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Review of The Cambridge Guide To African & Caribbean Theatre


By Osita Okagbue

The Cambridge Guide To African & Caribbean Theatreeds. Martin Banham, Errol Hill and George Woodyard.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. viii + 261 + illus., £35.

In African & Caribbean Theatre Banham, Hill and Woodyard have written and compiled a very useful and comprehensive guide to the drama, theatre and performances of Africa and the Caribbean.  The book is unique in the breadth of its coverage and the manner in which it presents a panoramic yet analytical view of drama, theatre and performance activities in Africa and the Caribbean Diaspora - included in the guide are very incisive essays on the traditional masquerade performances of West and Southern Africa, the Yoruba travelling theatre of Hubert Ogunde and others, the concert parties of the West African coast, theatre-for-development in Nigeria, Tanzania, Botswana and Burkina Faso, the Jamaican pantomime, the Cuban bufo and the genero chico of the Dominican Republic, the very colourful carnival of Trinidad and the numerous other drama/theatre festivals of the Caribbean.  But equally useful is the very inclusive and detailed mention of playwrights and summaries of plays from each country with any form of literary drama/theatre.

The guide is divided into two main sections, with general but insightful introductions into the theatrical activity of each region.  There then follows equally useful alphabetical entries for the forty countries featured in the guide.  Entries for countries are preceded by introductory essays which makes the guide unique since, for the first time, most of the countries - Francophone or Anglophone or Hispanic - are discussed, scant as their theatre history or repertoire might be.

Also included under each country is an entry for individual playwrights, directors, performers, and designers.  The different forms and styles, theatre groups, companies and movements are also mentioned and explained.  The result is the very broad view and sometimes incisive analysis of African and Caribbean theatre which emerges from the guide.

Unlike past books on African and Caribbean theatre, the guide avoids the usual separation of the countries in the two regions into whether they are Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanic or whatever other European language of colonisation in use in the literature and theatre of that country.  African & Caribbean Theatre presents a holistic view of theatre in sub-Saharan Africa and the whole of the Caribbean archipelago.  However, the writers point out, especially in respect of African theatre, that “its vitality, diversification and variety of form and content warns ... against attempting too homogeneous a view” of this theatre.  But the main strength of the book is that it situates these theatrical activities in their affective historical context of slavery and colonialism.  The slave and colonial heritage of Africa and the Caribbean is an underlying factor both in the structure, development, and to some extent the content of the drama, theatre and performances of Africa and the Caribbean.  The politics of which language to use for instance has been and still remains a significant feature of this theatre and it represents part of the slave and colonial legacy of the two regions.  But at the same time, the European influence arising from slave and colonial contact in combination with influences from the traditional theatre has given rise to a situation where playwrights and performers are “working increasingly on their own terms and asserting a powerful cultural and political identity”

All in all, this succeeds in presenting both an historical and contextual survey of African and Caribbean theatre, two regions linked to some extent by a common and comparable experience of slavery and/or colonialism, and, as the guide argues, it is an experience which has to be taken into account in the appreciation and analysis of this theatre for it is very much part of the subject matter.  This is a book which will be of immense value to scholars of theatre history, theory and practice as well as to anyone interested in literature and cultural studies, especially those of Africa and the Caribbean.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 60 (1995), pp. 57-58]

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