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Collection Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection


A staged translation of a Vodun ritual, Shango premiered on 27 September 1945 as the finale to act 1 of Carib Song, "a musical play of the West Indies" that opened at the Adelphi Theater, New York. The author of the play, William Archibald, included the following note in the show's playbill: "The lives of West Indian natives often find expression in dances that, while being uninhibited, have certain ritual foundations. For instance, a wake in the West Indies is held in order to entertain the spirit of the departed rather than to mourn for it. At the Shango, a ritual which is based on West African religious practices in combination with Catholic elements (the word Shango meaning Saint John the Baptist), the people often go into a trance. A particular 'spirit' is invited which on 'possessing' the body governs its movements. The 'spirits' of vodoun are numerous; one of the most important is Damballa, one of whose signs is the snake."

Dunham's choreography for Shango included elements from the Yoruba cult of Trinidad, the Rada-Dahomey cult of Haiti, and Santería of Cuba. The work began with a stylized introduction of dancing, which led into a ceremony of sacrifice to Shango, thunder god of the Yoruba people. While a white cock is sacrificed (Shango likes poultry), the work references human sacrifices that survived in the Caribbean islands. The boy who kills the cock is suddenly possessed by Damballa, the snake god, and becomes a hissing serpent. The priest controls him by incantations and averts evil from the community. At one dramatic moment, the boy stands with arms outstretched on the altar and is worshiped as a god; he then faints and is carried into the jungle. The dancing resumes, and finally the possessed boy is carried triumphantly back onto the stage on an enormous sacred drum supported by five men.

La Rosa Estrada played the Shango priest; Tommy Gomez was the boy possessed by Damballa; Katherine Dunham and Vanoye Aikens were the leaders of the Shango dancers.

Related digital items: Browse "Shango"

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