The concept that African theater began with “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry is not uncommon. Equally prevalent is the belief that if by chance anything did precede the aforementioned, it is of little consequence. Both lines of thought are fallacies, to say the least.
It is quite possible to trace indigenous African drama all the way to antiquity. Despite conscious endeavors to disengage the historical bonds which exist between Africa and Egypt it remains indisputable that: “Egypt is African not only in geographic and linguistic terms but in a cultural and literary sense as well. The southern half of the country in the Upper Nile moreover is Nubian or Sudanese and therefore black.”
For this reason the African claim to the world’s oldest rituals (“the Memphite dramas and the birth and death of Osiris”
) as part of the rich African culture is just as valid as the claim on Greek mythology by Caucasians in the West.
At this juncture, in order to facilitate a meaningful discussion pertaining to indigenous African drama I feel it would be beneficial to examine the definition of the term “drama”. To accomplish this objective students will be instructed to look the word up in the dictionary, record their findings and be prepared to discuss them in class. They will find that ‘drama’ according to Webster is defined as follows:
drama: 1) A literary composition that tells a story usually representing human conflict by means of dialogue and action to be performed upon the stage; a play. 2) Stage representations collectively; the art or profession of writing, acting or producing plays; the institution of the theater. 3) A series of actions, events or purposes considered collectively as possessing dramatic quality.
Keeping these definitions in mind the next step will be to consider some essential factors concerning indigenous African drama. For instance, much of Africa’s indigenous drama evolved out of an oral tradition, long before many African societies had developed a written alphabet. Therefore, few indigenous African dramas were recorded in writing; instead they were passed down for generations by word of mouth. This was often the responsibility of designated individuals (griots), or groups (religious sects). There are a few examples of indigenous African drama which appear in published form; among them are two brief comic sketches one of which is “The ‘Koteba’ of Bamako” by Claude Meillasoux that appears in Volume No. 24 (pgs. 38-53) of “Presence Africaine “ (English ed., 1964).
Often in indigenous drama the identity of the performers is often secret. Attempts at concealing the performers’ identity, sometimes include such measures as utilization of ornate and often cumbersome masks, and the use of “sotto voce”
, voice disguiser or bull rush to disguise the voice. These devices however, often obscure the actor’s voice to such a degree that it is necessary for an ‘assistant’ to ‘interpret’ the speaker’s words for the audience. This practice has in part resulted in the utilization of meager amounts of dialogue (by European standards) during the performances. Considering these factors Webster’s first definition of drama is only partially applicable to this discussion.
Likewise, even if one defines a ‘stage’ in the most liberal fashion, that is, as a specific area reserved for the performers only, Webster’s second definition (like the first) falls short of adequately defining indigenous African drama. In indigenous African drama the performers are readily accessible to the audience. Clad in elaborate costumes which expose only their hands and feet, these troubadours, instead of performing on a stage or within the confines of a designated area, usually move among the spectators dancing, singing, reciting poetry, narratives, etc., throughout the entire kraal (village).
Contrary to European theater the role of the audience in indigenous African drama is that of active participants. The performances are often quite intricate. Preparations required to produce a single production may sometimes take years to complete. For example, “the Ekong society of the Ibibio of southeast Nigeria have a performance . . . that required rehearsals that were conducted for several hours in a village square on a specific day of each eight day week for forty-six weeks of every year for six years, in order to develop a seven hour routine.”
Bearing this in mind, I am sure it will come as no surprise that performers are highly disciplined and undergo rigorous training, sometimes beginning at childhood.
This is especially true in the case of the griot, who must memorize the entire history of the tribe verbatim. “. . . These people are told the history of the Tribes, under oath never to alter, add or subtract any word. Anyone who so much as thought of changing any of the stories of his tribe that he had been told fell immediately under a High Curse which covered him, his children and his children’s children. These tribal story tellers [griots] were called [by the Bantu] Guardians of the Umlando or Tribal History.”
The griot recounts the tribal history as dramatically as possible, sometimes acting out the roles of all the characters. On occasions some tribes add performers who act-out the griot’s story as he narrates. “In the Congo, the Balaoga perform an epic in which a ‘singer’s’ narration is acted out in mimes. Much of the same can be found among the Ijaw of Southeastern Nigeria and the Ashanti of Ghana . . .”
Webster’s third definition of drama encompasses the essence of indigenous African drama with all of its nuances and idiosyncrasies. Indigenous African drama like any art form in any given society is influenced by the perception of the world held by the community as well as the artist. Western societies “hold fast to the logic of cause and effect. Traditional societies on the other hand, perceive a logic of congruity between men, animals and seasonal cycles. The result of which are ordered relationships projected on to the universe.”
Because it seldom manifests qualities fundamental to European theater, indigenous African theater has been frequently misinterpreted, unidentified, disregarded, discounted or ignored. However, as an outgrowth of story-telling (praise songs of chiefs, heroes [real and spiritual], ancestors, and warriors), oral narratives (which include the tribes oral history or celebrate great hunts and battles), and religious rituals (the primary source of the African world view), indigenous African drama clearly reflected the African’s dynamic perception of the world/life. For the African: life is drama. Drama is life; it is interwoven throughout every aspect of the African’s existence and experience.
In indigenous African societies no distinction is made between ritual and drama. They are usually presented as a part of a religious festival or for some domestic celebration such as a marriage, birth, death, accession to adulthood, etc. Mythology suggests that the spirits and or ancestors created the performance and simply permit people to imitate them. Additionally, it implies that the performances are not presented for the entertainment of mere mortals but possibly to entertain and/or appease the spirits and/or ancestors. Nonetheless, “performers are considered the guardians of community values, historians (griots) sometimes acting out historical events.”
The performers who are one of the vehicles through which the history of the tribe is depicted and kept ever alive.
B. Reading Assignments:
“Indaba, My Children” by Vusamuzulu Credo Mutwa
1. Prologue & Introduction
2. Cast of Characters
When the woman he’d hoped to marry was shot to death in March 1960, by the police during the massacre at Sharpeville, South Africa, Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa was moved to take a ‘Chief’s Blood Oath”. He swore to tell the world the real story of the Bantu people. In effort to fulfill his oath Mutwa set out to make the oral history of his people widely accessible. The result was “Indaba, My Children.” By writing this book, it is noted in the preface, “according to tribal laws he [Mutwa] has become a traitor to his people . . . an outcast.” However, the world is richer for his sacrifice.
Students will first be provided copies of the prologue and introduction which will be read aloud and discussed in class. I have decided to utilize these two vehicles because they discuss the manner in which the oral history is usually disseminated, supply biographical information about the author and refer to the historical and socio-political influences which inspired Mutwa to undertake this project. The cast of characters (which in itself is six pages long) will be provided to help students to come to grips with the griot’s enormous responsibility and also to allow them to get some idea of how the characters are inter-related. It will moreover be utilized to facilitate explanations regarding certain social customs prior to reading the primary material. For example: when reviewing the cast of characters it is evident that Lumbedu (a witch doctor) has four wives. This could very easily lead to a lively discussion about the practice of polygamy. Also, the role of the Tribal Avengers in comparison to that of law enforcement officials as we know them today will provide for rich discussion.
To ensure that students get a realistic perspective of African culture a representative from the Yale African Studies Center will be invited to speak to the class. Once they have been immersed in the ‘experience’ (by the end of the first week) they will be given a chapter from “Indaba, My Children” to read as homework over the weekend.
3. “The Coming of the Strange Ones”
The selection from “Indaba, My Children” that I have chosen for my students to read is entitled “The Coming of the Strange Ones”. Approximately 30 pages in length, this chapter is “the story of the Lost Phoenician Empire in Southern Africa.”
In the introduction to this story Mutwa states: “Badly rusted and crumbing swords of ancient Greek manufacture, old gold coins and parts of bronze shields and helmets, bronze spears and Egyptian battle axes, all of which are in the secret possession of witch doctors throughout Southern Africa, confirm the truth of the story.”
In addition to the reading assignment students will be instructed to select any character of their choosing from the excerpt and write a character sketch. They will be asked to pretend this is character is someone they just met and are attempting to describe them to one of their ‘old’ friends. To help them in the visualization process it will be suggested that they think about the character’s physical appearance, their facial features, height, weight, age, etc. Additionally they will be asked to consider how the character behaves to determine their personality traits. For example:
-Are they bossy? cruel? sneaky? trust worthy? smart? etc.
-What was it about their behavior that made you reach this conclusion?
-If you could hear the sound of their voice what would it sound like?
-Do you know anyone who reminds you of this character?
-Is this character in any way similar to you? How?
Each student will share their completed character sketch with the class.
2. Building Dialogue
“Indaba, My Children” is rich with dialogue. However, much of the dialogue is stilted and formal. Nevertheless, it is ideal for the purpose of adaptation. Already divided into sections much like the scenes of a play, it can easily be divided among the students who can be assigned to work either individually or in pairs to “rewrite” the dialogue. The previous character sketches will prove to be of assistance to students for this exercise. First, the students will be asked to consider the personality type of the character[s] whose conversation they will be adapting. They will then be instructed to place themselves in the character’s “shoes” as it were, and imagine how they would react if they found themselves in the position the character is now in. What words would they say? Would they remember to be courteous? Would they just blurt out the words without thinking? Would they take their time to get to the point? Or would they avoid “beating around the bush” and get directly to the point? It will also be suggested that they consider the character’s actions when writing their dialogue.