West African Theater

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4 March 2016

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African theatre is influenced by African dramatic traditions and Western theatre. The influence of Western styles originates from European presence, European education , and the artists training outside of Africa. The magnitude of foreign influence varies from country to country. This influence slowed the development of African theatre in Zimbabwe. For example, productions continued to exemplify Western theatre. The Afrocentricity in West Africa in the 1960s was a reaction to the oppression of French Directors. They left a mark on production styles. Examples of such oppression can be seen in the Daniel Surano Theatre in Senegal. This is where the productions of Aimé Césaire can be seen. The productions of Bernard Dadié reflect French comic traditions and Jean Pliya is one the many of playwrights focused on the European historical events. The writing of Western playwrights has resulted in a literary style that appeals to a sophisticated and rare audience to which dance and music productions have a minor role in the theatrical arts.

Village theatre in Africa is based on the tried and true traditions of music, song, dance, and drama. This produced a fertile foundation for the development of urban contemporary theatrics. Theatric entrepreneurs built upon the traditional village storytelling and borrowed production styles from the European productions performed in West African urban areas in the 20s and ’30s. Concert productions traveled in Togo and Ghana. During the 50s the Ghanaian “Trios” appeared with Bob Cole and his company performing for audiences in Accra with hilarious dramatizations of the local events. The first professional theatres in Nigeria were produced by the local actor-managers. The three most successful were Kola Ogunmola, Duro Ladipa, and Hubert Ogunde. They were all Yoruba and started work as teachers by making plays based on the Bible stories in African churches. Ogunde’s first production was The Garden of Eden (1944) in the Church of the Lord. Then in 1945 he made a satire called Strike and Hunger. It was based on the clash between Nigerian workers and the European bosses. Ogunde’s success had allowed him to create the Ogunde concert party. It had a style similar to the British concert parties of the time. They performed domestic comedies and political satires between the opening and the closing with interjections of song and dance unrelated to the plot.

The popularity Nigerian independence in 1960 brought an explosion of productions in the urban arts focused on new African forms and the disapproval of European influences. This resulted in an imaginative presence in literary and popular theatre that was to be influential throughout Africa. Yoruba Opera companies, also known as traveling theatres, had hit the road. Ladipo produced spectacular productions based on themes from Yoruba mythology and history. His series on the kingdom of Oyo was published in 1964 as Three Yoruba Productions (Oba Koso [“The King Did Not Hang”], Oba Moro [“The King of Ghosts”], and Oba Waja [“The King Is Dead”]), had the power and mythology similar to a traditional Greek tradegy.

Kola Ogunmola created comedies portraying himself as the amazing actor and mime. He modified the techniques of Ogunde by replacing the saxophones with the Yoruba drum. He wrote strictly structured lines without destroying the gentility of the social satires. His most commonly seen production is Ife Owo (1950; Love of Money). His greatest success was with Omuti Apa Kini (1963). Although Ogunmola and Ladipo died in the 70s, their legacy lived on as decorated trucks transported Yoruba Opera companies to one-night performances in towns and villages. The Yoruba musical drama Obaluaye (1970) was composed by Akin Euba and it had an impact on the work of literary playwrights such as Ola Rotimi. and Wole Soyinka. Ola and Wole spent many years as university playwrights/directors and their ability to stage their own works led them to have a strong theatric skill set.

Wole Soyinka was a brilliant critic and satirist who was the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 86 was regarded as Africa’s best writer. His art reflects the difficulties facing an African playwright writing in English. He moved from naturalistic treatment of his subjects to the Yoruba view of subjects. His early satires The Trials of Brother Jero (1960) and Lion and the Jewel (1963) are popular with all English-speaking audiences. However the philosophical and verbal complexities in his later works are aimed at the select few. Death and the King’s Horseman (1975) and The Strong Breed (1963) are focused on the impact of cultural conflict. On the other hand, Soyinka’s political satires, such as Kongi’s Harvest (1965), are both raw and entertainment focused. A Dance of the Forests (1963) and The Road (1965) described the complicated dramatic paradoxes of African life through the Yoruba myths. Secondly, Soyinka criticized the myth of the glorious African past by rejecting the African concept that the revival of African culture has to come from African cultural heritage to be made for and performed to celebrate the Nigerian independence of October 1960. His drama became pessimistic after the civil war in Nigeria. This can be seen in Madmen and Specialists (1970). He also used past historical events and new versions of old productions to create new productions. His rendition of the Bacchae of Euripides was observed by many in the National Theatre of London in 1973. The Opera Wonyosi was a version of The Beggar’s Opera that was seen in the University of Ife in 1977.

Ola Rotimi created theatrical English imbedded with African proverbs and idioms. His style of directing made good use of active movement and resulted in enthusiastic responses from universities and popular audiences. Rotimi was best at historical tragedies such as Ovonramwen Nogbaisi (1971) and Kurunmi (1969) which dealt with the Yoruba wars. He also had a knack for satire. An example would be Our Husband Is Gone Mad Again (1966). In the field of directing, Soyinka and Rotimi both made imaginative use of dance and music.

Intercultural exchange had strange results in Ghana. In the 60s Saka Acquaye’s The Lost Fisherman is a musical based on the “highlife” and it was a popular success. Another success story was Efua Sutherland’s traveling theatre which produced productions based on the village storytelling and local village themes. Her productions in English used the Greek models. Ama Ata Aidoo was the most famous Ghanaian playwright in the post 60s period. The Dilemma of a Ghost (1964) showed the complicated cultural conflict occurring Ghanaian village when a young adult returned from his studies abroad and he brought his new African American wife along with him. Anowa (1970) is a play that deals with the role of Africa in the slave trade and the servant like treatment of women.

Commonly, Hausa drama has a strong appeal and originates from the dramatic style of the old storytelling. It is centered on social problems. It is especially focused on the stories involving the Hausa family and its complications with polygamy. This idea has been contreversial in many productions such as Tabarmar Kunya (1969; “Matter of Shame”) by Dauda Kano and Adamu dan Gogo. Some productions satirize the uneducated people’s dependence on Muslim scholars. An example would be Umaru Balarme Ahmed’s Buleke (1970) and it shows characters who lead the hectic modern lifestyle and continued to hold onto the roots of the old country. The productions are commonly performed in schools and frequently broadcasted on television and radio. Kabbada is an important Ethiopian playwright who created the historically based production Hannibal and it was performed in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966. The most remarkable work of Mangistu Lammā is the play Yalaccha Gabbiccha (“Marriage of Unequals”) and it deals with social inequality. It was performed for the first time in the Addis Ababa in 1964. It is a production showing a family going through a transition from the ways of the old country to the soulless reality of city life.

Somali theatre had been firmly grounded since the 50s and is very popular. Many have yet to be published to the mass public. Shabeelnagood (Leopard Among the Women) was written by Xasan Sheikh Mumin and it is a production about a heartless trickster who marries naïve and young women. It was originally published in Somali and translated to English in 1974. It had its first performance in Mogadishu in 1968 and it also had radio serialization along with a successful tour. Somali theatre has been compared to the theatre of the Elizabethan era in England because of its unique combination of popular culture and sophisticated art and its capacity to generate interest for a large demographic section of the 20th century population.

Personal Analysis
Upon analyzing the information it is understood that the European empires injected their artistic theology into West African theater resulting in an entertaining composite style. In some ways this was a positive change for the artists in African theater; it was this change that created a modern African style with the ability to deliver traditional storytelling to a broader audience.

1.Abiodun, Rowland, Henry John. Drewal, and John Pemberton. The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1994. 9 Sept. 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2013. 2. Ann Wynne, Elizabeth Gunner, and Peggy Harper Jr. “African Theatre (art).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013. 3.Ogunba, Oyin, and Abiola Irele. Theatre in Africa. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan UP, 1978. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

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"West African Theater" StudyScroll, 4-Mar-2016. [Online]. Available: https://studyscroll.com/%ef%bb%bfwest-african-theater-essay. [Accessed: 4-Jun-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). West African Theater. [Online]. Available at: https://studyscroll.com/%ef%bb%bfwest-african-theater-essay [Accessed: 4-Jun-2023]

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