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Review of African Theatre: Southern Africa


By Tim Prentki

African Theatre: Southern Africa. ed. David Kerr. James Currey, Oxford, 2004. 174pp. ISBN 0 85255 597 0 (pb). £12.95

This is the fourth volume in the excellent African Theatre series which provides an invaluable resource for academics working in the area of African Theatre in departments throughout the English-speaking world as well as, more importantly, a means of enabling African theatre academics to know what is happening with their colleagues elsewhere on that continent. It is notoriously difficult, largely unchanged in this globalised age, for firm pan-African connections to be made. In part this is an issue of chronic under-resourcing and in part the legacy of looking to the old colonial centre for knowledge and information. In keeping with the overall aims of the series, the guest editor, David Kerr, has sought contributions from countries which are severely under-represented in academic discourses; in this instance, Angola and Namibia. This was especially important for this particular volume where the editor has resisted the easy option of allowing Southern Africa to become synonymous with South Africa and thereby contributing to the existing cultural hegemony of the region.

My only serious regret with the issue is that the modesty of the editor has prevented him from sharing his extensive knowledge of the theatrical scene in Botswana and Malawi. If the role of editor has imposed an unwelcome restraint upon him, it is to be hoped that future volumes will make more space for his wisdom.

This should not, however, be taken as a criticism of those who have contributed. For example, Judy el Bushra successfully combines an overview of Angolan theatre with the kind of detail surrounding the Mario and Francesca project that enables the reader to feel the experience of the event as if present at it. Her conclusion poses significant questions about the need for theatre activists to make connections with development agencies in order to realise the potential that cultural action has for transformation which can apply to many other contexts where theatre processes are employed in the service of social justice. The issue of the relationship of poetic form to social development is also at the heart of Kennedy Chinyowa’s essay on the influence of Shona storytelling on community theatre in Zimbabwe. Again Chinyowa combines a consideration of the contemporary context with a specific example of the genre. A longer study might have looked even more closely at the ways in which the role of the sarungano can become transformed into that of the facilitator or, in Boal’s concept, ‘joker’ within the aesthetics of cultural intervention through theatre. Chinyowa is not shy of alluding to the current political turmoil in Zimbabwe even if he has to be understandably circumspect in the words he chooses.

The articles on Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe all demonstrate that theatre is playing a key role in the struggle to shape the social formations in the postcolonial era, even if that role is in danger of being unduly circumscribed if theatre artists and development workers do not combine effectively to address the contradictions of operating within the constraints of an economy in thrall to the neo-liberal model of globalisation. In contrast the article and the two interviews which refer to the South African context are each marked by the common attempt to find a new function for theatre in the post-apartheid era. Yvette Hutchison’s comparative case study of the Robben Island and District Six Museums highlights the struggle between official and popular memory and some of the ways in which theatrical devices are deployed in this struggle. She alludes somewhat tantalisingly to the connections of these two versions of memory and desire to the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but more space would be needed to develop the argument about the concept of reconciliation as a tool of the government in manipulating awkward truths left behind after the collapse of minority rule. The two interviews with Fugard and Nkonyeni, though very different in style, are both marked by the skills of the interviewers in drawing thoughtful insights from the subjects.

The publication of a playscript with every issue is a vital function in disseminating important examples of the theatrical art in Africa. The decision to abandon the Noticeboard section reflects the great difficulties of acquiring information that will be relevant at the time of publication and perhaps the efforts of James Gibbs could bear more fruit if a web-site was created in association with the series. The book reviews are considered and helpful and, in several cases, draw attention to publications which might otherwise escape notice. This volume reflects a gradual tightening of the focus for each issue in the series which will help to dispel stereotypes and generalisations about African theatre and culture.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 67 (2005), pp. 88-89]

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