.
“Theater offers a way of talking about experiences,” says the creative producer at ArtsEmerson, founder and artistic director of the onetime Boston theater company Up You Mighty Race, and co-founder of the new theatrical production company Akiba Abaka Arts. “Those conversations reveal what we have in common, the traps we keep stepping into, and what keeps us apart.”
Abaka has been busy at ArtsEmerson for the past seven years, working on audience development and strengthening the organization’s connections and commitment to the community. But now, with Akiba Abaka Arts, she and her co-founders, Tasha Mignott and Magalie Neff — friends from those Strand Teen Players days — are taking that work to a global stage.
“10 Weeks in Jamaica” is a series of conversations about the rich theatrical tradition in Jamaica, and the ways in which it intertwines with the island’s music, tourism, and history. Abaka’s team partnered with RAW Arts Management, a Jamaican-based talent agency, to invite actors, musicians, educators, playwrights, and other artists for what are often lively exchanges about the contributions of Jamaican culture on the island and in the global community. “10 Weeks in Jamaica” airs live on Sundays at 4 p.m. through Jan. 3, but all the conversations are archived and available free at Howlround.com and the Akiba Abaka Arts YouTube channel.
The virtual conversations were a happy accident, Abaka says.
“We had planned to spend 10 days in Jamaica workshopping a new play and connecting with the community there,” she says. “But the pandemic forced us to shift those plans. By making the conversations available online, we are reaching a lot more people from a lot of different places, which is exciting.”
Abaka says she was reluctant to return to producing and directing after shuttering Up You Mighty Race, but when she attended a reading of Robert Johnson Jr.’s play “Bar Girl of Jamaica” at the Harriet Tubman House in the South End, she knew it was the play she needed to produce. Abaka presented Johnson’s “Patience of Nantucket,” a compelling tale of the Black community on that island, as part of Up You Mighty Race, and says “Bar Girl of Jamaica” touches on so many themes that resonate today, including migration, trauma, and exploitation in the context of the slave trade.
The play is described as “the story of young Jamaican women who leave urban areas to find a better life by working at the tourist resorts, but instead are trapped and exploited by men who prey on their innocence and poverty.”
“I was struck by the way this story tracks the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” Abaka says, “and I was struck by the very personal story of a young woman struggling to get ahead and how that might speak to the Caribbean diaspora and theater lovers around the world.”
Her team’s approach to producing and presenting “Bar Girl of Jamaica” has been carefully plotted, to reflect their experience with audience building, marketing, and business planning.
“We are following the playwright’s own personal history and the settings of the play to create a kind of ‘reverse mapping’ of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” Abaka says. “By using the ‘multiple ports system,’ where people were dropped off and picked up, we can enter several communities — in this case, Jamaica, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Vermont — and invite conversations around the plurality of Blackness and talk about who we are now, and what we want to be.”
After workshops and conversations in each of the four locations, “Bar Girl of Jamaica” will have its world premiere in Boston in 2022, and then the team plans to tour it.
“The hope is that we will build audience interest through our workshops and conversations,” Abaka says. “But we also hope to build interest in more stories about foundation Blacks and immigrant Blacks, so that we can learn more about diversity within the Black community. We need stories to bring us together, to heal, and to be free.”
Dickens at Downtown Crossing
Video versions of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” will have to suffice this year, but for the delightfully unexpected, get a breath of fresh air and take a look at award-winning actor Will Lyman’s take on Ebenezer Scrooge in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Stage Windows” production at Downtown Crossing. The 40-minute adaptation, by CSC and audience favorite Fred Sullivan Jr., features a recorded performance by Lyman and a series of projections to illustrate the classic story of redemption. “A Christmas Carol” appears in the storefront at 467 Washington St. and runs in a continuous loop from 4 to 9:30 p.m. through Jan. 31.
Other arts organizations participating in the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District’s initiative include the Huntington Theatre Company, featuring props and lighting celebrating the new year at 481 Washington St., costumes from Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” at 101 Arch St., and a Winter Solstice scene from The Revels featuring some of eclectic and fantastical props at 395 Washington St.
Cabaret with old chums
Boston and Broadway musical theater star Mary Callanan and her longtime accompanist Brian Patton are keeping their fans entertained with “Tipsy Tuesdays,” a virtual cabaret show. In addition to classics and chestnuts from the musical theater canon, Callanan and Patton perform a new, COVID-themed holiday song written by Caleb Hoyer called “At Least There’s Christmas.” You can enjoy Callanan and Patton live on Facebook every Tuesday from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Callanan’s page.