Special Players program moves to Ghana

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These are exciting times for the East End Special Players, a group of local actors with learning disabilities who will stage their last performance of a well-received original production this Friday at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor.

The troupe has been performing “You Are a Petunia in My Garden,” a series of sketches about life, love, working and living with disabilities, for two years now, and, after the final curtain call Friday night, the actors will change gears and begin a multimedia production in a collaboration with dancers and students from Ghana.

Jacqui Leader, the group’s artistic director, has been the driving force behind the Ghanaian interaction. In 2007, as a volunteer with Cross-Cultural Solutions, she worked in a school for the deaf and mentally handicapped in the tiny village of Hohoe, a seven-hour drive from the West African country’s capital of Accra.

“There were 60 students and they had no paper and pencils,” said Ms. Leader. “The teachers would come and pick gnats out of the kids’ hair.”

Though Ms. Leader found the experience distressing and the bureaucratic red tape overwhelming, she developed a friendship with the leaders of the art department at the school, and will return to Africa in January to film the students at two schools in Ghana, Ghanaian dancers and other aspects of life in a country that few Americans know anything about.

When she returns, Ms. Leader and the Special Players will continue the work they’ve done, learning traditional African dances with Okoe Ardyfio, a dancer from Ghana who frequently works with East Hampton drummer Daniel Bailey.

The 20 members of the Special Players have also become pen pals with the students in the school in Hohoe.

Phoebe Rogers is just one of 20 members of the acting group. Though she’s only 21 years old, she’s been acting for eight years and she is ecstatic at the idea of learning new forms of dance. While on a break from her job at Head Start in Bridgehampton just before Thanksgiving, Ms. Rogers, with a little help from Ms. Leader, talked a little bit about her life and her acting over lunch at World Pie. But first, she had to level some honest criticism at her teacher.

“Whenever I see you, you’re demanding,” she told Ms. Leader, with a gleam of mischief in her eye as if she meant to goad her teacher.

“That is good,” said Ms. Leader, laughing. “Most of the actors are willing to try anything. They’re very good at improvisation. Some of the pieces are too abstract, though, like the pieces of a washing machine.”

Indeed, “You’re a Petunia in my Garden” was initially a series of those improvisations. Ms. Rogers, who worked at a florist at the time, helped develop a story line about working with cut flowers and another about love along with her boyfriend, Gregory Doyle, who is also a member of the Special Players. Ms. Leader and the group’s production designer, Gabriele Raacke, videotaped the improvisations and then worked with the actors to develop them.

Ms. Rogers is also featured in a sketch called “Wie heisst du Baby?” (“What’s Your Name, Baby?”), in which the players are hanging out in a nightclub.

“Phoebe’s ideal job would be a nightclub singer,” said Ms. Leader.

Another poignant sketch talks about the fears the actors have, including Ms. Rogers’s fear of insects. Though Ms. Rogers, who had frequently been too shy to speak when she began acting, was quiet through much of the conversation, she became seriously animated when asked which bugs she was afraid of.

“Beatles, moths, housebugs, water bugs, butterflies, yellow jackets,” she said.

“Butterflies?” questioned Ms. Leader.

“Yeah,” said Ms. Rogers.

“There’s another scene called ‘I Hate Clowns,’” said Ms. Leader.

“Me too,” said Ms. Rogers emphatically.

Though the group has performed “You Are a Petunia in My Garden” for the general public numerous times in the past two years, at Ms. Leader’s urging they began performing at high schools this year, beginning with a show in front of 700 students at Southampton High School earlier this year.

“Some members of our board were fearful that high school students wouldn’t respect them. I said ‘I think you’re wrong,’” she said. Turns out she was right. After giving the show their rapt attention, the students in Southampton gave the Special Players a standing ovation.

Now that the long-running production is winding down, Ms. Leader is turning her attention to a potential story line for the new show.

She’s considering using the traditional Ghanaian tale of “Ananzi the Spider,” a spider that teaches moral fables that have quite a following among the residents of Ghana. “Ananzi is like our Br’er Rabbit,” said Ms. Leader.

The East End Special Players receives funding from East Hampton and Southampton Town, but it is also supported by donations from the community. Before Friday’s production, the troupe will hold a benefit silent auction in order to help the company continue its work.

The Surface Library Gallery and Atelier at 845 Springs-Fireplace Road in Springs will also donate 10 percent of the proceeds from sales on December 6 and 7 from a new exhibit, “The Gift of Art,” to the Special Players. A reception for the show is planned from 6 to 8 p.m. on December 6.

The show consists of art and gifts created by artists Bob Bachler and James Kennedy, along with other artists’ creations, including textiles, paper, bamboo, hand-painted wood and ceramics.

Friday’s final performance at Bay Street Theatre will be at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and a silent auction will be held before the show, beginning at 6 p.m. For tickets and information, call 631-267-9101.

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