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Bayano: Play Tells Story of 16th-Century Panama Hero

Professor Darrel Holnes learned the story of Bayano at an early age growing up in Panama. Nearly everywhere he went, there was some reference to the enslaved African who led massive slave revolts against the Spaniards in 16th century Panama.

Holnes, an English professor at Medgar Evers College, tells the story in a play titled Bayano that explores his “history, spirituality, and liberation.”

“Bayano freed himself from slavery and freed so many others that I hope the story inspires people to fight to emancipate themselves from any kind of oppression,” Holnes says. “Always remember that there’s an opportunity to help others.”

Holnes says his adaptation of Bayano’s life story was inspired by Homer’s Odyssey because “Bayano’s story is as epic as Odysseus.’”

“The more I learned about Bayano’s history, the more that was clear to me,” he adds.

“He freed hundreds and hundreds of people. Bayano’s army was really a force to be reckoned with. So you always remember that as a black kid growing up in Latin America you remember these examples because we’re taught so few of them.”

Over the course of two years, Holnes read 100 books about 16th century Panama and notable figures of the time. He consulted with scholars and even traveled to Panama to study Congo masquerade, an annual Afro-Caribbean carnival celebration. 

A production of the play utilizing Panamanian Congo masks had been scheduled to run for a week in March at Harlem’s National Black Theatre. Unfortunately, only one performance took place before COVID-19 shut the city’s theaters down. But Holnes says he hopes to find Bayano “a new home once the pandemic is over. … Literally hundreds of folks have emailed, called, texted, or reached out via social media. I’m overwhelmed by the interest in the show and story. And would love to give folks what they’re asking for with a world premiere truly worthy of Bayano’s incredible story.”

Bayano was developed and funded through the theater’s I Am Soul Playwrights Residency, which is part of the theater’s Soul Series Liberating Artistic Bravery (L.A.B.).

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Bayano
National Black Theatre, 2020

Work By

Darrel Holnes (Assistant Professor, English) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

Medgar Evers College