HARRISONBURG — Pain can be a bridge to peace, vulnerability a path to strength — at least that is the message Talibah Aquil hopes audience members take with them after her performance of “Ghana, Remember Me…” tonight.
As an Eastern Mennonite University Center for Justice and and Peacebuilding alumna and adjunct faculty member, Aquil has dedicated much of her life to discovering and connecting her identity with people from the African diaspora. Her presentation about being a bridge between worlds will take place today at EMU’s Main Stage Theater beginning at 6:30 p.m.
With her background as an undergraduate theater major at Howard University, it only made sense for Aquil to share her capstone presentation through a medley of song, dance and imagery. Now, Aquil returns to the stage with her story of journeying to Ghana for the “Year of Return” to create a safe and welcoming space of healing and growth for everyone.
“I’m so vulnerable and in my vulnerability, I’m hoping that it gives other people permission to be vulnerable. I think there’s something contagious and there’s something so powerful about seeing someone make a mistake or hearing someone say, ‘This is hard’ or hearing someone say, ‘I’m imperfect,’” Aquil said.
This year marks the 400th anniversary since enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia. Identity for anyone is a difficult topic to navigate, but for many people of African descent, identity is an impossible mystery that was stolen centuries ago in the slave trade.
Eliza Hoover, a Harrisonburg resident, witnessed Aquil’s original presentation about traveling to Ghana and reconnecting with her ancestral roots. Hoover has actively reached out to the community to ensure people who struggle with identity and injustice know to attend and, through attendance, find some healing.
“We all have identity problems, but for African-Americans in this community — for them to be able to hear someone who’s struggled with their identity problems — the ones who were there were in tears and in joy,” Hoover said.
Despite being largely based on Aquil’s personal experience and lessons from Ghana, the performance also focuses on encouraging others to embark on a discovery of ancestry and identity.
Janelle Myers-Benner, academic program coordinator for CJP, was also present for Aquil’s first performance and was so moved by the presentation that she has voluntarily tackled the logistics behind bringing tonight’s show to life. Myers-Benner said it is a captivating experience that will leave audience members inspired to start their own journey.
“I got so engrossed in the reflections and my own thoughts connected to it,” Myers-Benner said. “She creates a very powerful space for everyone to think about kind of what their heritage is and what their history is and who their ancestors are.”
Aquil is currently co-teaching a class at EMU called reimagining identity that was birthed from her capstone assignment. The fall course works to help others see the beauty in finding their ancestral roots rather than be weighed down by the sadness that comes from that stolen culture.
“My two years in my master’s program actually destroyed me. It broke me down because I was in spaces where I’m just hearing negative stories and narratives of people of color and things that we experience in the world,” Aquil said. “There’s so much more to us. There’s so much more to celebrate.”
After the semester ends, Aquil will return to Ghana again with the Peace Corps in January and work on a docu-series titled “We Are Magic.” The name comes from the mantra Aquil used to ground and empower herself whenever she felt overwhelmed. The docu-series will be on YouTube and follow Aquil’s travels throughout Africa as she builds a bridge between the two cultures and her two identities.
“I’m a bridge between America and I’m a bridge between Africa,” Aquil said. “We all are bridge builders. We all are connectors and we all have the power to share our stories and to be storytellers.”
Tonight’s performance is free to attend and will have an hourlong talk back afterward so the crowd can breathe and share their takeaways from the show. CJP students will facilitate the conversation, which is held in a safe and trauma-sensitive space. EMU is located at 1200 Park Road, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.