Trends in twenty-first century African theatre and performance.
Trends in twenty-first century African theatre and performance, edited by Kene Igweonu, Amsterdam and New York, Rodolphi, 2011, 474 pp., R2000 (hardback), ISBN 978-90-420-3386-3
What exactly constitutes 'African' theatre? This is a question that has been hotly debated by scholars and practitioners, both from the African continent and elsewhere in the world. It is a question which, in the light of the title of this book, is dealt with incisively by Temple Hauptfleisch in his Foreword. After discussing a number of viewpoints, he finally observes:
In this book the context is Africa and the topic is theatre and performance on the African continent at a particular phase in the history of the region and a particular phase in the evolution of the field of theatre and performance studies. In this case the problems outlined above [pertaining to the 'Africanness' of theatre, as well as research into 'African' theatre] are dealt with as a montage of ideas, presented through a mosaic of individual and specific articles based on first-hand experiences by authors primarily living in and working on the African continent. It is, at this point, perhaps the only way it can be done (p. 15).
As African' theatre and performance can indeed not be regarded as a fixed terrain, this book then brings together 18 eclectic chapters divided into three parts, not only specifically in terms of theatre and performance forms (dance, music, song), but also looking at issues of culture and identity, framed by the twenty-first century concerns. The publication is a product of the African Theatre and Performance working group of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR). In his introduction Kene Igweonu gives the reader an insight into the establishment of the working group (2007), its general aims, as well as its growth through meetings, discussions and conferences (also outside the annual IFTR conference) to promote the discourse and a better understanding of African' theatre and performances, especially in the light of the vast diversity of peoples, languages and cultures on the continent, and to foster critical thought.
Part One, which is entitled General Trends in Theatre and Performance Studies, contains six chapters dealing with a wide range of topics. Three of these are set specifically within the South African milieu: Beyond the Miracle: Trends in South African Theatre and Performance after 1994' (by Johann van Heerden); Transformation and the Drama Studies Curriculum in South Africa: A Survey of Selected Universities' (by Patrick Ebewo), in which he examines the extent of the African' content of the various curricula, and From Trance Dance to PaR: Theatre and Performance Studies in South Africa' (by Temple Hauptfleisch), addressing significant developmental stages marking the history of dramatic theories and theatre and performance studies in South Africa.
Samuel Ravengai's 'The Dilemma of the African Body as a Site of Performance in the Context of Western Training,' documents and discusses the work he has done with acting students from the University of Zimbabwe between 2003 and 2007. He worked with two groups: those from a primarily rural background and those from an urban background, who brought two different cultural bodies' to the five productions (alternating Western and African plays), and he observed their responses to the psycho-technique of training (based on Stanislavski's early work). He questions this actors' training techniques (which are still widely in use) and proposes alternative techniques based on method of physical action and improvisation, so that 'the training of actors should empower them rather than take away from what they already possess in their voices and bodies' (p. 52).
The production of Tall Horse has been the subject of a number of academic studies and I was also present at the presentation of three conference papers on different occasions dealing with aspects of the production. Petrus du Preez's The Tall Tale of Tall Horse: The Illusion (or Manifestation) of African Cultural and Traditional Aesthetics in Hybrid Performance' is a detailed study of the collaborative production between the Handspring Puppet Company and the Sogolon Theatre of Mali. Du Preez interrogates aspects of the performance as an intercultural experiment and hybrid theatre form, but poses the questions:
The combination of different traditions, forms, audiences and practices can take so many shapes and manifestations that the African element can disappear, or become so exotic that the audiences for whom these performances are created become uncertain. Are we creating these performances for Africans? Who is the audience? And do they understand what we are trying to do? (p. 140).
In the final analysis Du Preez observes that although Tall Horse was a collaboration that gave a voice to the spirit of Africa, too much allowance had to be made for a Western audience, with the Bamana puppetry tradition playing second fiddle to the young tradition of the Handspring Puppet Company (p. 164).
Kene Igweonu's chapter, Interculturalism Revisited: Identity Construction in African and African-Caribbean Performance,' takes the discussion beyond the African continent, dealing with one of the topics on the working group's agenda, namely the African Diaspora. Using dance as performance genre, he looks at the issue of interculturalism in terms of African and Caribbean (African-Caribbean 'own and other') performance. The chapter deals with aspects of colonisation and neoliberalism as well as problems with terminology (referring also to transculturalism') and Igweonu proposes the term interactional diffusion' to describe the cultural exchange between Africa and African-Caribbean performance traditions' (p. 71).
Part Two, Applied/Community Theatre and Performance, is introduced by Vicensia Shule's Theatre in/for Development in Tanzania: A Neoliberal Nightmare' in which she explores the relationship between theatre and neoliberal policies in Tanzania. She explains neoliberalism' in this context as an economic model whereby the market is left to regulate itself' (p. 191), but extends the meaning by using Shivji's assertion that neoliberalism represents the aggressive imperialism in the form of globalization' (p. 191). The chapter raises an issue which continues to be contentious in the realm of African' theatre, namely the so-called donor agenda. She explores Theatre for Development and donor dependence, or neoliberalism, and concludes that one might call such theatre either Theatre for Donors' Development (TfDD) or Theatre in Development (TiD)' (p. 211).
The next two chapters focus on Zimbabwe, more specifically highlighting theatrical expression in the face of oppressive state interference and censorship. A Voice in the Teeth of Power: Popular Theatre under the Censorship Radar in Zimbabwe (1998-2008)' by Praise Zeneng, looks at various forms of political or protest theatre as tools in the struggle for life and survival in what is termed the crisis decade' (1998-2008) in Zimbabwe.
Vibeke Glorstad's 'Citizens' Stories--or Theatre as Performing Citizenship in Zimbabwe,' examines the expressions of citizenship on the basis of specific plays in a country where the state holds the view that true citizens are only those who subscribe to the agendas of the ruling political party.
Taking her field-work in Tanzania as point of departure, Ola Johansson reflects on the role of community-based theatre in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 'Towards a Politically Efficacious Community-Based Theatre.' In the chapter, 'Dance Movement Analysis as Psycho-Diagnostic Tool in Modern Nigerian Medical Practice: An Introduction,' Gladys Ijeoma Akunna examines and advocates the application of dance in the twenty-first century, not merely as a form of entertainment, but as therapy, specifically as a support programme in the treatment of mental illnesses. Akunna refers back to the traditional role of African (including Nigerian) dance where:
... the values and healing powers of dances utilised in varied psychological and sociological contexts to advance a sense of wellbeing, especially along the lines of personality growth and transformation (p. 296).
Part Three is entitled Playwrights and Performance and the first two articles (by Osita Ezenwanebe and Adebisi Ademakinwa respectively) offer different perspectives on Ahmed Yerima's Hard Ground dealing with issues around the Niger Delta crisis in Nigeria.
Ngozi Udengwu gives a thorough account of the work (hitherto not given much scholarly attention) done by prolific Nigerian practitioner, Stella Oyedepo, in her chapter Theatre-on-Demand: Stella Oyedepo--Theatrical Megastar of the Twenty-First Century.'
Anasegoro is a term coined by Ghanaian playwright, Efua Sutherland, to describe the Ghanaian theatre genre based on traditional folk tales. Following in Sutherland's path, Mohamed Ben Abdallah coined the term abibigo, which translates as black theatre' or theatre of African people' as exemplified in two of his revised plays. Awo Mana Asiedu, in the chapter entitled Abibigoro: Mohamed Ben Abdallah's Search for an African Aesthetic in the Theatre,' discusses the terms as contributions of Africa to contemporary literary and dramatic theory, arguing that there is a need for indigenous theorising and valorisation of contemporary theatre practices in African terms and with reference to African culture' (p. 367).
Both Jeleel O. Ojuade and Chris Ugolo (Celebration as Aesthetic Device in Contemporary Nigerian Dance Productions: Hubert Ogunde's Destiny as Example') deal with aspects of dance in Nigeria. Ojuade, in African Dance in Diaspora: The Examples of Nigerian Yoruba bata and drnidun,' gives an extensive and informative account of music and the two dance forms (batci and dundun), enhancing the text with photographs, and also touches on the relationship between the art forms and identity. The expectation raised in the title about Diaspora,' however, is not fully realised; rather an account is given of Nigerian groups touring internationally and taking the dances to a global stage, and while mention is made of the Atunda Entertainments and Badejo Arts group based in the United Kingdom, there is no true discussion of these Yoruba dances in the context of the African Diaspora.
The section concludes with another chapter set in a South African context: 'Piecing Together a Girlhood': Using the 'Girlfriend Aesthetic' as a Practical Methodology in the Making and Performance of Katuntu (... andyou too)' by Alude Mahali. She details her enquiry into playing memory in black girlhood and her use of the 'girlfriend aesthetic' as tool (originally developed by Kevin Quashiein) in devising the site-specific work, Katuntu (and you too). The photographs which accompany the text help the reader to form a clearer understanding of the process.
While the book gives interesting perspectives on theatre and performance traditions on the African continent, it cannot be read as truly Pan African, as it is weighted towards Southern Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. It is therefore useful that Igweonu also provides an addendum in the form of a selected bibliography of African Theatre from 1990 to 2011 for further reading.
One observation: a more critical eye in the editing process would have eliminated a number of errors which the reader can find jarring: verses' for versus' (p. 70), 'theatre-on-demand is sees [seen] as ...' (p. 355) and ascribing Aidoo's Anowa to Efua Sutherland (p. 133), to name but some examples.
Tshwane University of Technology