‘Once in a lifetime’ for a reason

Ellen Futterman, Editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light


On the “what I did over my summer vacation front” St. Louisan Marsha Coplon scored a slam-dunk in terms of making a difference. She spent three weeks teaching theater to young girls in a tiny village in the Gambia, located in West Africa.

Still, she isn’t sure she wants to go back anytime soon. “Don’t get me wrong, I would work with these girls again in a second,” said Coplon, who is the Director of Education at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. She explains that between the expense in getting there and the primitive living conditions during her stay, well, they’re called “once in a lifetime” trips for a reason.

“I just don’t know if I could handle going to Africa again during the rainy season,” Coplon, who is Jewish, explained. “That said, I learned a lot about myself on this trip, like how many flies can be on my food before I won’t eat it,” she added, joking.

“But in all seriousness, I learned how to talk to people. The people of Gambia tell stories. They are such a welcoming people. There isn’t a word for stranger.

“I also learned a lot about taking the time to be polite and connect with a person before you start doing what you need to do.”

Coplon traveled to the Gambia with her longtime friend, Beth Drew, who is a teacher in Syracuse, N.Y. Drew had gotten to know a Gambian woman named Yassin Sarr, who lives in upstate New York half of the year and in the Gambia for the other half. Sarr’s dream is to open Starfish International Academy in the Gambia, which would empower girls there by providing them with an advanced education. Its mission also includes the girls learning a small business skill so they can bring money into the family rather than having to be married off by the age of 13 or 14 (polygamy is practiced in the Gambia). 

The program would also pay their school fees so the families would allow their daughters to continue their education. The Gambia ranks 155 out of 177 on the poverty scale and about 80 percent of the population is Muslim.

“While Yassin is raising money to start Starfish, she has a summer afterschool program where the girls who live nearby do service projects throughout the year and attend classes in the summer,” said Coplon, who along with Drew, taught a three-week playwriting class to 14 girls, half of whom were in seventh grade, the other half in 11th grade. The challenge for Coplon and Drew was in condensing to three weeks the Rep’s 23-week “WiseWrite” program, which teaches fifth graders at two St. Louis area public schools playwriting skills.

“The Gambia is very much a storytelling and teaching theater nation. But what they consider theater is almost like role playing as opposed to what we call theater,” explained Coplon. “The hardest thing for the girls was writing dialogue. Their creativity was great. But they kept saying, ‘We need to put a narrator in to tell people what is going on.’ We had to assure them a narrator wasn’t necessary.”

Coplon and Drew decided the first exercise would be to adapt a Gambian folktale and turn it into a 10-minute play that would be performed by the girls at their summer graduation. “We had each girl bring in a legend, some story that their grandmothers would tell them at night”,  she explained. “From that, the class chose the one they wanted to perform. The one we did was Gambian about two Kumbas, one with mother and one without. It was kind of a Cinderella story.

“The other one they chose to do was Rumplestiltskin, but with a Gambian flavor. We ended up doing a Western or European folktale and then a Gambian folktale. There were representatives from the American Embassy at their graduation ceremony. It was very exciting.”

Coplon plans to publish the scripts, sending each girl a copy as well as sending one for the library, which is the only building at the academy right now. She said one of the unexpected benefits was that the girls saw her as a role model.

“For them to see a woman who has a good job, money to travel, and who has not been married but has a very happy life was a total shock,” said Coplon, adding that it was “the politeness of the people” that truly resonated for her.

At age 57, Coplon and Drew were considered “the elders”– the average lifespan for women there is 52. As a perk of their “advanced” status, they were given an “attached bathroom” with a sink, a toilet stool and a showerhead. (The younger girls in the compound had rooms with a communal bathroom.) Instead of the 10-minute walk to the school, the elders were also driven. 

“These people live in poverty that we can’t imagine,”Coplon said. “Whereas I would have looked at them and said this is so hopeless, they were not hopeless at all. Everything and everyone was part of a community. 

“Though I am thrilled with the writing part of what we taught and working on dialogue and the skills the girls learned, what thrilled me the most was watching them do their plays and the way they worked together to solve whatever issues came up. The whole cooperative ensemble was so delightful to see.”

For more information about Starfish International Academy, go to starfishinternational.org.