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Review of Theater südlich der Sahara/Theatre in Sub-Saharan Africa


By Christine Matzke

Theater südlich der Sahara/Theatre in Sub-Saharan Africa (Recherchen 77). Rolf C. Hemke (ed.). Theater der Zeit, Berlin, 2010. Pp. 256. ISBN. 978-3-940737-92-2 (pb). €18.

A spin-off of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa has been an increasing international interest in all things ‘African’, including theatre culture. The renowned German publishing house Theater der Zeit has used this opportunity to bring out a bilingual (German/English) collection of short essays on contemporary theatre south of the Sahara. Edited by Rolf C. Hemke, Dramaturge for Public Relations and Marketing at Theater an der Ruhr with long-standing links to performers and venues on the African continent, the book promises detailed insights into present-day theatre practice, ‘a unique and substantial overview of today’s theatre cultures in Africa’ (blurb). All in all, 16 countries are being covered in (German) alphabetical order, from Ethiopia to Tanzania. While the collection is certainly ‘unique’ in trying to make selected aspects of contemporary theatre in Africa available to a German-language public, the claim to ‘substantiality’ leaves much to be desired.

Besides his personal contacts, Hemke has drawn extensively on the networks of the Goethe Institute and the International Theatre Institute (ITI) for his contributors, above all the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg and the ITI Germany. ITI was one of the international theatre organisations under whose auspices Routledge published the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre in the 1990s, with the volume on Africa appearing in 1997. Theater südlich der Sahara also offers country-by-country chapters, but is different in character; it is journalistic, rather than encyclopaedic, with most authors being cultural commentators or theatre workers based in Africa.

The book is divided into two sections, the first offering 24 ‘Portraits and Reportages’, the second three contributions on ‘Transfer of Contexts? African Theatre Outside of Africa’. To me this is the more interesting part as it raises pertinent questions and observations in relation to ‘African’ theatre and African-European collaborations. Readers may hence forgive me for reviewing this book back to front. Habib Dembélé aka ‘Guimba’, Malian actor, writer, and former presidential candidate who has collaborated with Peter Brook, speaks of ‘Zones of Turbulences’ when making ‘Remarks about So-Called “African” Theatre’: the danger of being caught in ‘Africanness’ (whatever its underlying ideas, stereotypes and connotations) rather than being seen as a theatre artist; the impact of colonial legacies and the quandaries of making theatre under current African regimes. South African author and director Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom (State Theatre, Pretoria) conveys ‘misunderstandings and reactions’ to his production of Interracial at the 2007 Grahamstown National Arts Festival, South Africa, and at the 2008 Vienna Festival, Austria. His and fellow South African Brett Bailey’s productions are also taken up by Stefanie Carp, eminent German dramaturge currently in charge of the Vienna Festival theatre programme, who discusses ‘The Pitfall of Exoticism and Other Misunderstandings’ in intercontinental transfer of theatre productions; from Africa to Europe and vice versa. Often it is local ‘conventions of taste’ (213) that lead to critical dismissal or appreciation of particular works. Carp also mentions the influence of ‘French cultural institutions in Africa’s francophone countries’ (213) which could be easily extended to organisations such as the Goethe Institute or The British Council, many of whose branches are listed in the directory at the back of the book. It is my contention that this collection would have gained in depth if the connection between such bodies and theatre work in Africa had been discussed more critically, given how strongly this link emerges from many of the contributions, as would have a discussion on the importance of festivals, both on the African continent and as performance venues in Europe. (There is no mention of possible links to Asia, Australia or the Americas).

Part One, then, focuses on sketches of individual theatre directors (often doubling as managers, dramaturges and writers), with the occasional short portrait of theatre capitals such as Kinshasa or Addis Ababa. This section is best described as a ‘small theatre travel guide’ (18) aimed at ‘arous[ing] curiosity’ (17), to quote from Hemke’s Editorial. The texts offer interesting titbits and descriptions of diverse artists, theatre practices and work environments, such as Patrick-Jude Oteh on the hazards of making theatre in troubled Jos, Nigeria; Grit Köppen and Aron Yeshitila on the under-researched contemporary theatre scene in the Ethiopian capital; or Joachim Fiebach on Leeds graduate Frowin Nyoni in Tanzania. Often, however, these chapters are frustratingly cursory and leave you wanting for more. No sources or further readings are provided, even if the directory allows readers to contact many of the venues, festivals and companies mentioned. I am not saying that such texts don’t have their uses. For one, they are very much up-to-date –  included, for example, is the Cape Town Fugard Theatre opened in February 2010 – which is quite a publishing feat; secondly, they can serve as an appetiser for those willing to search elsewhere for more analysis and information. These articles would have made a very good series in a German- or English-language broadsheet. As a ‘substantial overview’ in book form, however, they are less convincing.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 131-132]

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