A Village Of One is a song cycle with lyrics, melody and stage realization by Paula Jeanine Bennett. It has been created to be easily adapted for a variety of locations and cultures. The first performance of A Village Of One was in Java, Indonesia, where the piece is known by the Bahasa Indonesian name Sendiri Di Desa. The infectious and elemental songs were inspired by the slendro scale of the Javanese gamelan. Reviewing it for local audiences, the Indonesian journalist Gita Hastrika had much praise for it: “The aim of this artistic collaboration shifted, being not only about the composition or even the composer, but about giving a contribution to a community and a process to learn about humanity and life,” she wrote.
The storyline for A Village of One is seamless communion of the simple and the dramatic: A woman stands apart from the crowd and revels in her isolation. Feeling more at ease in the world of nature than that of humans, she feels akin to water, earth and clay. In her home and in her heart she has created a village of one. Deep in the night her house is discovered by a demon from the forest and a fight ensues. In the tumult of battle, the demon runs off, knocking a woman and infant to the ground. The moment of truth arrives. Does the main character help or turn away? She goes to assist, holds the infant, however tentatively, realizing change starts with one small step. A crowd gathers around her and a girl puts a garland of jasmine around her neck, and she is welcomed into the community. They dance.
The success of the Indonesian performance literally gave A Village of One wings. Growing into a full-fledged opera, it was performed next in Morocco. In February 2015, Paula Jeanine Bennett traveled to the small market town of Sefrou, Morocco in the Middle Atlas Mountains and participated in a residency coordinated by Culture Vultures, an arts hosting organization. Her folk opera, A Village of One became Village Dial Waheda in the local language, darija. An ensemble of 12 rehearsed and subsequently performed in Sefrou (Town Hall/Baladiya), Fez (Arabic Language Institute Riad) and Meknes (Theater El-Mnouni). The work underwent a profound transformation with new songs, sections and cross-cultural adaptation. A choir of 7 women, a traditional Moroccan storyteller (Hakawati), a musical ensemble of oud, Andalous guitar and bendir drum and a regional monster (Boujloud) brought Village… to life in a breathtaking way. Ms. Bennett describes the process of bringing the opera to stage in a blog that is imaginative and filled with dramatic narrative:
“On the bright, cool morning of February 1, 2015, I traveled to the traditional market town of Sefrou, Morocco, nestled in the middle Atlas Mountains, to start a one-month arts residency. The arts hosting organization Culture Vultures had invited me to expand and restage my folk opera “A Village of One”. The director, Jess Stephens, wanted to stretch the concept of an artisanal exchange and find out what the presentation of that could be at the end of the residency. This was the organization’s first hosting of a theater production, so the goal of all was to expand our horizons. I had been having much fruitful email and Skype exchange with Jess before I arrived in Sefrou and was coming with a ready heart.
“Some preparation had been done for the residency while I was still in Brooklyn. I came armed with my Darija song lyric translations (“Finding Khadija”). I’d also arranged for one of the important props of the show to be made in Morocco, the “Humanudu”, and a baby-shaped drum that sounds like a heartbeat when played. In the Java, Indonesia incarnation of “Village” the baby had been made from clay. I wanted to have a wooden version of the instrument made for this production. The realization of this idea came from Faouzi Saouli, an oud maker and friend of Jess’. I made a model from wire mesh and duct tape in Brooklyn and mailed it to Faouzi’s workshop in Casablanca. Right before I left for Morocco Jess told me that the instrument was finished and was waiting for me in Sefrou!
“I’d have one month to teach and stage Village… culminating in full-cast performances in three cities, and smaller versions in three more. I had no idea what to expect of Sefrou save what I had read in the travel books and seen online. I would be staying in the ancient medina, with narrow streets that no cars could drive through. My suitcases were taken from the taxi and moved through town by handcart. I would be staying at the only guest house in the old town.”