Local theater entrepreneur Henry Allen has just returned from a mission — one that took him halfway around the globe, and one that saw him introduce his North Shore Folklore Theatre Company to young people in the Pacific island nation of Fiji, under the auspices of a United Nations program.
After the 10-hour flight from Los Angeles to Fiji, Allen jumped into an intensive five-day workshop, “Talanoa Mada: Stories to Tell,” with 30 participants, ages 18 to 30. He was invited by the U.N. Development Programme and funded by the European Union to develop and teach this workshop.
On Cape Ann, Allen has been developing grass-roots community and political theater here for the past four years.
“It was an amazing journey to the other side of the world,” Allen said Wednesday. “I was invited by the U.N. to develop and teach a theater workshop in creative activism to youth advocates and students.
“There is little to no spoken-word theater in Fiji,” he said. “Folklore and mythology are told through dance and song, as in much of the rest of the South Pacific, including Hawaii — think hula.”
But he also found that stories are not being passed on to the next generation, “so young people are losing their culture, and their family trees have been severed at the roots,” he said.
Allen said he saw his mission as harnessing the power of the spoken word with these young people.
“The foundation we laid here has had ripple effects far outside of Gloucester,” he said.
Allen explained that there is a changing political climate in Fiji, which is moving toward a democratic election. In Fiji, his workshop focused on using Fijian mythology and folklore as a conduit for bringing forward the causes of local youth.
“The youth are getting excited about the future of their country. So, we are bringing in these arts warriors to help guide the youth,” he said. “This was an affirmation for me that this work is universal, and more is coming about now because of this Fijian project.”
In another post-Fiji twist, Allen connected with a childhood friend from Brazil who works at a children’s prison in Washington state, where he may soon present a workshop for incarcerated youths.
“This has opened the door for a much broader spectrum of opportunity that Gloucester is the epicenter of,” Allen said. “It’s an opportunity we have to put ourselves out there as the innovators that we are and we have historically been.
“We’re more than ‘The Perfect Storm’ and the pregnancy pact,” said Allen. “If we reconnect with the youth here, we can become a healthier community and impact the world in a positive way.”
During his research, Allen learned that many of the American settlers on Fiji from previous centuries came from the North Shore aboard schooners.
“Fiji is probably the farthest point from Gloucester, but we are dealing with similar issues,” said Allen. “But the youth there are active in making their voices heard. They are also getting involved in local politics and starting nonprofits that will put forth their youth-driven ideas. I think we can do more here in Gloucester. We need to start grooming our youth for leadership.”
To that end, he has a youth focus group with a Facebook page — 2020 Vision for Gloucester’s Future — that targets roughly 18-to-35-year-olds, “the ones who will inherit the leadership,” said Allen. “We need their voice and their innovation.”
Allen’s work in Fiji culminated in two 20-minute performances written by the participants. The works were inspired by Fijian mythology and reflected the issues of unity and justice that Fijian youth are advocating for today, said Allen. The European Union ambassador and UNDP director attended the performances.
Uate Tamanikaivaroi, one of the participants and a UNDP intern, wrote a piece about the project that was published online by Voices of Youth, UNICEF’s online network for youth activists and global citizens. The link is: www.voicesofyouth.org/en/posts/talanoa-mada--stories-to-tell.
“The biggest compliment was that the participants decided that the work was so important and valuable that they decided to form an independent youth performance troupe, with the same name as the workshop, to continue this work in their country,” said Allen, who will stay in touch with them via social media to mentor them.
He shared his closing speech to the participants and audience:
“Creative artists have the ability to look beyond the superficial into higher realms of awareness, interpret their visions and then inspire others to do the same.
“Where some see merely a woman, I see a force of nature.
“Where some see disability, I see adaptability and strength.
“Where some see a social misfit, I see an innovator.
“Where some see a victim, I see a victor.
“Where one sees a youth, I see a visionary.
“Where some see despair, I see a call to action.
“Where some see black and white, I see a rainbow.
“Where some see creative expression, I see freedom.”
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-675-2706, or at email@example.com.