This entry includes the following articles:
- ANGLOPHONE CENTRAL AND EASTERN AFRICA
- ANGLOPHONE WESTERN AFRICA
- FRANCOPHONE AFRICA
- NORTHERN AFRICA
- SOUTHERN AFRICA
ANGLOPHONE CENTRAL AND EASTERN AFRICA
Theater includes displays of suspenseful actions that are representations of events, in the real or supernatural world, before an audience—as well as certain forms of ritual, dance, and other performing arts. The term also refers to a space reserved for dramatic performances. Viewed as such, theater has been part and parcel of human existence, though manifested in different ways at specific historical moments. For instance, precolonial theater in eastern and Central Africa was collective, anonymous, participatory, and attuned to the people’s rhythm of life. It came alive in a variety of social and cultural activities, such as birth, initiation, hunting, marriage, spirit-possession rituals, and death-related activities. Most of the indigenous theater forms were, however, suppressed during the colonial era, which generally denigrated non-Western cultures, especially in the efforts to introduce Christianity into the region. The main reason for this suppression was that cultural theatrical Page 29 | Top of Articleactivities were perceived as the symbolic paths to the indigenous people’s religious and moral base.
With the onset of colonialism, economic and political disputes were manifested in cultural reaffir-mation. For instance, among the Gikuyu the tensions surrounding the practice of female circumcision, and its accompanying songs and dances, were replayed theatrically in central Kenya from 1928 to 1931 through the Muthirigu dances. Related precolonial dramatic forms were reactivated during the Mau Mau revolt of liberation. In addition, in northwestern Zambia the Makisi masquerade theater, which was originally performed during the initiation of boys, took a semi-commercial twist within the colonial setup, and in southern Mozambique the possession rituals of African spirits, such as Ndau and Ngoni, started incorporating foreigners in their portrayal of life. Similar innovations were made in the Gule wa Mkulu masquerade of the Nyau among the Chewa of Malawi, eastern Zambia, and Mozambique. The Eritrea community-based Theatre Project has been in existence since 1995 as part of national reconstruction after the thirty-year war with Ethiopia. The Project seeks to nurture Eritrean cultures through theater in indigenous languages, suppressed by Italian and English colonialism between 1890 and 1952. Evidently, performing arts in the region have continued to capture the changing patterns of life in the colonial and postcolonial era.
With the introduction of formal education, literary theater was incorporated into the curriculum, and between the 1920s and 1930s in eastern and Central Africa, formal colonialism made it imperative that exclusive European social spots be established in major colonial cities such as Mombasa, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Salisbury (present-day Harare), and Kampala. Consequently, cultural and leisure theaters were created in those areas that had a strong settler community. Permanent theaters such as the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi, the Lusaka Theatre Club, and the Little Theatre clubs in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, as symbols of cultural solidarity and group cohesion, were established. The main function of the theater clubs in their exclusiveness was to facilitate the self-definition of the European expatriate population in an African context. The dramas performed in the exclusive expatriate clubs were mainly productions from the European classical canon and domestic romantic comedies.
Mobile film units were established not only to provide entertainment in the townships but also to explain British policy and politico-military practice to the colonial subjects. Radio drama was imported and censored for an African audience. Theater for development, though occasionally utilizing precolonial dramatic forms, tended to be didactic and was especially geared toward the transmission of information on agriculture, primary health care, savings, loans, and tax collection. For instance, in Nyasaland (present-day Malawi) plays were performed in the 1930s at Ndirande Welfare Club in Blantyre to promote health care, and in the 1950s the interracial play The False Friend was performed to encourage progressive farming. In many cases, colonial lifestyles were parodied in theater. The Sajeni (Sergeant) masks in Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia), the militaristic mimes of the Beni dances in eastern Africa, the Kalela dances in Northern Rhodesia, the Malipenga in Nyasaland, and the work songs in Mozambique, were artistic responses to colonial culture.
Although the region is vibrant with drama, most theater activities are urban and school-based. Efforts are made to reach the rural areas through the free-traveling theater and popular theater movements. Moreover, the Annual Schools Drama Festival and the Music Festival have become crucial aspects of the region’s educational system. In Kenya such theater groups as Miujiza Theatre Workshop Productions, the Theatre Company, Mbalamwezi Players, Igiza Productions, Chelepe Arts, Phoenix Players, Kenya Drama in Education Association, and the Eastleigh Drama Clubs are active. These Nairobi-based groups perform at the Kenya National Theatre established in 1953, Rahimtula Trust Building, the British Council, Goethe Institute, French Cultural Center, the Professional Centre, the Godown Arts Centre, the University of Nairobi Education Theatre, and Creative Arts Center at Kenyatta University. Performances in the rural areas occur in community social Halls, streets, market places, and bars.
Radio and television stations carry popular drama programs and health-related soap operas such as the award-winning 216-episode Ushikwapo Shikamana (If assisted assist yourself), scripted by Kimani Njogu and Ezekiel Kazungu and broadcast Page 30 | Top of Articleon national radio between 1986 and 1989; the 1993–1995 family harmony serial Kuelewana ni Kuzungumza (Dialogue is the basis of understanding), scripted by Kimani Njogu and Rocha Chimerah, and produced by Tom Kazungu for the national radio; Tushauriane (Let us advise each other), scripted by Felix Osodo and broadcast on national television between 1986 and 1987; and the Tanzanian Twende na Wakati (Let us go with the times), produced by Rose Haji and broadcast on national radio between 1993 and 1997. Some of these health-related soap operas follow the entertainment-education methodology advocated by the Mexican Miguel Sabido and used by the Population Communications International, New York, and Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs in the transmission of messages for behavior change. A crucial component of that methodology is research conducted to develop the educational themes and social values to be encouraged or discouraged. The soap opera in the region has a strong following because, apparently, viewers relate to the experiences of the characters and receive immediate and anticipated gratification after the completion of the subplots or the sequence.
African playwrights have a strong desire to participate in social change through their art. The popular theater movement in the region, which has borrowed from the indigenous performing arts and the South American experience, especially as encapsulated in the writings of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, attempts to utilize theater for consciousness raising while proceeding from the premise that socioeconomic and political problems stem from a given social order that can be reversed.
Community theater is vibrant in the region. Kamirithu Community Educational and Cultural Centre that led to the detention of the Kenyan novelist and playwright Ngũgĩwa Thiong’o (b. 1938) set in motion a series of similar experiments in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Tanzania, and Uganda. Ngũgĩ explores the contradictions, tensions, and struggles in the political and cultural terrain of a neocolony in the plays Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry when I want, 1980); Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976, written with Micere Mugo), on Kenya’s freedom struggle; Maitu Njugira (Mother sing for me), yet to be a published opera; and The Black Hermit (1968). In the Black Hermit Ngũgĩ also addresses the issue of ethnic loyalty in Africa.
Francis Imbuga (b. 1947) has explored the issues of betrayal, greed, political intolerance, obsession with power, and the tensions between “traditional” and modern ways of life in postcolonial Kenya in most of his plays.
Most Tanzanian plays are in Swahili, the country’s national language, and theater has over the years been used for mass mobilization, especially in the implementation of government projects. Ebrahim Hussein and Penina Mlama have published plays that capture historical and political events in the region. Hussein has published Kinjeketile (1967), which is based on the 1905–1907 Maji-Maji rebellion against German rule, as well as other plays that depict the postcolonial condition in Africa. Equally, Said Ahmed Mohamed has explored the politics of betrayal and the relationship between rulers and the ruled especially in Kivuli Kinaishi (1990) and Amezidi (1995).
In Amezidi, Said Ahmed examines Africa’s depressed economic situation and dependence, including the relationship between African countries and financial institutions in the West. The theater arts department at the University of Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo College of Art, and independent performing groups work together to enrich drama and theater in Tanzania. Most of the issues discussed in Tanzanian theater include the colonial and postcolonial experience, the status of women in a changing social, cultural, and political environment, corruption among the political and economic elite, and the relationship between African nations and the West. In addition, the Tanzanian government has consciously utilized theater for social development in a significant way.
The playwrights Stephen Chifunyise and Kabwe Kasoma have persisted in criticizing government policy and practice. Kasoma’s plays—including The Black Mamba trilogy (1973), on the rise of Kenneth Kaunda to power and his achievements as the first president of Zambia, The Long Arm of the Law (1968), on Copperbelt township life, Distortion, The Fools Marry (performed at Chikwakwa Theatre in Lusaka on June 11, 1960), Lobengula, Mankenda, and Katongo Chala—all show his commitment not Page 31 | Top of Articleonly to theater but also to the role that artists can play in changing the political and social direction of their countries. This is the same spirit that guides University of Zambia Dramatic Society (UNZADRAMS) in its performances. Victor Eleame Musinga in The Tragedy of Mr. No Balance (1974) attempts to show how individuals make opportunities where none seem to exist. Similarly, the Ethiopian playwright Tse-gaye Gabre-Medhim is committed to the representation of historical events and cultural tensions in his country in order to help shape it.
Theater is a very popular activity in Ugandan schools and in Kampala, especially through the efforts of professionals at Makerere University. The most popular plays in Luganda have been written by Wycliffe Kiyingi, who has scripted numerous stage, radio, and television plays and set up a traveling theater group. He contributed to the Makerere free-traveling theater movement of the mid-1960s. The drama group Theatre Ltd., founded in 1970, included people from various academic and theatrical backgrounds, such as David Rubadiri, Rose Mbowa, Robert Serumaga, Wycliffe Kiyingi, and Byron Kawadwa. Kawadwa also founded the Kampala City Players in 1964 and contributed significantly to popularizing theater in Luganda by creating socially committed theater based on indigenous performance styles. His semioperatic plays such as St. Charles Lwanga and Oluyimba Lwa Wankoko (The son of Wankoko) were very popular.
Idi Amin’s coup of 1971 destabilized theater activities as Okot p’Bitek, David Rubadiri, and John Ruganda went into exile. John Ruganda has written The Burdens (1972), Black Mamba (1973), Echoes of Silence (1986), and The Floods (1980). Kawadwa was killed by Amin in 1977, and Robert Serumaga, author of The Elephants (1969), A Play (1974), and Majangwa (1974), died on the battlefield while attempting to liberate his country.
Such groups as the Kampala Shining Star Association, the Kayaayu Film Players, the Kintu Players, and the Baganda Cultural and Dramatic Society continued to function despite the many political difficulties they were encountering. Under the government of Yoweri Museveni, theater has again found a place to flourish. Most of the plays performed at the Uganda National Theatre are in Luganda. There are also plays by Alex Mukulu, who published Ten Years of Banana (1993), on dictatorship. Traveling theater has continued over the years to take music, drama, and dance to different parts of the country for educational and entertainment purposes. Significantly, in the early 2000s there has been a profusion of semi-professional theater groups, such as Black Pearls, Teamline, Afri-Talent, and Ba Kayimbira. There has also been a growth of private theaters in the whole region. Generally, theater in eastern and Central Africa aspires to be socially relevant.
Banham, Martin, et al. African Theatre in Development. Oxford: James Currey, 1999.
Barber, Karin. “Popular Arts in Africa.” African Studies Review 30, no. 3 (1987): 1–78.
Etherton, Michael. The Development of African Drama. London: Hutchison University Library for Africa, 1982.
Kerr, David. African Popular Theater: From Pre-Colonial Times to the Present Day. London: James Currey, 1995.
Mlama, Penina Muhando. Culture and Development: The Popular Theatre Approach in Africa. Uppsala, Sweden: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1991.
Wambua, Kawive. “Creating a Counter Culture through Theatre.” Jahazi: Culture, Arts and Performance 1, no. 1 (2006): 23–27.
ANGLOPHONE WESTERN AFRICA
Theater is one of the major cultural institutions in West Africa that did not suffer a major setback in spite of colonialism. Theater in western Africa is the most vibrant and profuse on the entire continent.
The epithet “traditional” is used advisedly to refer to indigenous performances that existed before the impact of colonialism and that continues to play an important role in the artistic life of communities, alongside the modern theater. It includes secular forms and recreational activities such as the storytelling (Anansesem) performances of the Akan of Ghana; the secular and religious motifs which are found in festivals such as the kundum festival (among the Ahanta of Ghana); the okumkpa festival Page 32 | Top of Articleof the Afikpo (Nigeria); the elaborate and spectacular masquerades that one finds in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ghana; and the Apidan various theater forms of the Yoruba (Nigeria).
There has been intransigence on the part of some scholars in accepting certain African traditional performances as “drama” because of the relative lack of a “linguistic content” and a well-defined plot, and the multigeneric nature of the performances. Drama as a distinct social phenomenon has always existed in traditional African societies, largely in the form of opera, ballet, mime, and verbal performance.
Irrespective of the society in which it is found, traditional African theater is characterized by a number of common features: it is nonscripted (examples include the apidan and the okumkpa); song, music, and dance are preponderant (as in anansesem, and in the kotéba of Mali, to use an example from Francophone Africa); an assortment of stereotypical character types rather than individuals are portrayed (such as the prostitute, the deceitful merchant, and foreigners or “outsiders,” as one finds in the apidan); and political and social institutions are ridiculed. (Corrupt chiefs and mercenary prophets of foreign religions are frequently subjects of attack, as in the apidan, the okumkpa, and the plays of the Ekong society of the Ibibio.)
Modern western African theater takes its inspiration from both the traditional theater and the theater of the West as introduced by missionaries and colonialists. The bulk of the plays written come from Ghana and Nigeria.
The Ghanaian theater was started by nationalists who were not professional playwrights. Their major preoccupation was to remove the shackles of Britain’s cultural imperialism from the Gold Coast (as Ghana was known before independence). Thus, the plays of the period were mainly philosophical and satirical in outlook. Ferdinand Kwasi Fiawoo’s (1891-1969) The Fifth Landing Stage (1943) and Joseph Boakye Danquah’s (1895-1965) The Third Woman (1943) explore Ewe and Akan philosophies, while Kobina Sakyi’s (1892-1956) The Blinkards (1974) satirizes the Gold Coast elite for its slavish imitation of British habits.
The modern Ghanaian theater in English came into fruition with the works of Efua Theodora Sutherland (1924–1996) and Joe de Graft (1924-1978). Both were instrumental in the establishment of the Ghana School of Music, Dance, and Drama (now the School of Performing Arts at the University of Ghana). A playwright and a director, Sutherland was interested in researching and experimenting with the rich theatrical traditions of the Akan, especially the anansesem (Ananse stories). This interest was reflected in her collaboration with the people of Atwia-Ekumfi in building a community theater, known as Kodzi dan (storytelling house), and also in her major play, The Marriage of Anansewa (1975). This play explores the resources of the anansesem tradition: a narrator, songs (mboguo used for delineation of character, the depiction of mood and atmosphere, and the creation of suspense), dance, and the character of Ananse (the Spider) in dealing with the themes of national unity, greed, and avarice. Other plays by Sutherland include Foriwa (1967) and Edufa (1969). Foriwa deals with the theme of national reconstruction, while Edufa explores the dangers involved in the insatiable desire for wealth.
Joe de Graft’s plays, mainly Sons and Daughters (1964), Through a Film Darkly (1970), and Muntu (1977), deal with domestic tensions as a result of social transformations in modern Ghana. For example, in Sons and Daughters de Graft, through the character Maanan, defends the visual and performing arts in Ghana against the myopic elites of the day, represented by James Ofosu, a lawyer.
After the pioneering works of Sutherland and de Graft came a new generation of playwrights, namely Ama Ata Aidoo (b. 1942), Asiedu Yirenkyi (b. 1945), and Mohammed ben Abdallah (b. 1944). Of the three, Aidoo is the most internationally recognized as a playwright and novelist. All three held ministerial appointments in the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) regime (1981-1992) of Jerry Rawlings.
Aidoo’s The Dilemma of a Ghost (1965) explores the theme of the clash of cultures, represented by the marriage of Ato (a Ghanaian male) to Eulalie (an American woman). Her greatest achievement, however, is in Anowa (1969). Considered one of the finest plays on the continent, it examines the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on the psyche of the people of the Gold Coast during the 1870s. Anowa, Page 33 | Top of Articlethe heroine of the play, confronts her patriarchal society and questions its involvement in the traffic of human beings.
Yirenkyi’s reputation rests on a collection titled Kivuli and Other Plays (1980). Kivuli deals with the mundane theme of marital problems; another play in this collection, Amma Pranaa, employs the techniques of anansesem; and a third, Blood and Tears, is a bitter satire on the incompetence and hypocrisy of the new Ghanaian middle class represented by the character Charles Brown.
Abdallah has published six plays to date, all of which have been staged by Abibigroma (the resident theater company of the School of Performing Arts). The major ones are The Fall of Kumbi (1989), which deals with the fall of the ancient Ghana empire, and its precursor, The Trial of Mallam Ilya (1987), which examines in epic proportions the political and social repercussions of the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah. Other theater practitioners worthy of mention in Ghana include directors Sandy Arkhurst and John Djisenu, playwright and critic Martin Owusu (author of The Sudden Return and Other Plays, 1973), Yaw Asare, and Efo Kodjo Mawugbe.
Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has produced over half the continent’s output of dramatic literature. Until the late twentieth century, the theater was dominated by the literary giant Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), along with John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (b. 1935) and Ola Rotimi (1938–2000).
Playwright, poet, novelist, critic, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1986), Soyinka’s prominence in the world of drama stems from his use of Yoruba religion and folklore, his establishment of a theory of Yoruba-African tragedy, and his scathing attacks against despotic regimes in Africa. Soyinka has been imprisoned by the Nigerian authorities at least twice, and in the mid-1990s fled Nigeria to live in Paris for his personal safety. His major plays, in which he explores Yoruba metaphysics, include The Road (1965), Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), and A Dance of the Forests (1963), which he was commissioned to write as part of Nigeria’s independence celebrations in 1960. His satiric comedies include The Lion and the Jewel (1963), The Trials of Brother Jero (1964), and A Play of Giants (1984), in which he excoriates African dictators such as Idi Amin Dada (Uganda) and Jean-Bçdel Bokassa (Central African Republic), as well as the two superpowers (the United States and the former Soviet Union). In his play King Baabu (2002), Soyinka also pens a scathing indictment of Nigeria’s Abacha regime.
Clark-Bekederemo—poet, novelist, playwright, and critic—comes from the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. Consequently, his plays are set in and deal with the riverine culture of the area. His earlier plays, principally Song of a Goat (1961) and Ozidi (1966), deal with the need to sacrifice the pride and self-esteem of the individual in favor of the continued health and growth of the entire community. His trilogy, The Bikoroa Plays (1985), offers an insight into Nigerian social and political life from the beginning of the colonial period to the new Nigeria of the 1950s.
Rotimi is best known for his plays The Gods Are Not to Blame (1971) and Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again (1977). But his importance in Anglophone West African theater lies in the fact that he is the only major playwright to have specialized in the genre of the historical play. His first such play, Kurumi (1971), deals with the internecine wars of the Yoruba around the nineteenth century, while the play Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (1974) deconstructs colonial history in order to redeem the distorted view of Ovonramwem as a brutal despot.
In the mid-1970s, a new generation of playwrights emerged in Nigeria. Their vision is more radical, and they are even bolder in their use of and experimentation with traditional forms. Prominent among them are Zulu Sofola (1935–1995), Tess Onwueme (b. 1943), Femi Osofisan (b. 1946), Kole Omotoso (b. 1943), Bode Sowande (b. 1948), and Stella Oyedepo (b. 1951). In plays such as Once Upon Four Robbers (Osofisan, 1980); Wazobia (Onwueme, 1988); and Worshippers of the Naira (Oyedepo, 1994), the vast resources of the African theater are fully exploited.
Although Ghana and Nigeria dominate the Anglophone literary theater in West Africa, perhaps, it useful to note the contributions of two minority traditions in the region: Anglophone Cameroon and Sierra Leone. The Cameroonian theater of English expression is dominated by Page 34 | Top of ArticleBate Besong and Bule Butake, whose works have consistently brought them into conflict with the Cameroonian authorities. Unfortunately, the rich theatrical resources in most Sierra Leonean traditional ceremonies, such as the Poro initiation rites, have not given rise to an equivalent output in dramatic literature. With the exception of the pioneering works of Raymond Sarif Easmon (Dear Parent and Ogre, 1964) and the politically relevant plays of Yulissa Amadu Maddy, the theater has remained a very marginal activity in the cultural life of the country.
The Yoruba Traveling Theater of Nigeria, the Krio theater in Sierra Leone, and the Concert Party of Ghana are prime examples of popular theater in Anglophone western Africa. This lively theater draws its inspiration from both the traditional and the modern theaters. It uses the indigenous languages of the area, deals with topical issues, and blends the performance with live music.
The Yoruba Traveling Theater reached its maturity and its era of commercial success with Hubert Ogunde (1916–1990), who formed the African Music Research Party in 1946. His plays Tiger’s Empire (1946) and Mr. Devil’s Money were great successes. Ogunde was banned from performing in the Western Region for two years because of his famous play Yoruba Ronu (Yorubas, think!) in 1964. Before his death, Ogunde played the role of Johnson’s father-in-law in the film version of Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1947) in 1990. Other personalities of the traveling theater are Duro Ladipo (1931-1978), Kola Ogunmola (1925–1973), and Moses Olaiya Adejumo (b. 1936), popularly known as Baba Sala, who has made the bold innovation of using film and video as part of his repertory.
The Ghanaian Concert Party tradition was started by a Mr. Yalley, a headteacher of Sekondi, in 1918. Yalley’s performances made use of jokes, songs, and dances. He also wore fancy dresses, wigs, false moustaches, and the white makeup of a minstrel. His shows were performed in English and catered to the urban elite of his day. However, the Concert Party as it operates now, performing in Akan, using guitar band music, and touring all parts of the country, was the hallmark of E. K. Nyame, who formed the Akan Trio in 1952. Two important but contradictory phenomena took place in the 1990s. While the Ghanaian government has sought to break the chasm between the African theater and its diasporaic counterparts by instituting the biannual Pan African Festival of Arts (Panafest), the concert parties, partly to reach a wider Ghanaian audience both at home and abroad, have taken advantage of the latest technology by recording some of their performances on DVDs, thereby unwittingly breaching the audience-actor intimacy—a hallmark of the tradition.
The Krio theater of Sierra Leone is not as developed and versatile as its counterparts in Ghana and Nigeria. Krio theaters are mainly concentrated in Freetown and its environs. The leading practitioners are Charlie Haffner, Yulisa Amadu Maddy, and Dele Charley. The uniqueness of Krio theater is in its dance-drama, which is performed in a nonverbal mode.
Anyidoho, Kofi, and James Gibbs, eds. Fon Tom From: Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theater, and Film. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 2000.
Bame, Kwabena N. Come to Laugh: African Traditional Theater in Ghana. New York: Lilian Barber, 1985.
Banham, Martin, ed. A History of Theatre in Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Banham, Martin; Errol Hill; and George Woodyard; eds. The Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Barber, Karin; John Collins; and Alan Ricard. West African Popular Theater. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
Cole, Catherine M. Ghana’s Concert Party Theater. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Conteh-Morgan, John, and Tejumola Olaniyan, eds. African Drama and Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Dunton, Chris. Make Man Talk True: Nigerian Drama in English Since 1970. New York: Hans Zell, 1992.
Etherton, Michael. The Development of African Drama. London: Hutchinson, 1982.
Gotrick, Kacke. Apidan Theatre and Modern Drama: A Study in a Traditional Yoruba Theatre and Its Influence on Modern Drama by Yoruba Playwrights. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1984.
ALEX O. BOATENG
AFRICAN CULTURE AND THEATRICAL EXPRESSION
Society dictates the nature of local artistic productions. Precolonial sub-Saharan Africa’s society never had a generic term for dramatic performances and never created a space for them. Actors were usually anonymous, and productions consisted of all forms of dramatic expressions (such as pantomime, dance, music, poetry, and mask dance). But although Africans did not name their theater, they lived it, as an essential cultural expression. Their productions ranged from ritual ceremonies to collective spontaneous rejoicing intended for a wide rural audience.
Rites refers to the various religious ceremonies in use in a community. These ceremonies are regulated, that is, their words and gestures (which have sacred and symbolic significance) follow prescriptions set by those participating in the ritual. In traditional Africa, rites are rooted in religion; people use ritual to get in touch with their spiritual roots, establishing ties that go unrecognized in the course of daily life.
Every aspect of a ritual has a symbolic signification that is part of a concrete language that can be transformed into a theatrical performance. The performance of this language creates a space that is symbolic or mythic. It is a place where people meet, as officiating masters and as participants. It is also the meeting place of the human and the divine, through prayer. In his study Rituel et prâ-theâtre (1965), Andrâ Schaeffner (1895-1980) demonstrates that prayer is more than a sentimental act. He shows that it is necessary to achieve contact with the divine.
In ritual, each participant has the opportunity to specialize in a role. In Cóte d’Ivoire, the team led by Wéréwéré Liking (b. 1950) of Cameroon and Marie-José Hourantier of France placed great importance on the readaptation of ritual by modern theater in Africa. In this same way, Wole Soyinka has used Yoruba ritual in his work.
Hourantier’s production of Wéréwéré Liking’s La puissance de Um (1970) was an attempt to restore the effectiveness of ritual. It was an effort to control the performance by reproducing the Bassa initiation schema that involves a five-pointed star. In recent years, inspired by the West African tradition, Wéréwéré Liking has put together a Pan-African epic Sogolon that also draws on Mandingue rituals.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DANCE
In Africa, dance is the most important mode of artistic expression. Music, whether instrumental or vocal, is always associated with a recitation or with choreography. Dance enhances religious rituals. Hunting tribes used figurative dance to ask forgiveness of the spirit of the animal whose physical form they were about to kill.
Dance is often part of a theatrical performance. It is stylized in such a way that its beauty is (more or less) independent of its meaning. In some cases, dancers add to music a dialogue that transforms the dance into a true dramatic performance.
Human beings can discover their bodies through dance, and can enter into a physical communion with liberty. Dance involves the themes of life and human feeling. African dance is more than just uncontrolled spontaneity. It is a harmonious combination of lines and movements imperceptibly linked to technique and is therefore a fundamental theatrical form of expression.
Although African dance is the art of movement, it does not leave the earth. Feet held close together are used to pound the soil continuously. There are several kinds of dance steps: échappés (escapes), relevés (high steps), and assemblés (steps in which the feet are brought together). The Bugereb, a Dyula dance practiced in Senegal, is one example of an assemblé. In it the feet hit the earth alternately, and then together.
Masques (ceremonies involving masks) reaffirm the role of myths in daily life. They sensibly rein-vigorate nature and society simultaneously. The masks are sculpted to receive spirits. Sometimes they feature both human and animal traits. Thus the mask transforms the body of the dancer, who nevertheless retains his or her individuality and who acts as a living medium that incarnates the other being that is momentarily represented.
Occasionally, masques present comic and satiric elements in ritual ceremonies. During these ceremonies, the masques are presented as true spectacles that express the richness of African choreography and music.
Expressive movement, gesture, and even possession are all tied to music and rhythm. Dance is naturally accompanied by music; it is music that permits the dancer to find his or her steps. Of all the arts, it is probably music that most directly affects us. It is therefore not surprising that music accompanies most rituals. Music is tied to dance and sustains direct emotional participation. It can relax tension by calming; a crisis may dissolve in dance. The tom-tom is the instrument most often used. A frenetic, rhythmic instrument, it is easily incorporated in a great variety of instrumental ensembles.
Music and dance join to create an emotional state favorable to possession and trance. They also play an essential role in the ceremony of exorcism, which is called Ndëp among the Wolof of Senegal.
Black African dramaturgy is a synthesis that integrates the expressive possibilities of body and word and excludes neither. In this universe, theater involves words, gestures, and music, each contributing intimately to dramatic expression.
In addition to religious ceremonies, Africans have developed a repertoire of collective celebrations whose object was the transposition of manners. These spectacles are lyric, musical, and dramatic. They represent ordinary people on the stage and appeal to a large rural public in which the spectacles find their roots.
The narrative exists in all African oral literature. It has a wide variety of dramatic characteristics. It relies on an oral narration that is, above all, a theatrical performance. In this narrative theater, the narrator is an actor. The narrator employs all dramatic resources, acting out, alone, a multitude of roles both human and animal. Several specialists in African theater have researched the narrative. One good example is Bernard Zadi Zaourou (b. 1938) of the Didiga company (of the Groupe de Recherches des Traditions Orales) in Abidjan. L’os de Mor Lam (1977), by Birago Diop (1906–1989), initiated this research.
The Koteba (giant snail) is a traditional performance in Mali that is composed of two parts. The first employs chants, rhythm, and dance. There is a sort of rhythmic prelude that joins chant, movement, and mime. The audience spontaneously becomes, in turn, actors, dancers, and a live stage set. The second part consists of short plays and skits improvised by the Kotedenw (children of the snail). These make up a comedy of manners that makes fun of stock characters such as the blind man, the miser, the leper, and others. The official theater company of Mali is called the National Koteba; this organization strives to preserve the techniques of the traditional Koteba. There are numerous traditional ceremonies of this type, including the simb (play of the false lion) of Senegal and the xaxar, a reception for the second, third, or fourth wife of a Wolof man.
The actors in secular festivities must be masters of their craft. They must be able to dance, sing, and mime. Among the Wolof, for example, are professionals such as the mband-katt and taaxuraan-katt who are itinerant entertainers, similar to the jugglers in medieval Europe. They perform in the marketplace, in the street, or in specially designated areas. All are specialists who work with instruments such as the tom-tom and the kora. Suleyman Coly has a central place for the griot in Waramba (a play co-produced with the Renaud Barrault Theater in September 1991). Niangora Porquet in Abidjan created the griotique, which was inspired by the techniques of the African griot.
GENESIS AND EVOLUTION OF MODERN THEATER
Modern African theater was born in the colonial school system. Students, who were usually interns, performed short plays at end-of-year festivals. Even the missionaries, who were hostile to pagan ceremonies, organized celebrations at Christmas and Easter. These early performances were inspired by European theater. It was not until the creation of the École Normale des Instituteurs in Saint-Louis, Senegal, in 1903 and the arrival of George Hardy in 1913 that true theater began, and only in the 1930s that a form of theater specifically recognized as African appeared. It was named indigenous theater and began at the École Normale William Ponty in Senegal.
At William Ponty, headmaster George Hardy, who was followed by Jean-Louis Monod and Albert Charton, understood the educational value of theater and encouraged creativity. At the end of the 1932–1933 school year, a play written by Dahomean students, Bayol et Behanzin, was performed along with a Molieère farce. This is the first known example of African Francophone theater.
Charles Béart of the École Primaire Supérieure in Bingerville, Cóte d’Ivoire, was also a force in the creation of indigenous theater. With the arrival of Bâart as a professor at the Ponty school in 1935, theater soared to new heights. Professors asked their pupils to look to their own traditional culture for subjects of plays. The costumes, pulled out of personal wardrobes at the time of performance, consisted of loincloths and boubou shirts taken from real life. Plays started and ended with chanting and dancing.
In 1935, the elite of Dakar (some 1,000 spectators) attended a performance of Election of the King (of the Dahomeans) at the Chamber of Commerce. The theater of the Ponty school reached its apogee in the 1936–1937 school year. Students from Cóte d’Ivoire presented Assemien, roi de Sanvi, and students from Guinea Conakry performed Le Capitaine Peroz et Samory á Bissandougou. The Ponty troupe was invited to the international exposition in Paris in 1937 and gave two performances at the Theâaâaftre des Champs Elysées.
After 1949, which marked the end of the Ponty theater, African theater found a new orientation. New prime movers, such as the Guinean Fodeba Keita, a schoolteacher from Ponty, denounced colonial policy. This new theater encountered opposition from the colonial authorities, but Africans who went to France for higher education would demonstrate the vitality of this theater in Paris.
After 1960 the majority of African nations gained independence. Theater developed differently in each country. Senegal was particularly privileged to have the Daniel Sorano National Theater. Many actors from the national conservatory joined this theater, which had one of the best acting troupes in the world. After Senegal, Cóte d’Ivoire was famous for its dramatic art. Its National Institute of Arts contained an important theatrical laboratory. Throughout Africa the new orientation of theater toward the valorization of traditional culture ensured public loyalty and support.
It is possible to divide African repertory plays into three categories. The first is historical plays, by far the most important. These are reenactments of the lives of important people in African history, with the aim of rehabilitating them through modern myths. The most famous include La mort de Chaka, by Seydou Badian (b. 1928; 1962), Une saison au Congo, by Aimé Césaire, and L’exil d’Albouri, by Cheik Aliou Ndao (1972). The second category is those plays that satirize current political rulers, such as Le président, by Maxime Ndebeka or Le destin glorieux du Maréchal Nnikon Nniku, prince qu’on sort (1979) by Tchicaya U Tam’ si (1931-1988). Finally there are plays that deal with social situations, such as Trois prétendants, un mari (1964), by Guillaume Oyono-Mbia and Monsieur Thogó Gnini (1965), by Bernard Dadié (b. 1916).
The means of expression of this essentially political and social theater reveal that the traditional ceremonies have survived colonization. In speech, these plays use oral discourse (maxims, symbols, proverbs, and repetition), silences that signal stage direction, interjections, and apostrophes. Images suggest the local environment. Ndao uses the savanna bestiary: the lion (symbol of greatness); the hyena (contempt); and the boa and owl (wildlife). In the plays there is a constant use of couplets and refrains from local songs within the French text. The switching between spoken and sung passages is reminiscent of the sung fables in the local oral literature.
African political theater focuses upon great historical figures such as Albouri, Christophe, Shaka Zulu, Patrice Lumumba, and Lat Dyor Diop. These characters are often tragic figures, divided between their vision of the world and the reality of their situations. In addition, there are the secondary characters derived from the traditional imaginations, such as the griot and the ritual officiant. Their role in the play is derived from social status. The griot is the most eloquent. He is the life of the play, giving it music, mimicry, and dance. The presence of the ritual officiant permits the display of fetishes such as animal horns, masks, and skulls.
Ritual and incantations plunge the spectator into the magical universe as a participant in simulations of ritual ceremonies. Plays use social concepts and the traditional family to weave relationships between these characters and dramatic situations. Thus, the plays explore the clash of cultures. Stagecraft—the procedures and effects by which drama is realized on the stage—most clearly demonstrates the traditional character of the spectacle.
The atmosphere of religious and recreational ceremonies is reproduced through emotion, mysticism, and humor in a universe where tragedy exists side by side with laughter, and where mimicry and dance are in sympathy. It is a harmonious, fairy-tale tableau that almost overflows the stage. In the plays of Fodeba Keita, the language of choreography reinforces the text. Few plays leave out cadence, song, and dance. Rhythm becomes a connection between the stage and the audience. The music that comes out of cultural tradition is familiar to the audience. In Europe, the theater borrowed the idea of incidental music from the cinema. In Africa, incidental music is an essential part of the production.
EUROPEAN CULTURE AND AFRICAN THEATER
Most African playwrights were molded in the European manner, as was the educated African public. It is therefore no surprise that modern African theater borrows from the best of European theater. The administration of African theaters is structured similarly to European theater administration. The Sorano Theater in Dakar is a state theater. The state administers it through a director general. The troupe has a staff that includes a manager, a reading committee, a director, a stage manager, and a set designer.
In European theaters, two worlds are placed in opposition: a room full of spectators on the one hand, and on the other, the stage with a set where the actors perform. This structure reinforces both text and action. It optimizes legibility and facilitates comprehension. The classic organization of African plays is very clear. There is exposition; tension, which rises through the third or fourth act; and a denouement of the crisis or catastrophe arising in the final acts. The frame, the closed universe, is never totally absent. Fate appears as an overwhelming force. African theater, however, has not appropriated all the trends of modern European theatrical literature—the innovations of Eugène Ionesco’s (1909–1994) theater of the absurd or Samuel Beckett’s (1906–1989) avant-garde theater, for example. As one of the most recognizable leaders of the African avant-garde movement, the Congolese Playwright Sony Labou Tansi has imposed a new tone with his group the Rocado Zulu Theatre (founded in Brazzaville in 1979). For example in La parenthèse de sang (1978), he shows the absurdity of killing and death.
There are two dominant trends in contemporary set design. One is a trend toward abstraction and symbolism, and the other is a trend toward realism. The two trends are directly opposed. African set design has often oscillated between naturalism and symbolism, even though the set must always adapt to African realities. African set design has always been influenced by realism. The set must seem real to sustain the fiction, and it must also help the actor identify with the character by having the actor interact with the atmosphere and the objects associated with the character. Historical plays require a detailed reconstruction of royal paraphernalia down to the smallest detail, names of historic figures, and authentic songs, dances, and rites. The objects used and costumes worn, often considered to be objects of mystical power, assist the actor in a more than material way. They aid the actor in spiritually, helping the actor be the character. There is a communion between set and play, actor and audience.
Africa adopted a European-style theater building, linked to the culture of the European bourgeoisie and characterized by the division between stage and audience, the hierarchicalization of spectators by ticket price, the separation of roles between playwright and actor, the administrative system, and so on. By its architecture and urban location, African theater reflects bourgeois culture. For example, the Daniel Sorano Theater in Dakar is one of the most luxurious rooms in all of Africa, though the proscenium does not lend itself to historical plays and must sometimes be adapted to involve the spectator.
There are several schools of thought concerning the craft of acting. The theory of direct identification relies on the actor’s identification with his or her role and sincere expression of emotion. The theory of distancing sees identification as a form of Page 39 | Top of Articlehallucination, not to be trusted, and seeks to produce art controlled by the intellect. Finally, there is a theory that relies on the actor’s gestures. The theater of gesture, in the tradition of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), is revered in Africa. The body of the actor becomes the source and the instrument of the language of gesture. In Africa, bodily expression, especially through dance, is seen as playing a crucial role in the art of theater.
The African actor must always identify with his or her role, to reach to the roots of ritual, but especially in historical tragedies where the actor plays a personage of mythic proportions. Douta Seck, an actor who played the part of Christophe to much critical acclaim, saw himself as a horse of genius, that is, a kind of priest of tradition, dealing with supernatural, sacred forces.
THE AFRICAN AESTHETIC AND THE THEATER
According to Prosper Compaore in Théaâtre africain (1990), the true practitioners of African theater know that African cultures do not recognize the artificial dichotomy between art and society. Thus, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) has no followers in Africa, even though some of his plays were performed or adapted in Africa. The Exception and the Rule and The Threepenny Opera were produced by Gaoussou Diawara of the National Institute of the Arts in Bamako, Mali in 1984 and 1985.
In African theater, audiences are not made up of passive observers. The audience participates in the metamorphosis of actor into character. Thus, one must include the spectator when considering African theater. The audience loses its individuality and becomes a mass persona in a continuing dialectic between set and house. The unceasing rhythm, chants, and dance bring the actors and the public together.
Actes du colloque de Mohammedia. Casablanca, Morocco: Wallada, 1990.
Actes du colloque sur le théâtre négro-africain. Paris: Présence africaine, 1971.
Carpentier, Peter. “Théâtre in East and West Africa.” Drama (Spring 1963): 30-32.
Cook, David. “Theatre Goes to the People.” Transition 25 (1966): 23-33.
Cornevin, Robert. Le théâtre noir en Afrique et á Madagascar. Paris: Le Livre africain, 1970.
Diop, Alioune Oumy. Le théâtra traditionnel au Sénégal. Dakar, Senegal: Nouvelles Editions africaines du Sénégal, 1990.
Fiangor, Rogo Koffi M. Le Théâtre africain francophone: analyse de l’écriture, de l’évolution et des apports interculturels. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002.
Hourantier, Marie-José. Du rituel au théâtre rituel. Paris; Editions L’Harmattan, 1984.
Jukpor, Bernard K’Anene. Etude sur la satire dans le theaterouest-africain francophone. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995.
Laude, Jean. The Arts of Black Africa, trans. Jean Decock. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Meissalloux, Claude. “A farce villageoise a la ville: Le Kotéba de Bamako.” Presence africaine 52 (1954): 27-50.
Ngandu, Pius Nkashama. Théâtres et scenes de spectacle: etudes sur les dramaturgies et les arts gestuels. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1993.
Rouget, Gilbert. La musique et la transe. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.
Schipperr, Mineke. Théâtre et société en Afrique. Dakar, Senegal: n.p., 1984.
Théâtre africain, Théâtres africains?: Actes du colloque sur le theâtre africain. École Normale Superieure, Bamako, 14-18 novembre 1988. Paris: Editions Silex, 1990.
REVISED BY ANDRÉ N. SIAMUNDELE
Northern African theater exists in a liminal space, between East and West. It is a fusion of Western theatrical traditions and the Arabic performance traditions. The hybrid nature of such a theater is evident in the way popular performance behavior such as al-halqa (a circle of storyteling) has been transposed from public squares and marketplaces such as Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fna, or Cairo’s Ataba, to modern theater buildings. Al-halqa has a managed environment that is strictly opposed to the Eurocentric closed theatrical institution. Its audience is called upon “to drift” spontaneously
into an arc surrounding the performance from all sides. The space required by thehlayqi (the maker of spectacle) is not a specific space, and the timing of the performance is any time. No fourth wall with hypnotic fields is erected between stage and auditorium, for such binary opposition does not exist in al-halqa. All the marketplace or Medina gates can be transformed into a stage; and the entire circle is a playing area, as open as its repertoire of narratives and dances.
In order to retrieve this performance tradition, theater in north Africa has become more and more improvisational and self-reflexive, even as such retrieval is still negotiated within the paradoxical parameters of appropriating and disappropriating the Western models. This effort started with the call for an original/autochthonous Egyptian/Arabic theater by Youssef Idriss (1927–1991). His writings on theater mainly published in al-katib journal in the mid-1960s form a body of theatrical manifestos for a new theatrical enterprise. His masterpiece titled Al-Farafir: The Flipflaps (1964) is still considered an exceptional reference text with a strong aura of authority all over north Africa. This fame, in turn, has led some to the “worship of ancestors,” and to a ceaseless quest for purity in the name of “authentic”
Arabic theater (a tendency that is part of political Pan-Arabism). The reality, however, is that these so-called indigenous performing traditions are cultural constructs that change time and again and are transformed according to the inner dynamics of folk traditions that are adaptive, fluid, and changing. Although these performances have been of great artistic delight as social dramas, they have not developed into a theatrical activity similar to western theater.
A hybrid theatrical tradition has, however, been established by the Moroccan Tayeb Saddiki, not only in Morocco but in all North Africa. His play titled Diwan sidi abderrahman al-majdub (The collection of Master Abderrahman al-majdub, 1967) is a play conceived in an open public place that is also hybrid in the way it holds up a mirror to the performance itself almost in the same way as the Comedia dell’arte. The play’s structure is circular rather than linear. It is situated in Jemaa el-Fna, an open site of orature that is also a space of hybridity. The first scenes of al-majdub production are designed to draw the audience’s attention to the making of al-halqa and its circular architecture. On-stage actors transcribe the circular form of al-halqa through a series of comic acrobatic games Page 41 | Top of Articleand mimetic body language. They serve as audiences for each other as the narrator (the story teller) gives space to his little halqa. The halqa of al-majdub represents the Moroccan popular poet as a Shakespearean fool, giving voice to wisdom in a corrupt social order. The effects of such an absurd situation are comic, yet redemptive leading to a collective catharsis.
Saddiki’s play Maqamat Badia Ezzamane El-Hamadani marks another turning point in Moroccan theater as it restores the performative qualities of maqamat’s narrativity back to the Moroccan and Arab stage. The play takes place in an open public square. At the outset, Saddiki’s narrator announces that it can be any of the famous Arab squares: It can be Al-Halfaouin of Tunis, or Harun Arrachid’s square in Baghdad, or the Green Ataba of Cairo, or even our magical Jemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh. Then the two prominent bsat per-sonae playfully call the attention of their audiences. Other actors play audiences too while preparing to adapt one the roles. Like most halqa’s of the bsat tradition, the performance lacks an organic thematic unity, for it is fragmented into little furjas (performances) or halqas that have only one common aspect: the master narrator. In the first furja, Issa Bnou Hicham tells the story of his friend, poet Abdoul Fath Al-Iskandari whom he surprisingly runs into in one of the halqas of Baghdad. Aboul Fath justifies his present situation as a performer and condemns the decadent spirit of his society. The second furja is composed of five maqamas (long narrative poems) wherein the two friends Issa Bnou Hicham and Aboul Fath Al Iskandari have more stories performed in the bsat’s halqa. All these stories are derived from the maqamas, yet theatricalized as fragmented little performances.
Saddiki’s fragmentation strategy is rooted in the dynamics of the halqa and its fluidity as far as the unity of subject is concerned. A recent bsat performance in Morocco is a play titled Lbsaytiya (The bsat people), performed in the National Festival of Theater in July 2006 by one of Marrakesh’s most prominent theater companies, Warchat Ibdae Drama. Lbsaytiya, however, reproduces the same spirit of fragmented furja. The whole performance is inspired by the magical spell of Jemaa el-Fna, as lbsaytiya agree to present their various bsat performances in the square of Jemaa el-Fna.
The Algerian Abdelkader Alloula (1929-1994), who performed some of his plays in Morocco, remains the most significant Maghrebi artist, besides Saddiki, to use al-halqa. Alloula directed all his creative energy in the last decade of his life to develop a theatrical methodology drawn from the Algerian halqa called al-quwal. Alloula’s theater is formed, thus, through the condensation of social Gestus (a Brechtean device that consists of drawing attention to the social status of characters), reflecting the points of views adopted by personas through physical expression, intonation and other kinesics features. Occasionally, the manifestations of Gestus are extremely complicated and contradictory as the verbal word alone does not help in highlighting these whole complications. That is why the Alloulian actor must give his role the necessary concentration so that he/she does not fail in conveying the picture with all its dimensions. Through the estrangement of theatrical semiosis and its displacement from conventional dramatic constructions, Alloula’s aim is not only to renew the viewer’s perception of what is presented on the halqa’s stage, but also to transcend the cognitive value in order to introduce a latent, yet a strong desire to reconstruct the present reality. Regarding this, Alloula’s theatrical techniques are much politicized. Alloula’s theater is rooted in situations marked by tension and extracted from critical historical moments. It highlights the contradictions existing between individual and collective preferences in postcolonial Algeria.
Alloula has experimented with al-halqa’s techniques in his last five works: Al-goual (1980), Al-Ajouad (1985), Al-litham (1989), At-tufahu (1992), and Arlukan khadimu as-sayyedayni (1993). Alloula’s Al-Ajouad, a play that was performed in the Moroccan Festival of Amateur Theater in 1987, exemplifies the artistic exchanges between the Maghreb countries. Every scene of Al-Ajouad is related to a major character presented, on the one hand through epic narration, and on the other hand, through dramatic acting. The aesthetic criss-crossing of narrative and dramatic lines becomes a characteristic feature of the Alloulian theatrical enterprise. Alloula relies on the actor narrator (a total actor) “with his stick and ornamented clothing” to relate events, sing the praises of the characters rooted in the popular conscience, and incarnate some scenes through playing roles. Most characters in Al-Ajouad hold modest jobs and suffer from marginalization and poverty. Yet they
are unique in their self-esteem and resolute desire to aspire for a better future.
In summary, the hybrid nature of North African theater emerged as a result of cultural negotiations between self and other, East and West, tradition and modernity. It is a postcolonial theater that is located at the crossroads and a continuum of intersections, encounters, and negotiations. The outcome is a complex palimpsest that highlights the importance of cultural exchange and hybridity rather than the essentialist quest for the pure and original.
Aziza, Mohammed. Al-Islam wa-lmasrah [Islam and theater]. Riad: Uyoun al-maqalat, 1987.
Berrchid, Abdelkrim. Al-masrah al-ihtifaliy [Festive theater]. Trablus: Adar al-Jamahiria, 1990.
Carlson, Marvin, ed. The Arab Oedipus. New York: Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications, 2005.
Hamdan, Mas’d. Poetics, Politics and Protest in Arab Theatre. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2006.
Kolk, Mieke, ed. The Performance of the Comic in Arabic Theater. Belgim: Documenta, 2005.
Mniai, Hassan. Abhat fi al-masrah al-magrebiy [Studies in Moroccan theater]. Meknes: Voix de Meknes, 1974.
Mniai, Hassan. Huna al-masrah al- ‘arabiy -huna ba’du t-tajaliyatihi [Here is Arabic theater, here are some of its features]. Meknes: Safir, 1990.
’Orsan, Ali Okla. Adawahir al-masrahiya inda al-arab [The Arabs’ theatrical phenomena]. Damascus: The Union of Arab Writers, 1985.
Saddiki, Tayeb. Maqamat Badiaa Ezzamane El-Hamadani [An entertaining bsat]. Kenitra: Boukili Publications, 1998.
Any description of precolonial performance is inevitably limited and largely dependent on the residue of such performance forms in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Early theater scholarship across the world has tended to focus almost exclusively on the institutionalized theater systems and the canon of literary drama, ignoring indigenous usage in most countries and not much interested in interactive and communal forms. The result is a historical record in which most of the indigenous cultural expression in southern Africa is overshadowed by imported European plays and conventions, which by the end of the nineteenth century had become the cultural norm. Performance practice was similarly affected, for the early missionaries and colonial rulers, with Christian values and morality, frowned on all indigenous pagan practices and performances. Inextricably related to this was that the European, and particularly British, wayoflife—purveyed through the missionary schools and churches, often using dramatized Bible sketches and religious sermons to do so—ironically mirrored and perhaps replaced the didactic role played by much of the spurned indigenous performance. It would only be by the mid-twentieth century that both theater scholars and practitioners in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa would gradually come to question this one-sided view, and begin to value and use indigenous forms for artistic, social, political, and economic development programs on the subcontinent.
PRECOLONIAL THEATER AND PERFORMANCE
Prior to European settlement in the seventeenth century, Africans practiced an array of theatrical performance forms, including dramatized songs and enacted ritual narratives. The oldest forms are found with the nomadic communities that roamed over the semidesert terrain of much of Botswana, Namibia, and the Cape Province for thousands of years. The Khoesan ceremonial and ritualistic dramas and dances, for example, have a long history dated by anthropologists at over six thousand years. The various Bantu peoples have similar performance forms, such as the Xhosa intsomi and the Zulu inganekwane, storytelling practices that are still performed today. The same is true of their extensive dance and music traditions.
From the early linguists and anthropologists to twentieth century musical anthropologists and the oral literature movement, there have always conscious efforts to document, preserve, and, if possible, revive these old traditions. Some forms have survived into the twenty-first century in adapted or hybridized styles. A number of artists, for example, such as storyteller Gcina Mhlope (b. 1959), consciously seek to revive such traditions in performance, teaching the form and even making it a Page 44 | Top of Articlemainstream art form. The role of the praise poet in particular was revitalized in the 1970–1990 period of cultural and armed resistance with the so-called struggle poets and singers. These performers received significant international recognition during the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president. On occasion, elements from indigenous forms have been adapted to suit immediate circumstances, frequently featuring in the hybrid contemporary plays, dance, and music that evolved from the late 1940s onward, to become a dominant feature of the theater after 1970.
COLONIAL THEATER IN SOUTH AFRICA
Besides a number of earlier contacts and smaller settlements, the first formal European colonization occurred in the Cape in 1652, when Dutch settlers came and introduced the first of a series of new cultural norms and traditions which would dominate the region for more than three centuries. Under the Dutch (1652 to 1799) there was little record of formal theater, but they brought powerful educational traditions from Holland, notably the so-called rederykerskamers, a system of social clubs aimed at cultural, moral, and educational upliftment that was maintained throughout much of the British colonial period (1799-1910), as well. Indirectly this became the basis for the dominant Afrikaans language theater, itself crucial for the evolution of a state-supported theatrical system that produced a vast canon of new theatrical works over the course of the twentieth century.
However, formal institutionalized theater only came with the British annexation of the region. As in all its colonies, the British administrators encouraged amateur theater in the garrisons and among the civilians and supported visits by professional companies, a tradition that provided the key models for local theater makers—both descendants of European immigrants and aspirant indigenous African thespians. The works produced were in the colonial languages (English, Dutch, Portuguese, and German), performed by local amateurs (often aided by men from the local garrisons), and augmented by visiting professional companies from the mother countries. Initially they did very little locally written work as most of the material was standard European texts, including a great deal of Shakespeare—both in the original language and translated. What was original was usually a short topical prologue or epilogue, or a musical skit of some sort. One of the best-known examples is the bilingual skit Kaatje Kekkelbek, or Life among the Hottentots, devised in Grahamstown by Andrew Geddes Bain (1797–1864) and Frederick Rex in about 1844.
The first substantial body of indigenous plays came in the second half of the nineteenth century as a direct result of the British presence, its expansionist tactics, and the resulting Anglo-Boer War (also known as the South African War). These plays were largely written in Dutch and later in Kitchen Dutch (or Afrikaans), not only by the descendents of the original white settlers, but also the Dutch-speaking slaves from Dutch east India and the mixed-race descendents of liaisons between the various peoples in the Cape. A slave called Majiet, for example, wrote protest plays for performance in the slave lodge, whereas Dutch and French writers such as Suasso de Lima, Boniface, and Melt Brink (1842–1925) produced short one-act farces and satires for performance by amateurs and schools. Later, more serious writers concerned with the identity of the Dutch/Afrikaans-speaking population began writing ponderous nationalistic works on the history and struggles of the Afrikaner peoples of the subcontinent. This tradition of playwrit-ing would blossom and bear significant fruits in the twentieth century, particularly under the apartheid regime, as such work was seen as essential for the evolution of an Afrikaner identity.
THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Although many Afrikaans plays had been written by the early twentieth century and more were being penned to be taken on tour of the rural areas from 1925 onward, only a few indigenously written English plays had been produced in the nineteenth century. However, some English playwrights did emerge in the early years of the twentieth century, the more successful being Stephen Black, who wrote popular farces such as Helena’s Hope (1906), satirizing the multiracial Cape Town society. A truly local tradition of writing in English would only be established in the 1960s, when the political situation provided increasing rationalization for serious theater focused on local sociopolitical issues. This cultural boycott deprived the country of access to the best of European and American theater and opened a market for local work.
Among the indigenous black population, theatrical performance was initially limited to the traditional performance forms—dance, song, and narrative. Gradually, under the tutelage of missionary schools and other European organizations, a hybrid blend of indigenous and European forms began to emerge, prompting local playwriting. For example, in Malawi there were sporadic attempts to establish such a playwriting tradition in the 1950s. Little of substance occurred until the University of Malawi sponsored the Chancellor College Travelling Theatre, in which Chichewa-language plays that were created through participatory research and performance began to supplant English-language plays. With this development, the potential of theater in adult education began to be realized; by the mid-1990s there was an active industry in theater-in-education.
In South Africa the Anglo-American influence on playwriting in black communities was evident early, in works such as the first published Xhosa drama (Guybon Sinxo’s Debeza’s Baboons, 1927) and in Herbert Dhlomo’s (1907-1956) The Girl Who Killed to Save: Nonqause the Liberator (1936), the first play by a black person published in English. Based on a Xhosa legend, it is in the style of English sentimental comedy and melodrama.
Whereas black middle-class theater before the 1960s reflects a taste for European dramatic literature, a popular form of theater was emerging among working-class black people. Esau Mtetwa founded the first black professional troupe, called Lucky Stars, in Natal in 1926 and toured the country, putting on popular sketches and plays in the vernacular that were based on Zulu legends and customs. This trend was hastened when the 1930s and 1940s combination of economic depression and drought forced white and black rural farmers to seek a livelihood in the rapidly expanding mining towns and cities. Because of the quick growth of economically depressed mixed race areas and a growing number of slum areas in the cities, many ethnic groupings were eroded, particularly among Africans. This led to an increasing synthesis of ethnic performance traditions with the worker theater as well as models of performance from the West, especially America. Eventually this gave rise to successful combinations of ethnic and jazz music with ethnic and international dance. For example, in 1959 the musical King Kong, about the rise and fall of a heavyweight boxer, was first produced in Johannesburg and brought African musicians and actors to the attention of the theater establishment there and in London and New York; it also provided an example for many aspiring actors and directors who saw in it the commercial and artistic possibilities of the musical play that blended indigenous and imported conventions.
THE RISE OF RESISTANCE THEATER AND THEATER FOR DEVELOPMENT
In Zimbabwe, the colonial imposition of European traditions was resisted for many years, but during the 1970s a burgeoning of antisettler resistance art provided perhaps the most important stimulus to black artists. In the years since political liberation, radio and television have provided platforms for the work of writers such as Stephen Chifunyise and Thompson Tsodzo (b. 1952). But perhaps the most important and original drama has been produced by the community-based theater movement that the Zimbabwe Foundation for Education with Production organized. This organization spawned work that is currently best represented by grassroots community organizations and the University of Zimbabwe’s undergraduate courses in drama.
The former British protectorates of Lesotho and Botswana have in many ways been tied to the political economy of South Africa, and it is not surprising that their cultural development has run parallel in many ways. Thematic concerns of playwrights have ranged from the obvious theme of oppression by colonial settlers to long-standing concerns with marriage and polygamy, superstition, and modernization, and have included contemporary issues emanating from the effects of apartheid. The first play written and published in Setswana (the major indigenous language of Botswana) was Motsasele by Leetile Raditladi (1910–1971) in 1937. But the most famous achievement in Botswana’s theatrical history (though not without its detractors) has been the theater-for-development project Laedza batanani (The Sun Has Risen, Come Out and Work, 1974), in which theater became the medium for a massive education project.
The first play written and published in Lesotho was Sek’ona sa joala (A Calabash of Beer) by Page 46 | Top of ArticleTwentyman Mofokeng in 1939; in the 1980–2000 period the best-known Basotho playwright was and remains Zakes Mda (b. 1948), whose plays have been translated into many languages. His award-winning play The Hill (1979) dealt with the effects of apartheid migrant labor on rural societies, and many of his subsequent works commented incisively on the uneasy coexistence of first and third-world societies on the subcontinent. His prophetic short play We Shall Sing for the Fatherland is an excellent example of this theme. In the 1970s the National University of Lesotho established a flourishing theater-for-development industry in which theater companies tour rural areas and assist in adult education, including the teaching of literacy. Zakes Mda became one of the key theorists of this movement and published his doctorate on the field.
Theater in Swaziland is best known through the work of a woman who is neither Swazi nor a playwright. Anthropologist Hilda Kuper’s (1911-1992) A Witch in My Heart (1970) presents a view of the role of women in Swazi society that has not been matched by the work of any Swazi writer. In Swaziland there exist many types of indigenous performance, which take the form of ceremonies and rituals, but there was not by the mid-1990s a developed theater tradition.
In Namibia, theater-for-development was important during the early 1970s, though the South African state-funded South West African Performing Arts Council imported South African work. It also produced and toured a great deal of classical and European fare in Afrikaans, English, and German. After independence this group became the Namibian National Theatre, which is still active.
The influence of the liberation war was strongly felt in Mozambique and the songs and poetry of the war years were widely used in the work of practitioners involved in making theater through participatory research and performance, with some early theater based on a vaudeville tradition. In 1971 a Portuguese director, Norberto Barroca, staged a play by Lindo Lhongo called The Newlyweds; or, Dramatic Consultation on the Bride Price that explored the transition from tribal customs to a contemporary urban and political context, using traditional forms of performance to examine themes of change and continuity. In general, however, theater did not develop in Mozambique to an extent comparable with that in some other countries of the region. This is possibly due to the extent of repressive colonial rule there and to the devastation caused by decades of war.
Although theater-for-development increasingly became the defining form of African theater, such projects did not have the same prominence in South Africa. However, interactive theater processes were sometimes used there for educative purposes. In the late 1970s for example, drama in education (creative dramatics) and theater in education were introduced as a means of awakening the conscience of the youth, and in the 1980s trade union workers’ theater became an important tool to foster union solidarity and to develop political awareness among black workers. Much of this latter work was linked to Brechtian theories and Boal’s notions of forum theater, all crucial elements in the later political theater. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a form of theater-for-development began to emerge under the new dispensation, to focus on social issues such as the AIDS pandemic, violent crime, rape, nation building, and voter education for the formerly disenfranchised masses—and much government funding and private sponsorship has gone into this.
STATE-FUNDED AND COMMERCIAL THEATER AT MID-CENTURY
White Afrikaans-language theater was privileged from the start, for it was not only a political tool serving the Afrikaans language and the Afrikaner nation, but the artists had a captive audience, as they were working in a dominant local language of European heritage for a population trained to value European cultural forms. This was strengthened by the Nationalist government’s direct subsidies of theater, initially through the bilingual (Afrikaans and English) state-funded National Theatre Organization (1947-1962), then through four bilingual provincial performing arts councils that evolved from it (1963-1993). These institutions produced a flood of theatrical work by local theater makers, including some outspoken critics of apartheid such as Andre P. Brink (b. 1935), Bartho Smit (1924-1986), and Adam Small. Plays such as Smit’s Christine (1971) and Small’s Kanna hy kô Huistoe (Kanna Comes Home) interrogated Page 47 | Top of Articlethe racist value systems in the country, and as a result ran foul of censorship laws.
In the 1970s a more overt form of resistance developed among Afrikaans-speaking youth, notably through a powerful Afrikaans cabaret movement initiated by Hennie Aucamp (b. 1934) and involving the growing Afrikaans alternative rock music movement. During the 1980s-1990s, its impetus was primarily anarchic and political, expressing abhorrence of and resistance against the regime, culminating in Piekniek by Dingaan (Picnic with Dingane) in 1989. As a form, cabaret still exists but has lost its edge as the apartheid specter faded, and has reverted to more nostalgic blend of musical presentation and stand-up theater.
A number of white English theater makers also found employment in this subsidized theater in the early years, among them the renowned lighting designer and theater manager Mannie Manim, who later co-founded the Market Theatre, and authors Guy Butler (1918–2001) and James Ambrose Brown. The new work focused exclusively on South African themes and sought to develop a distinctively South African idiom. However, few writers would achieve the sustained success of the key Afrikaans dramatists until the 1990s, and none the international stature of Athol Fugard (b. 1932).
Alongside the state-funded system, there has been a strong commercial theater industry in the country, including touring companies playing the Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These included vast conglomerates such as African Consolidated Theatres that sponsored theaters and productions throughout the Union, many smaller urban companies performing European and American fare (such as Leonard Rayne and Brian Brooke), and local touring companies of mainly Afrikaans-speaking actor-managers, notably the charismatic and bilingual Andrâ Huguenet (d. 1961). This continued to flourish with entrepreneurs such as Taubie Kushlick and Pieter Toerien (b. 1945), who produced primarily American and British hits that managedto bypass the international playwright’s boycott in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early post-apartheid years, the world opened up for the country to finally welcome international theatrical hits from Broadway, the West End, and the European capitals, and especially the large-scale musicals such as Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and, ironically, The Lion King. They have since become the bread and butter of the upscale commercial theaters run by Pieter Toerien and others.
By the 1950s, some of these entrepreneurs felt compelled to do more politically relevant work: antiracist plays from Europe and America, as well as indigenous anti-apartheid plays, such as Basil Warner’s Try for White (1958) and Lewis Sowden’s (1903-1974) Kimberley Train (1959). However, the tighter censorship and racial laws of the 1960s soon put a virtual end to the latter trend.
A special category has for long been the African musical, a viable product for export. Besides the influential but hybrid King Kong, it was the so-called tribal musicals that made the real money. Despite being criticized as inauthentic and exploiting indigenous culture for commercial gain, these productions created work and training opportunities for many performers excluded from the state system. Gibson Kente (1932-2004), one of these, developed his own theatrical style based on the King Kong format, and become the country’s most successful entrepreneur. He not only turned black citizens into theatergoers but also popularized his township musical to such an extent that it would be snapped up and adapted by the political movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Other prominent African musicals were Ipi-Tombi, a collaborative effort produced by Bertha Egnos (b. 1913), and Welcome Msomi’s Umabatha—a Zulu adaptation of Macbeth—which achieved critical acclaim in 1972 at the World Theatre Season in London. In the 1980s David Kramer (b. 1951) and Taliep Petersen’s (1950-2006) collaboration on the successful Coloured musical District Six–The Musical (1987) ran for years, and the spectacular musicals of Mbongeni Ngema (b. 1955) dominated the 1990s with Sarafina!, Magic at 4:00 A.M. and The Zulu. Another international success is Richard Loring’s (1917-2005) African Footprint (2004).
This entire midcentury growth period was substantially supported by state investment in the founding of a range of drama training institutions at the various universities. Initially however, with two exceptions, these were limited to white students and it was only in the 1980s that free access was available to all—which meant alternative training methods had to be found.
THEATER AND RESISTANCE
By the late 1950s, frustration with the politics and the arts system had set in among theater makers and artists across language and cultural divides. A search began for ways to coordinate and support black and multiracial work and to offer training for new performers and artists, and for alternative venues and forms of theater making. A key early example was Union Artists, which not only supported and mentored many artists but also were responsible for the influential King Kong project. By the 1970s a radical increase in national and international resistance to apartheid and the burgeoning Black Consciousness movement spearheaded radical changes in black resistance politics, stressing cultural liberation through an alternative black South African aesthetic. Militant political plays and performance events emerged from groups such as Peoples’ Experimental Theatre and the Theatre Council of Natal. Both groups were charged and brought to trial in 1974-1975 under the Terrorism Act for their involvement in the dissemination of subversive plays and literature. This in turn led to a radical shift toward political theater and what became known as black theater by writers such as Fatima Dike (b. 1948), Maishe Maponya (b. 1951), and Matsemela Manaka (b. 1956), as evidenced in Fatima Dike’s The First South African and Maponya’s The Hungry Earth (1981).
At the same time, a number of younger white and black activist-theater makers began to work together and important multicultural fringe groups emerged. Even within the state system of performing arts councils, Ken Leach, Pieter Fourie (b. 1940), Francois Swart and others sought to put on subversive work in experimental venues.
The most crucial factor, however, was the founding of a number of independent venues in the 1970s, the most influential being the Space Theatre in Cape Town (1972) and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg (1976). Focusing on developing theater projects that addressed the cultural contradictions of South African life, these venues found ways to circumvent the racial laws. Among the new works that were being produced were Athol Fugard’s steady stream of trenchant plays, beginning with Blood Knot and including his masterpieces (Boesman and Lena, Master Harold and the Boys, The Road to Mecca). His simple but compelling neo-naturalism became the model for a substantial number of young theater makers to add their voices to the clamor for change in the 1980s. Paul Slabolepszy, Anthony Akerman, Pieter-Dirk Uys (b. 1945), Deon Opperman, Reza de Wet, and others began to produce significant new work, led by Slabolepszy’s Saturday Night at the Palace and leading to De Wet’s award-winning Gothic dramas about the Afrikaner psyche. Another phenomenon was the rise of the satirist and stand-up comedian as political activist. Notable examples include the immensely effective Pieter-Dirk Uys and his alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout, with constantly updated shows such as Hell is for Whites Only and Adapt or Dye.
Another important factor was the distinct shift toward a new style of improvised political theater in which the previously neglected African traditions become dominant. Inspired by the early improvised work of Theatre Workshop ’71 (The Women of Crossroads), John Kani (b. 1943), Winston Ntshona (b. 1941), Athol Fugard (The Island, Sizwe Bansi is Dead), and the innovative improvisational work of Barney Simon, the plays tended to incorporate aspects of precolonial African genres into their more formal structures and blend these with the new urban cultural experiences of their audiences. The seminal Woza Albert (1981) and Ngema’s Asinamali (1985) by Barney Simon, Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa, and Junction Avenue Theatre’s groundbreaking Sophiatown (1986), best epitomize this. By the late 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, a large number of producers had evolved the hybrid play into a distinctive South African form. Among this later work are such haunting works as William Kentridge (b. 1955) and the Handspring Puppet Company’s unique adaptations of world classics (Woyzeck on the Highfeld, 1992 and Faustus in Africa, 1995), Mark Fleishman, the Magnet Theatre Company and Jazzart’s sensitive collaboration based on Khoesan performance traditions (Rain in a Dead Man’s Footsteps, 2003), David Kramer and Taliep Petersen’s anthropological journey into the slave and Khoesan history (Ghoema, 2005) and Brett Bailey and the Third World Bunfight company’s satirical look at colonial preconceptions about Africa (Ipi Zombie, 1996, iMumbo Jumbo, 1997, and Big Dada, 2003).
THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT
From a structural point of view, the most important facet of the post-1994 period has been the rise Page 49 | Top of Articleof the festival culture in southern Africa. The oldest and best known is the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown that was founded in 1974 to support the embattled English language and culture. For long the only national festival, it soon went beyond its parochial boundaries to encompass all cultures in the country and to provide an indication of emerging trends in the whole subcontinent. More than thirty years later it is a twelve-day international festival with fifty thousand attendees seeing more than five hundred theater events.
In the 1990s the fall of the apartheid regime opened the field for formerly excluded artists, and closed down the state-funded companies, thus putting pressure on artists to create their own work. At the same time, formerly protected cultures had to look after their own survival and development. This led to the founding of a series of arts festivals, beginning with the annual Oudtshoorn Festival dedicated to the now-embattled Afrikaans language and culture. Within a few years this began to rival the Grahamstown festival in size, and ever more festivals came, catering to a variety of cultures, languages, economic situations, and cultural tastes. Growing exponentially, the year 2004 saw more than 150 local festivals in the country, and at least forty significant arts and cultural festivals being aggressively advertised across the country. This includes a state-supported Mayibuye festival of African arts in Bloemfontein. The festivals have become the core of the industry and in many ways constitute the annual theatrical season.
It is apparent from the work showcased here that the old formulas of both European-style formulas and the aggressive agit-prop style of anti-apartheid theater were being adapted and even debunked, and that theater practitioners were seeking new forms, methods, and themes that are expressive of the new African psyche and context. Since 1994 therefore there has been an increasing focus on the struggle for identity and nationhood, the search for peace, and the exploration of notions of memory and forgiveness—issues most notably symbolized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and endemic to works such as Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997) by Jane Taylor, William Kentridge, and the Handspring Puppet Company, Die Jogger (The Jogger, 1997) by André P. Brink, and Die Toneelstuk (The Play 2001) by Breyten Breytenbach (b. 1939). Notable too are the many plays focusing on healing of the wounds of the past, from Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! (1989) and Valley Song (1995) to such festival works as Peace Shall Prevail; Now Is the Time for Reconciliation; People Like Us; and Unity, and John Kani’s thought-provoking Nothing but the Truth (2002).
From a history of precolonial performance followed by colonial subjugation, in which indigenous practices were suppressed or marginalized, to its resurgence in the form of politically motivated theater and drama, practitioners of drama and theater in southern Africa have finally cast off some of the more restrictive European models and the declamatory political style of the struggle period, and finally have begun to use a variety of hybridization processes to firmly establish a distinctive and nuanced regional cultural identity.
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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3049000651