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Review of A History of Theatre in Africa


By Frances Harding

A History of Theatre in Africa, ed Martin Banham. Cambridge University Press. 2004. 478pp. ISBN 0 521 80813 8 (hb), £80.00

This volume is an excellent addition to the increasing number of reliable publications on theatre and the performance arts in Africa. For the specialist, whether student, researcher or lecturer, the articulation of some of the more difficult descriptive terminologies applied to some of the most difficult categorisations is rich, tempting and provocative. For the reader who is less familiar, or even mis-informed about African theatre, the substantial range of material presented should enable a process of (re)-informing themselves to begin.

Arranged in ten sections, including an introduction, some have only one article, others up to four. The arrangement is essentially geographic, (north, west, east and southern/south) with an additional (ex-colonial) linguistic distinction between some of the geographic clusters, so that francophone, anglophone and lusophone Africa are represented in separate sections as well as an unexpected and very welcome solo article (Section 9) on Mauritius and Réunion. It is also satisfying to see three entries from North Africa covering Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan.

If the editor has suggested a chronological approach - inevitable perhaps for a history - the period of the colonisation of Africa by various European countries is the pivot, thus providing ‘pre-colonial’ and ‘post-colonial’ references, but many writers are at pains to resist what David Kerr calls ‘neat historical phases’ (283). In this respect, in his article on theatre on francophone Africa, John Conteh-Morgan's rejection of an ‘evolutionary perspective’ (87) includes his embrace of a ‘plurality of theatre forms (which) will be discussed on their own terms...and not constituting points of origin or arrival’ (87). This stance is adopted by most contributers but nevertheless a historical focus is easily read as an ubiquitous 'evolutionary' agenda. In Mohammed Sheriff's article on Sierra Leone, he notes how audiences can find ritual performances both ‘awesome and amusing’ (173) and how in some instances ritual performances have been ‘freed from their immediate task of function and...presented to a wider audience for entertainment’(173) without relinquishing their continued use in original contexts. He thus denies readers any inclination towards a ‘disappearing world’ nostalgia.

Some essays are outstanding in their analytical approach and descriptive content. Ahmed Zaki writing on Egypt, referring to many forms of ‘public ceremonies’ (25), notes the introduction of ‘Turkish glove puppets’(25) and the presence of only one ‘acting group’ in the early 19th century who were ‘players of low farce’, men and boys impersonating women ‘who got their laughs from vulgar gestures and sexually indecent actions’.

Kamal Salhi's splendid article on Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria raises issues of participation, of payment, of directing, of artistic independence and, like many others, rightly condemns any false aversion to ‘new forms’(41) for, as he says, ‘the test is whether or not they make sense of reality for participants and observors’(41).

Among the articles on theatre in anglophone West Africa, the co-written article on ‘Nigeria’ should be renamed ‘Yoruba’ as there is scant reference to the rich plethora of non-Yoruba performance in a country with nearly five hundred ethno-linguistic groups - many with wonderful performance arts. All references in the ‘Notes’ are to Yoruba material and four fifths of the entries in the ‘Bibliography’ are for Yoruba. Why does Oga Steve Abah become ‘Steve Abbah’ within the same page (155)?

As one might expect of James Gibbs, his article on Ghana opens with a series of stimulating observations about the impact of contemporary non-theatrical influences on annual festivals, events for which Ghana is rightly famous and which as Gibbs so eloquently puts it,’bear the freight of the past’ (159). However, he gives a timely warning to the reader to be aware of a ‘bias’ in ‘scholarly analysis’ (160) towards ‘the most accessible ethnic groups’ (in the south). He describes the contribution to different fields of theatre practice by such key figures as Efua Sutherland, John Collins and Sandy Arkhurst.

Amandina Lihamba gives a stimulating account of how in the early 20th century in Tanzania, migrant people from many different ethnic groups shared performances as they sought out paid labour in the growing urban centres and how ‘there developed performances of a multi-ethnic creations that sprang up as part of the political and economic changes...’(235)

Another outstanding article is Eckhard Breitinger's on Uganda and, written along with Stephen Chifunyise, David Kerr's excellent article is surely set to become the definitive synoptic account of theatre in southern Africa. It is analytical, descriptive and historical without ever compromising. He gives, for example, a fascinating account of the politicisation of the Swazi Incwala ceremony during the 1980s as, within Swaziland, at the succession of the new king, Swati, his councillors ‘sought cultural ways to stem the rising tide of republicanism’ (284) and how ‘Swazi cultural experts’ (285) advised the Ngoni people in nearby Zambia how to revive the same ceremony, ‘seventy years after it had last been performed’ (285).

Overall, contributors emphasise the continuing creative nature of theatre in their part of the African continent. This should dispel any lingering desire to use such words as 'traditional' and modern' as either useful or to suggest an inherent dichotomy.

This rich and stimulating book is recommended to readers who want to acquire a greater knowledge of the practice of theatre of all kinds in Africa or to address the issues surrounding theatre scholarship in and from the continent. In particular the growing body of those teaching about the performance arts of Africa in UK, USA and Africa itself, will find it an invaluable resource for their own reference and for identifying, clarifying and then exploring, core issues.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 95-97]

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