A new play highlights Oromos quest for cultural identity
by Mohammed Ademo
For many in the audience, this was the first time they ever heard the name Oromo or Oromiya. Set in an ancient Oromo country, in north east Africa, the 30-minute play by Jerrie Steele, presented by Bedlam’s Cedar Riverside Art Zone for Youth, was based on a book by Janet Curiel and Lina Abdulaya, Once Upon a Time in Oromiya (Sheeko Sheeko): An East African Traditional Folktale.
“When I read the book, I needed to understand more about the Oromo people,” said Steele in an email to OPride. “I was moved to tears as I read about some of the abuses they have endured and the assault on their language and egalitarian way of life.”
Played by a diverse cast of local East African actors, the show was a nostalgic look at Oromiya’s glorious past. This was evident from the name chosen for the play as well as the names of some of its cast members like Oromiyaa, Kush River, Waaqa, and Gadaa.
Shortly after 7p.m., in accordance with an Oromo custom, the soldout play opened with a blessing from Mr. Galata Dagago, a local Oromo elder. Dagago offered a brief overview of the Gadaa system, a democratic political and social institution that once governed the life of every Oromo. Speaking through a translator, Dagago said Gadaa was an egalitarian system where everything and everyone was respected, even animals and trees.
It was also what inspired Steele to frame the play around Oromo people’s cultural heritage. “I believe their [Oromo] society may have been the forerunner of democracy as we know it today,” she said. As an African-American playwright, Steele found parallels between African American history and the plight of Oromo as marginalized and abused people.