(This article appeared in the Sunday Nation on 22nd March 2009)
We would all like to see true African drama in our theatres today but the million-dollar question is, what is African drama? Is it any kind of drama, as long as the cast is African? A play written by an African? A play written by anyone, as long is it is about African issues? Or is it a play performed in a venue with an African name, like Bomas of Kenya?
In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there’s the famous scene where the egwugwu or spirits of the ancestors come to pass judgment on trials in the Supreme Court. When the masked men come out, the women and children run away in fright and the men brace themselves for the terrible ordeal. Ekwefi notices that one of the egwugwu has a limp that is very much like her husband’s.
This is because she knows that the spirit is in fact her husband Okonkwo, in a mask. I refrain from making grand and generalised statements about pre-colonial Africa but we can at least infer three things from this scenario: There is no stage, no difference between the performer and the audience and the purpose for this ceremony goes beyond the performance itself.
On the morning of a Kikuyu wedding, the bridegroom’s mother will go to the bride’s house with her friends and in song and dance they will spend the better part of one hour pleading with the girl’s parents to let her go. At this time, the bridegroom is on his way to the church, the priest is preparing to conduct the ceremony and the caterers are already at the reception venue. Yet the bride’s family will act as if they are not aware it’s their daughter’s wedding day.
But when we speak of drama, we mean going to the theatre to watch a well-made play on a proscenium stage. Quite often it is an enjoyable and meaningful experience- if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this article- albeit a vestige of colonial rule.
Both European and Asian theatres trace their origins to religious rituals. Often, myths and religious stories were recounted through enactment of the scenes in these stories. The emergence of wealthy social classes demanding entertainment also gave theatre a lot of importance in these societies.
However, the are two things in my view that contributed most to the development of theatre. One of them is the theories and treatises that defined aesthetic parameters of dramatic arts. Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra defined performing arts in India and many parts of Asia and Aristotle’s Poetics formed the bedrock of Western theatre. The other thing is the tremendous effort that goes into specialising and training in these theatres. In Japanese Bunraku theatre for example, the puppeteers train for a lifetime to perfect their craft.
There is definitely a lot of room for improvement of performing arts in Kenya. Wole Soyinka once said, “The best learning process of any craft is to look at the work of others.” So let us see plays written by the real masters, let our directors try different approaches- realism, symbolism, epic theatre and gradually, our own style will emerge- one that will have equal acclaim on the world stage. If I ask again, what is African drama, what I see is a blank page. Who will dare to write in it?
© Anne W. Manyara 2009