Vibrant African sights and sounds come to city festival

Moji Kareem, artistic director of Utopia Theatre
Moji Kareem, artistic director of Utopia Theatre

A new festival is aiming to brighten up a cold November in Sheffield with the sights, sounds and tastes of Africa.

Spirit Of Africa (or SO Africa) brings together traditional and contemporary music, theatre, film, fashion, visual arts, dance and poetry, as well as workshops and food and drinks.

The festival, taking place on Friday and Saturday (October 26-7) in and around the Crucible Theatre,  will also provide a platform for local artists.

Music highlights include Akala, Dele Sosimi and the Afrobeat Orchestra, Iroko Theatre, Oduduwa Talking Drummers, Aar Maanta, Breis and Namvula.

All events are free except those taking place on the Crucible main stage. 

The festival has been created by Utopia Theatre, who currently have a residency at Sheffield Theatres.

Artistic director Moji Kareem said: “The festival came about after we thought of the idea for years, having spent a number of years gong to London for this type of event. I was just really surprised that there’s nothing like this in Yorkshire. 

“I was speaking to the executive director of Sheffield Theatres on one of those days when we were talking about audiences who wouldn’t ordinarily come. 

“It isn’t just people from the black communities who are not coming into the theatres, it’s people from working-class communities but also people who ordinarily haven’t been brought up with theatre and thinking it isn’t for them.

“Having other events can just open up a theatre space to them.”

That idea chimed in with the Arts Council, who are backing the festival.

Moji added: “One of the other main positives behind it is to open up the community to the idea that whatever artistic skills they aspire to, they can make it happen. One of the things we are trying to do is to allow this kind of artist to be on the same platform with established artists.”

Young performers were encouraged to come forward through open mic sessions, run in conjunction with spoken word organisation Verse Matters, to find new talent.

Moji said: “As the festival grows, the artists with the community grow. In the longer term we will be working with artists in the community to see themselves on a bigger stage.”

Moji set up Utopia Theatre in London in 2011 but she had links with Leeds and moved the company back up north.

Their African-set production of the play The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, attracted the interest of Sheffield Theatres when it was performed here. As a result, the company was offered a residency in the city.

Moji said: “Utopia was set up to tell stories of Africa and the African diaspora (the spread of Africans abroad). It was also set up to help actors who wouldn’t have been able to get work in the mainstream.”

She added: “My experience is not seeing people that look like me on stage. I was always obsessed with theatre and when I see somebody who is telling stories that resonate with me, I feel it more. I’m more drawn to want to see that type of work.

“It’s something people want to hear - our stories connect us.” 

The company is currently developing a play, Shadows in Different Shades, which will be on stage in Sheffield in 2020.

 To see the full SO Africa line-up, go online at www,sheffieldtheatres.co.uk