Present day African theatre forms have filtered through from the past

Hayes Mabweazara (Address: 7524-37 Tshabalala, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe)

The illusion that African theatre as it exists today, in its various forms, has its roots in the West is difficult to uphold since a great deal of evidence confirms that present day African theatrical forms have filtered through from the past. It is however an indisputable fact that the collision of cultures that resulted from the influx of imperial forces did strike a blow to the face of African theatre.

The collision resulted in the hybridization of African theatre forms a phenomenon that has overtly manifested itself in the post-colonial era in which varying global forces have prescribed what the performing artist can produce on stage. This fact perhaps confirms the dynamic nature of culture which radiates itself in the continual decay and renewal of a people's social values and identity. The process of cultural metamorphosis cannot however completely obliterate a people's cultural forms of expression. The subliminal processes of cultural change unfortunately blinded some imperial forces to the fact that the Africa they perceived as esoteric was not a cultural vacuum. Euro-centric scholars like Ruth Finnegan who assert that theatre came to Africa with Europeans have been castigated for making hasty generalisations typifying the work of arm chair researchers driven by a superiority complex that blinds them to the existence of the Other.

In general, theatre can be defined as "an activity in which an actor takes a role other than himself and through mime, speech, song and dance movements conveys or communicates a message to an 'audience,'" this is an aspect that has always been deeply ingrained in African life styles. Indigenous African theatre was deeply rooted in day-to -ay activities. It was part and parcel of the whole conception of existence, and it was also a communal activity. Both these qualities contrast sharply with Western forms of theatre, which compartmentalize cultural forms of expression; hence the importance in Western theatre of the proscenium arch, exclusive set, lighting, and the individual ownership of theatrical productions, among many other aspects considered to be of importance. No wonder then the uninformed belief that Africa did not have a theatrical tradition up until the onset of the "civilisation" that came with the imperial forces.

Theatre in Africa existed within its functional context, and it sought to perpetuate the virtues of society and purge all evil. The tradition of story telling which is so ubiquitous amongst Africans, always had a didactic intention. Of interest is the fact that African oral narratives fit quite unquestionably in the western concept of theatre informed by the Aristotelian views. The story teller who in the original context embodied the virtuous values of society, assumed the different roles in their stories, and they often sang and invited their audience to participate, but their ultimate goal was to instill moral values. It is appalling to note that the West hardly perceived any theatrical elements in the story-telling tradition of Africa.

Traditional ceremonies, ritual performances, and children's games had numerous elements of theatre although they were never perceived as isolated activities. Most of these traditional activities have unfortunately succumbed to Western imperial agenda and have in some instances been effaced. Some traditions have, however, defied the destructive effects of modernity and still stand firm as testimonies of the existence of theatre in Africa since time immemorial.

The Tonga, who occupy the Northern parts of Zimbabwe and some parts of Southern Zambia, are a people who have jealously guarded some of their key traditions, which have elements of theatre. One of their important traditional ceremonies, which lasts for a period of about two months beginning in the month of December, is called Chiware. It is a "get together" ceremony for youths who would have attained the age of marrying. During this ceremony boys are expected to choose their wives; and after the ceremony they inform their parents about the marriage arrangements to be made. The ceremony, which is conducted under the guidance of elders, is characterised by traditional songs and dances intended to teach the youths the responsibilities that they are about to face. Mimetic dances, role-play, and imitation characterise the ceremony. Unlike in the western forms of theatre, the audience in the Chiware ceremony is part of the entire activity -- it does not watch from without but participates actively in the entire ceremony.

´┐ŻAlthough there are some differences between indigenous African theatre and Western theatre, as intimated above, the salient features of African traditional ceremonies are in keeping with the Western conception of theatre. It is not surprising therefore that post-colonial African theatre manifests itself as a blend of Western and indigenous theatre forms. For this reason most post-colonial African playwrights have sought to write back to Europe in a manner of exposing African modes of theatre, which were deliberately subverted by the West.

Nigerian playwrights like Wole Soyinka And John Pepper Clark have sought to resuscitate the "African splendours of the past" by rejuvenating and manipulating elements of African traditional indigenous performances, such as audience participation, song, dance and didacticism. John Pepper Clark's Ozidiin found its roots in the Ijawpeople's traditional oral narrative also called Ozidi. Though the narrative in its scripted form now exists in a heavily westernised society, it overtly bears African traditional performance modes: it begins in the format of a folk tale, with spectators (audience) seated on the floor in a semi-circle thus creating a sense of a traditional village square as we watch the play on the modern stage. The influence of traditional ritual is also apparent in the text, which requires that certain ceremonies must be observed before the play begins: seven virgins ought to come from the audience and offer libation to some guests who have appeared from the sea.

That the play is a transcription of a traditional Ijawsaga originally performed over seven days to the accompaniment of music and dance testifies to the fact that Africans have always been theatrical without necessarily using the term theatre or consciously adhering to the Aristotelian format.

That Africans are inextricably related to song and rhythm is indicative of the fact that we have always been theatrical. Music in an African culture features all emotional states. When we mourn our deceased or bring back the spirit of the deceased to protect us, we share the burden and pleasure through music. Steve Biko (1971) noted that, even "to date," "tourists always watch with amazement the synchrony of music and action as Africans working at a road side use their picks and shovels with well timed precision to the accompaniment of a background song" (p. 43).

It is worth noting that there never was a theatrical event for individuals, the events featured within their communal context and there never was room for individual ownership as is characteristic of the Western world. In fact the demarcation between the performer and the audience was non-existent. Africa's modes of expression provided a notably holistic participation and discovery of the inner mysteries of African collective humanity.

Mutere in his "African Culture and Aesthetics," rightly observes that, "early observations made by European missionaries and anthropologist about African cultures had little understanding and much less appreciation of the principles that characterise and inform African life." It is for this reason that Africa was perceived as a void in terms of theatrical activities. Oral tradition as a whole as Mutere notes was looked upon as pre-logical or pre-rational, and African dances were pejoratively viewed as "imitative fornication."

Africa indisputably always has had some form of art that expressed the collective aspirations of society. "Obviously the African culture has had to sustain severe blows and may have been battered nearly out of shape by the belligerent cultures it collided with, yet in essence even today one can easily find the fundamental aspects of the pure African culture in the present day Africans" (Biko, p. 43). The Tonga people are a living testimony of this assertion, so are Pan-African playwrights like John Pepper Clark and Wole Soyinka.


Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like. London, Heinemann: 1987.

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Last Modified: 12 April, 2002