By Tim Prentki (University of Winchester)
African Theatre: Youth. ed. Michael Etherton. James Currey, Oxford & African Academic Press and Tsehai Publishers, Hollywood, CA, 2006. Pp. 272. ISBN 10: 0-85255-590-3 (pb). £14.95.
The latest volume in the excellent African Theatre series is an invaluable addition to the scholarship and research on current theatrical activity on that continent. It bears witness to the variety, energy and commitment that marks out the dramatic activity of young people, usually undertaken in the most adverse of circumstances. Many of the contributions are marked out by the determination of their authors to ensure that the voices of young people are heard with as little mediation as possible. Among the fifteen essays and playscript there is a good balance between female and male writers and an avoidance of over-dependence upon European academics speaking for Africa. Coverage is also quite even between the West, East, and South regions. The obvious gap is the absence of any contributions from North Africa: unsurprising given the cultural, religious and linguistic traditions of the area but further exacerbating the growing gulf between English-speaking scholars and their Arab, Islamic counterparts. Michael Etherton’s claim that the contributions “reflect the extraordinary range of drama, theatre and performance” by young people in Africa, therefore, needs to be qualified by this understandable omission.
Etherton’s introduction frames the volume effectively by drawing out the salient functions of young people’s theatre – advocacy and the building of new constituencies – located within models of Theatre/ Drama in Education and the links with prevailing political processes that influence both the mainstream and alternative activities. His own particular background as theatre academic and NGO development worker comes to the fore in his timely assertion that the ‘message’ driven role plays formerly so favoured by development agencies not only constitute ‘bad theatre’ but also ‘bad development’. This bold statement is regularly endorsed in many of the contributions that follow where the developmental significance of engaging in the theatrical process, almost regardless of outcomes, is revealed. Much of this significance appears to be linked to the creative spaces afforded by theatre projects where normally marginalised and vulnerable young people can tell their own stories in situations where they have to be listened to by those who do not usually hear them.
Inevitably with an eclectic collection of this nature there is considerable unevenness in the standard of analysis with several essays content to limit themselves to description or recapitulation of recent history; of some value in itself, serving as a partial antidote to what Etherton calls the ‘ephemeral’ nature of unrecorded performance. By contrast Esiaba Irobi takes the whole continent as the backdrop to his analysis of the function of the ‘Theatre of Necessity’ in confronting the realities presented by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He promotes this particular branch of Theatre for Development (TfD) as a key element in the survival of indigenous peoples and their cultures, though the notion that Western academics are in cahoots with the G8 to suppress knowledge of the form is, frankly, far-fetched. However, the notion of arts education drawing upon pre-colonial elements in local cultures to restore the identities of young people, initially destroyed by colonialism and subsequently ravaged by globalisation is one which surfaces in many of the essays; notably those of Luke Dixon and Robert Kavanagh.
There is a paradox here. Though many of Africa’s social and economic problems have been created or compounded by the neoliberal model of globalisation, most of the cases cited in this volume show how fruitful collaborations enabled by globalisation can be for young people who are offered a creative space in which to remake global relationships on their own terms. Models vary from intercontinental networks of young people in dialogue, to effectively resourced collaborations between local arts organisations and international NGOs. Such collaborations form the bedrock of sustainability enabling the one-off project to develop into a longer term programme. For these to be successful, however, material resources need to be combined with human determination and the commitment to the long haul of cultural intervention for social transformation. No African arts organisation illustrates this better than the Nigerian Popular Theatre Alliance which regularly harnesses the energies of its core team to the resources of a university and national and international NGOs to offer arts education provision that government, local or national, cannot or will not supply.
There is no doubt that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has provided a framework and impetus for many of the activities described and an overtly rights-based approach informs the work (eg. Etherton, Kavanagh, Paul Moclair and Phakama), combined with story-telling strategies that place the young person at the centre of the theatre process.
Despite the typical contexts of poverty and violence, these case studies leave the reader with a sense of the power of young people’s creativity and imagination: “To create a global movement of active young people in civil society we have to start with a few seeds of change. Community by community and country by country, young people could in time transform a continent”. (Etherton p.98) Let activist Fred Ouko, as chronicled by Phan Y Ly, have the last word: “In one of the largest slums in sub-Saharan Africa, Kibera, where the majority live below the poverty datum line, everyone would expect to meet frowning faces with lots of despair, this is not the case. There is a ray of hope coming from a group of energetic and innovative youth who are ready to go an extra mile in serving their community needs.”
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 90-92]