Spider wisdom from West Africa

Last year I took my oldest grandson to see the Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre production of stories of Anansi the Spider at Oregon Stage Works, in Ashland.

Neither my grandson nor I had ever heard of this spider. We knew about Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man.

But the stories in the puppet show were much older and even more universal. And very funny.

The word Anansi is Akan and means spider. Originally called Kwaku Anansi, the wily little guy lived with his wife and children in his banana-leaf hut in the country now called Ghana.

Practically every culture has its trickster. The Norse had Loki, the Native Americans have Coyote and Raven. The West Africans have Anansi.

What all these characters have in common is cleverness. And that cleverness gets them both in and out of trouble and often changes the world thereafter. Many of these animals and people are, after all, considered gods.

Having seen the puppet show, my grandson and I were a little more savvy when we went to see the students of Willow Wind's Performance Class present four plays based on African folktales of Anansi. Again, the performance was being held at Oregon Stage Works.

This time around, people — not puppets — portrayed the big, black spider. The grandson wanted to know if any of they young actors were his age, 6. I told him the youngest was 9 and the oldest was 13.

The youngest grandson came along and he didn't seem to mind that none of the actors was a month shy of 4.

Since this was his first experience with Anansi, by way of introduction, I told the little guy that the spider was like Curious George, always getting into mischief. He got it. And so did the four different students portraying him.

The 40-minute performance featured four short plays: "How Anansi Got a Thin Waist," "Anansi and the Fisherwoman," "Why Anansi Lives in Ceilings," and "How the World Got Wisdom."

In the process we learned why spiders have thin waists and live on ceilings. And whether they like fish. And why we have wisdom.

The world's wisdom was carried around by Anansi in a bag that was very heavy. So heavy, that it was becoming a burden to lug around. Eventually, the spider spilled the bag's precious cargo and bits of wisdom scattered all over the world.

And all over the floor of the theater. Well, we just grabbed a few pieces for ourselves, as cast members went through the audience giving us even more. Since we sat in the front row, we received quite a bit of wisdom, I can tell you.

It's easy to see why these tales have endured. And it's understandable that they would have survived the "middle passage"' of the slave ships to Jamaica where they are still being told today.

The stories were carried in the hearts and minds of the West Africans to the New World. As one source put it, for an oppressed people Anansi conveyed a simple message from one generation to the next: that freedom and dignity are worth fighting for, against any odds.

Even though Anansi was a spider, he sometimes walked around like a human. And even though his greed for food and money often got him into deep trouble, he used his native wits and a bit of magic and always managed to get the best of his foe.

In some of the loftier stories, Anansi is portrayed as creating the sun, stars and the moon and teaching humans how to farm.

Even though the stories we were treated to were less serious, we were highly entertained and even edified. We were sharing an ancient story-telling lineage.

My two little guys found many moments in the plays that were funny and they laughed in appreciation.

And when it was all over, we came home much the wiser for having been there.

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