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Review of West African Popular Theatre


By Jane Plastow

West African Popular Theatre. By Karin Barber, John Collins and Alain Ricard. Oxford: James Currey, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997, pp. 286.

When I had read this book I could not help thinking that probably a relatively small number of people are likely to buy books on West African Popular Theatre. In this instance this is a shame not just because the subject is fascinating, or because the authors are unlikely to get rich, but because this is an unusual offering; an academic book which is delightful to read.

The book consists of three descriptions of the related but separate forms of Ghanaian concert party, Togolese concert party and the Yoruba travelling theatre of Nigeria. In each case the background to the evolution of these modern performance forms is given before the writers focus in on the work of one particular company in each country, and finally on one particular play from those company's repertoires. What makes the book so unique, lively and informed is that in each case the writers have actually worked with the companies they describe over relatively long periods of time, so that they are not writing only as academics but also as a musician, John Collins for the Ghanaian 'Jaguar Jokers'; a film maker and co-director, Alain Ricard for Togo's 'Happy Star'; and as performer, Karin Barber for the Nigerian 'Lere Paimo's Theatre Company'. The insights these experiences give about how plays and music are made as well as about the mundane details of how tough life on the road can be - sleeping on hall floors and managing with three or four hours sleep - make this a unique record, and one which is all the more valuable because of the ample use of excerpts from interviews with company members.

It was surely fortuitous that these three workers all worked independently on the popular theatre forms involved, and were subsequently able to find each other and come together to tell us so much about the inter-relationship of the forms, the economic and social factors which led each to develop in particular ways, and to give us their equally valuable but different experiences of working with the companies concerned.

We are particularly fortunate in this book to be given three full, annotated playscripts. The ephemeral nature of popular theatre means that it is usually hard to know in any detail just what was in a play or how it came across in performance. Of course the sense of noisy crowd, the extended musical warm-up and the playing style can only be described, but the descriptions are very good. I was interested to note just how moralistic and conservative these plays all were, despite their various nods in the direction of modernity and their love of finding new novelties to attract crowds. The similarities with Victorian melodrama, the last great British popular theatre form, kept nagging insistently in my mind.

The one thing I would have liked to know at the end of this book was a little more about why the writers thought the theatre forms they were describing from the nineteen-seventies and eighties had gone into such a noticeable decline in that latter decade and what, if anything, was now replacing popular theatre. However, this is a mere detail. Anyone with the slightest interest in West African cultures, performance or theatre should immediately rush out and buy this book.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 62 (1997), pp. 64-65.]

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