It is a gorgeous morning, the sun already hot as it climbs over the San Gabriel Mountains, but Akuyoe Graham shivers and pulls a leather jacket around her as she treads a snow-filled path of her imagination.
In a classroom at a juvenile hall facility, about 30 young men dressed in identical baggy pants and T-shirts watch intently as she performs an excerpt from her autobiographical show, "Spirit Awakening."
Sighing deeply, she stretches out her arms and laments the move her family made from its native Ghana, "where we cooked under the trees," to a cold, ash-gray London as oppressive as anything out of a Dickens novel. The actress deftly becomes a tight-lipped English headmistress, her spirited mother, her own 6-year-old self in cultural rebellion. Laughs, muted exclamations of sympathy and disbelief from the audience break the silence.
Fifteen minutes later, most of the boys are bent over papers writing out what Akuyoe, 36, hopes is the beginning of their own scripted journeys into their lives and, ultimately, into themselves.
After the session, which Akuyoe stresses is only for those who wish to participate, she thanks the group and prepares to leave. No one volunteered to share his work, but now several hands clutching papers venture up; perhaps, the boys say, Akuyoe would like to read them to herself. She immediately obliges and circulates around the tables, praising each effort no matter how brief or hastily scrawled. Even though she has a noon audition and time is short, only reluctantly does she finally leave.
"You all were wonderful," she says earnestly. "Believe me, this is only the beginning. I'll be back."
So liberating has this voyage of self-discovery been for Akuyoe, she has spent the last four years not only performing "Spirit Awakening," but also conducting autobiographical workshops for high school students, at-risk and incarcerated youth around the Southland. The workshop program has led to the establishment of a Spirit Awakening Foundation that Akuyoe hopes will spread the gospel of self-awareness through creativity among young people.
Juvenile Hall teacher Pam Larson, whose group includes high-risk offenders in isolation, says Akuyoe's efforts are more than good impulses. The workshops, she says, are therapy that works for many teen-agers at the facility.
"Akuyoe is real powerful and straight and focused," Larson says. "She's like a laser beam. She cuts through the crap. Her own courage in expressing herself touches the kids; they respond to that. After she left my class one day, a boy said, 'That was cool, what we did.' These kids are looking for anything that will support them making a change. Akuyoe puts them in a very powerful place where they can start searching themselves."
Says Akuyoe, whose full name is Akuyoe Charlotte Katherine Graham, "What I want to share with young people is, 'What's in you is the key, the secret. Don't put that aside because ultimately, that doesn't serve anybody, or any community.'
"That isn't a Pollyanna notion. Joy and fulfillment are powerful."
Deep down inside my life is twisting and turning
My feelings hurt so bad they feel like they're burning
My head inside is so confused
I feel like I've been abused.
Fight you ask?
It's just a mask
Life, life, you can't be like this.
Born a tribal princess in Africa, raised in London as a child and in America as a young adult, Akuyoe is no stranger to identity crises. She is quick to tell audiences and workshop students alike that as recently as six years ago, she wouldn't have been able to perform a show like "Spirit Awakening," much less school others on the finer points of self-revelation.
"I hated myself," she says in softly accented English. She is direct but unfailingly warm and gracious, given to wearing long, flowing dresses that accentuate a natural elegance. "I was African, but not; had an English accent, but was not English; here, I wasn't American. The difficulty has been learning to love myself. I believe that's a journey everyone has to make."
Akuyoe studied theater in New York, attending the High School of Performing Arts and later training with such legendary teachers as Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner. Disappearing into characters and bypassing her own suited her. She could temporarily forget about all the things that made her different from most other Hollywood hopefuls, things she had secretly grown to detest--full lips, coffee-colored skin, short hair curled tight. Although her name means "blessed woman" in the West African language of Ga, Akuyoe often felt anything but.
"I am dark-skinned, and I had this dark-is-bad connection in my mind," she says. "I didn't even realize I felt this way. I had to come to some terms, some meanings that supported this dark woman. 'Spirit Awakening' gives me plenty of opportunities to live certain truths I wasn't living then."
Ironically, "Spirit Awakening" came out of the actress' attempt to cobble together a one-woman show out of monologues by other playwrights.
"Friends saw what I was doing and said, 'That's good, but it's too artsy. Why not do you instead?' " she recalls. "I had no idea that project would take the shape that it did."
As the show took form, at staged readings and poetry gatherings around town, so did Akuyoe's full appreciation of it. She says she does not perform "Spirit Awakening" so much as relive certain segments of her life, though she has done the show nearly 100 times at venues ranging from Barnsdall Park to the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
"Once it was written, then I began the journey of understanding of what it was I had written," she says. "The last line of the show is, 'I am.' I came to my own spirituality through 'Spirit Awakening.' I had to ask, 'What does I am mean to Akuyoe?' One of the most valuable things about this is that I had to give my own life interpretation."
The need to help others face themselves evolved right along with the show, and at points nearly overtook it. She soon initiated workshops, called "Unmasking Your Authentic Voice," following performances at schools and juvenile camps. In that setting the teen-agers, mostly black and Latino, unexpectedly tapped mother lodes of creativity as well as repressed pain, confusion and other emotions for which they had found few outlets.
Providing that outlet quickly became more gratifying than the high she got from acting.
"I'm bridging gaps," she says. She understands that teen-agers often feel invisible. "As a woman with African features, I often feel that way on auditions, like I'm not seen or heard."
Carl Williams, a sophomore at John Muir High School in Pasadena and workshop alumnus, likes the fact that "you get to write about yourself, not about who you think you are, but what you feel inside."
"I had never done this before," Williams says. "I had done essays about what I did over the summer, stuff like that, but this is different. Akuyoe challenges you and helps you learn about yourself. Most adults want you to be like them, but not her. And she's sincere."
Muir sophomore Joanna Moore says writing and performing her piece let her sort through conflicting feelings about her father and distinguish who her real friends are.
"(Akuyoe is) a delivery person--she came by and dropped off a big mirror," Moore says. "You can look in the mirror and do what you want. Whatever it is, you know Akuyoe always respects you, and everybody respects her."
Akuyoe compiles the text from many workshops in pamphlet-like books that feature cover graphics and such titles as "The Land of Healing" and "We Speak: From Death to Life." Instructors have long suggested photocopying as a more expedient way to reproduce student work, but Akuyoe is adamant about her method.
"The kids get amazed when they see their work in a book," she says. "They sit up straight and say, 'I did that?' It impresses adults too. They look at them, and kids look at themselves, differently."
My age is 10 now in elementary. My school was four miles away from my house. Every morning I'd wake up to the sound of his voice, yelling at me, telling how I should have never been born, how I meant nothing to nobody. I was locked up in jail. My mother then found out and came to get me. . . . I then was so mad at myself for the pain I put my mother through, I tried to commit suicide. With a broken beer bottle I started carving in my arms. I lost so much blood I passed out.
Akuyoe says the purpose of the fledgling Spirit Awakening Foundation is twofold: To train teen-agers in autobiographical workshop techniques, and to fund education in the broadest sense of the word--college, travel, art courses or whatever pursuit will best aid the process of self-discovery.
"This is a 'good faith' fund," she explains. "Not everyone is cut out for school. I've been lucky in my life to have people say 'yes' to some unique requests. I want others to have the same chance."
Darryl Douglas, 17, was ultimately glad to have unearthed the pain of his parents' divorce in his piece, "Who Are You?"
"When you have a sore, you tie it up, and when somebody touches it, you say 'Ow!' " he says. "It was like taking off the bandage, cleansing the wound, and putting the bandage back on. The wound's still there, but it's better."
* For more information on the Spirit Awakening Foundation, call (213) 913 2656.