By Martin Banham (University of Leeds)
African Theatre And Politics: The Evolution Of Theatre In Ethiopia, Tanzania And Zimbabwe, A Comparative Study. By Jane Plastow. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996, pp.286, HfLl50/$93.50 hb, Hfl.45/$28 pb.
This extremely authoritative study offers the first detailed discussion of the history and present practice of theatre in three major nations of eastern and southern Africa, and is given especial insight through the author’s personal working involvement in each of the countries studied. The ‘comparative’ aspect of the study is properly qualified by an early statement that no assumption will be made about ‘African arts as an homogenous whole’, but what the study does explore and make apparent is the great variety of form and experience throughout the continent. There are, of course, basic areas both of practice and of uses that many national and ethnic cultures have in common, ranging from dance and storytelling to theatre for development and community theatre, but Plastow’s work points to a wide range of forms, functions and ambitions for theatre in three nations that themselves represent different aspects of the continent’s political and cultural past and present.
The book is constructed in five sections, in four of which the three countries are examined side by side. The first chapter discusses ‘The Pre-Colonial Theatre’ (which sloppy proofreading in the Table of Contents labels ‘Colonial Theatre’, a carelessness compounded by introducing the chapter prematurely as the header over the pages of the Introduction) and offers an important context in terms of various performance forms – dance-drama, orature etc. – against which later discussion will be placed. Already the material of the book is seen to be informed by both the personal experience of the author and academic investigations undertaken by indigenous writers, often in the form of undergraduate dissertations etc.. It is important to acknowledge the value and range of this work for anyone interested in African theatre: these modest academic informants have done much to record and cherish specific performances and Plastow properly respects and relishes this source of information. Chapters 2 to 5 then lead us through the development of the theatre from Amhara imperialism (in Chapter 2, ‘Conformity, Christianity and Suppression: the Early Colonial Theatre) to the contemporary plays of Zimbabwe (in Chapter 5, ‘Disillusion and Debate: the Contemporary Theatres’). Chapters 3 (‘Theatre in Liberation Struggles’) and 4 (‘A Time of Hope: The Theatre of Independence’) offer fascinating insights into the role of theatre both as a tool of struggle and as a symbol of cultural and political independence. The range of experience covered in these chapters is extraordinary, moving from the paternalistic nature of ‘progressive’ white settler theatre in Southern Rhodesia (see, for especial embarrassment, Jack Watson’s Sikele Afrikd) to the role of performance in the pungwe sessions of the Zimbabwean guerrillas, or fromexpressions of cultural confidence in the ‘impetus of Arusha’ to Zimbabwean theatre alleging the loss of credibility of Mugabe’s government in the 1990s.
The book contains an excellent bibliography and helpful illustrations. It is a major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the theatre not only of the three countries specifically studied, but of the continent.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 61 (1996), pp. 61-62]