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Culture and identity in African and Caribbean theatre.

Culture and identity in African and Caribbean theatre, by Osita Okagbue, London, Adonis & Abbey, 2009, 269 pp., (hardback), 50.00 [pounds sterling], ISBN 978-1-90-506860-9.

Culture and Identity in African and Caribbean Theatre offers readers a panoramic account of some of the underlying issues, beliefs and attitudes that underpinned the form of slavery and colonialism experienced by black Africans and people of African descent in the Caribbean. Okagbue brings what could be described, more or less, as an encyclopaedic knowledge of African and African-Caribbean theatre and history to bear on the book. He cleverly weaves his analysis of works by African and African-Caribbean playwrights into discussions of the history and issues surrounding slavery and colonialism.

In the book Okagbue argues that the dual issue of colonialism and experience of transatlantic slavery shared by black peoples of African descent is largely responsible for what he describes as the 'tragic position' of African culture and identity today. (1) Disappointingly, he appears to adopt an accusatory, 'finger-pointing,' tone in the book; by presenting Africa, Africans and African-Caribbeans as eternal victims of European (mis)adventures on the African continent--an argument which I believe is no longer tenable in twenty-first century discourses on race, identity, culture and politics. Despite the obvious challenges imposed by the dual experience of slavery and colonialism, black Africans and people of African descent continue to find ways to rise above their negative stereotypes and to recognise and acknowledge their shared cultural and racial identity, a point that is equally reflected in the plays discussed in the book. For instance, Okagbue argues, drawing on examples from plays by African and African-Caribbean writers, that the resultant cultural denigration, dehumanisation and loss of freedom, which left imprints on the collective psyches of the colonised African and enslaved people of African descent in the Caribbean is constantly being recuperated in the literature and theatre it spawned. Consequently, he makes the case that works by African and African-Caribbean playwrights negotiate and engage with the issues of culture and identity in ways that not only challenge assumptions of European hegemony but, more importantly, help to recover the dignity of African and African-Caribbean persons.

A clear strength of this book lies in Okagbue's choice of a wide variety of plays by African and African-Caribbean writers as case studies for his analysis of issues of culture and identity. Using these case studies, the book examines some of the meeting points as well as differences in approaches adopted by African-Caribbean playwrights and their counterparts from sub-Saharan Africa in dealing with the complex issues surrounding notions of identity and culture. The book is divided into nine chapters. The introductory chapter examines issues of 'Slavery, Colonialism and African and Caribbean Experience' and serves as an entree to the rest of the book. In it Okagbue sets the tone for the unfolding discourse in the book and takes his readers through a crash course on some of the ideologies, assumptions and attitudes that underpinned transatlantic slavery and European colonialism in Africa. The second and third chapters look at some of the negative effects of transatlantic slavery and European colonialism on the individual and collective psyche of the African and African-Caribbean peoples. It then extends this discourse to examine ways in which African and African-Caribbean playwrights produce works that are 'concerned with helping the formerly enslaved or colonised black peoples to re-emerge from racial despair to reclaim and re-assert their cultures, histories and identities' (25-26). In the process Okagbue highlights a number of key texts which serve the purpose of affirming and strengthening the cultural identity of African and African-Caribbean peoples by looking back over history as part of their 'counter-discursive engagement' (57) with the dual legacies of colonialism and slavery.

Okagbue goes on to explore issues of 'Race, Class and Social Inequality in African and African-Caribbean Plays' in Chapter 4, and argues that African and African-Caribbean plays differ in the way they present inherent inequalities in their respective societies. This difference, according to Okagbue, lies primarily in the way black African playwrights represent inequality as a product of ambivalence in the social relationship between the 'rich and poor, or between the aristocrats and the commoners' (87). On the other hand, their African-Caribbean counterparts view inequality mainly in terms of race and as such produce characters who are often presented as being 'engaged in a struggle to see to what extent they are able to rise above the limiting conditions imposed on them by their racial origins' (89). This idea of 'rising above' is carried over to the next chapter, where Okagbue touches on the theme of nostalgia to discuss what he entitles 'A Home of their Own: Marginalisation and the Longing for Utopia.' A most interesting aspect of this chapter is the thoroughness of the discussion about the plays examined in it. Describing utopia as a positive notion' involving the move by individuals and groups towards an ideal state' (134), Okagbue leaves behind what I described as the accusatory tone of the book to engage in a sanguine analysis that obviously derives from this idea of rising above' and the longing for utopia' expressed in the plays under investigation.

In the next three chapters Okagbue returns to examine some of the similarities between African and African-Caribbean plays. These chapters look at how African and African-Caribbean playwrights produce works that reveal a shared view of the world, particularly in the way they represent their cultural universe and identity through ritual, storytelling, dance and music. Okagbue also considers the prominent role of language in shaping the cultural identity of African and African-Caribbean peoples, describing the unmistakable similarity between the dialect' 'and patois' 'of African-Caribbean plays and the pidgins in Africa,' which he considers to be 'effective as markers of African and African-Caribbean identities' (207). The concluding chapter starts with a personal account of Okagbue's introduction to African-Caribbean theatre and goes on to consider how the themes of African and African-Caribbean plays reflect the underling unity of the two worlds. Okagbue uses this concluding chapter to reiterate some of his earlier arguments, particularly the view that African and African-Caribbean playwrights reflect the same cosmological view of the universe in their works, thus giving rise to a thematic structure that has the flexibility to cope with the expansive and constantly changing African universe of harmony and opposition' (255).

Culture and Identity in African and Caribbean Theatre constitutes a competent introduction to a complex subject in a relatively under-researched field. Okagbue's insights into the historical context of African-Caribbean theatre are adequately acknowledged and shed much light on some of the ways in which connections can be made to African theatre and cultural identity. The book is repetitive in parts, but succeeds in making a strong case that Africa survives in the souls of her dispersed children' (144). This is particularly evident in Okagbue's analysis of the plays discussed in the book as a way of illustrating his central claim that a shared cosmology unites all black people in Africa and in the African diasporas' (143).

Kene Igweonu

Canterbury Christ Church University

[c] 2011, Kene Igweonu
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Author:Igweonu, Kene
Publication:South African Theatre Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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