The American expatriate poet Gertrude Stein once said that the problem in dealing with Los Angeles as a geographical entity was that “there’s no there there.” For many brought up on the professionalized Euro-American spoken theatre, or even on many formalized Asian sung and/or danced drama forms, the problem in dealing with Africa’s dynamic performative traditions, most of which involve music and dance, is—to paraphrase Stein—the theatre there seems to be without theatre there. This is to say that it is easy not to see the continent’s sophisticated and often ancient theatrical traditions if one is looking only for theatre buildings, raised stages, complicated infrastructures, advanced technology, expensive sets and slickly published scripts.
Sub-Saharan Africa—Black Africa, if you will—has a multitude of its own traditions and has evolved its own contemporary forms based on those traditions. In francophone Africa, much of it has been based on the griotic tradition rooted in each community’s oral history. A number of francophone Africa’s most theatrically advanced groups—particularly in Côte d’Ivoire—have, in fact, reexamined the role of the griot through crossover forms that connect past to present, storytelling to collective creation.
In parts of anglophone Africa, the Concert Party with its many well-known travelling companies brought together elements of burlesque comedy and communal improvisation, folk song and social satire. Particularly strong in east Africa have been the still vital storytelling traditions, and a powerful and extraordinarily advanced Theatre for Development movement, a movement rooted in both urban and rural communities, a movement involving health, educational and social issues in the belief that it is possible to find communal solutions to communal problems.
Those who wish to connect to Euro-American theatrical styles—French cuisine when visiting, say, the ancient African cultural and educational centre of Timbuktu (in modern Mali)—there is no better connection to be found in sub-Saharan Africa than the plays of Africa’s internationally-known giants, such as the Nobel Prize winning Wole Soyinka, the Thalia Prize winning Femi Osofisan (both from Nigeria) and Athol Fugard from South Africa. Both Soyinka and Osofisan brought together the most dynamic of African performative traditions and mythology together with the socially-rooted traditions of western spoken drama. The work of all three—and numerous others in recent years—has already taken its deserved place in contemporary theatrical discourse. Anyone unfamiliar with the works of these men should immediately read Soyinka’s classic Death and the King’s Horseman, Osofisan’s Once Upon Four Robbers and Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, or the Fugard-inflected Woza Albert. And there are many other first-rate writers in Ghana, Kenya, Cameroon and Uganda. The list is long.
Purely spoken drama in Africa, however, is still very much of a minority art form, a late development that emerged as part of colonial impositions and missionary training within the indigenous communities; impositions that failed to respect or even recognize in many cases either ethnic differences (there are more than a thousand different ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa) or differing religious traditions. In many countries, the spoken drama was used to try and replace traditional forms, but in only a few countries did it succeed. Nevertheless, important dramatists did emerge early on—Bernard Dadié and Bernard Zadi Zaourou in Côte d’Ivoire, Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, John Pepper Clark and, later, Osofisan in Nigeria, Sony Labou Tansi in Congo, Sénouvo Agbota Zinsou in Togo and even one writer of note in Mauritania, Moussa Diagana, to name just a few of the many original and profound talents.
Interestingly, since the mid-1960s, attempts have been made right across the continent by these and other dramatists to return traditional African performing arts to a more central place within the continent’s theatrical experience, even in works that are usually spoken. Many of these attempts—along with responses by governments in terms of funding support (or the ongoing lack thereof) and political censorship—are now well-documented.
To look at these issues in a slightly different way, it would seem that an argument could be made that western classical art divided—probably by the end of the fourth century BC—into a populist art aimed primarily at entertainment and escape, and a more elitist and often state-controlled or state-supported art primarily aimed at discussion and/or the moral education of the community. The Roman poet and satirist Horace certainly recognized this when he argued in his Ars Poetica for the value of bringing both approaches together, to reunite delicare with docere, delight with teaching, entertainment with learning. Too rarely, however, have the two come together in the west. Shakespeare was perhaps the most successful at achieving such union in English drama; Brecht the closest in the Euro-American tradition during the twentieth century.
But the dichotomy that took place in western art did not, for the most part, occur in traditional African art. Even today, elements of that earlier cultural wholeness can still be seen across the continent. Art within these traditional societies is not perceived of as either educational or escapist, but rather both simultaneously. Even in crossover forms, it is this union that is most apparent, this sense of the totality of theatrical form. It is this, then, that non-Africans seem to have the most trouble with in trying to “read” African theatre whose dances, songs, plays and even grammatical constructions are layered with recognizable significance to those properly attuned. It is also this that is at the root of the difficulties many Africans have in trying to read “meaning” into disengaged western popular art.
Yet, these differences must be articulated and recognized if one is to begin to grasp the nature of theatre in African culture. To do so, one must be open to larger definitions of the word than are normally found in western tradition, alternative definitions or, perhaps, just more accurate definitions. This is what is meant when distinctions are suggested between traditional and modern in this issue, what it means when one speaks of connections between artists and communities here, what it means when one speaks of traditional aesthetics in the arts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Obviously, if one is only interested in spoken drama, one will not be able to understand the essence of contemporary African theatre where music, mime and dance segments are not meant to be passed over in the reading but are a profound part of the overall experience. The western reader must work hard sometimes to follow in this crucial area. Indeed, rich fusions are being made by dramatists utilizing western dramatic forms which draw indigenous traditions back into the work. It is this that was at the root of didiga in Côte d’Ivoire, the koteba in Mali, and it was this that was at the root of so much of Soyinka and Osofisan’s work in Nigeria. These are, in fact, among those most exciting of evolutions in the performing arts to be found anywhere in the world today. Living traditional forms in vital discourse with alternative dramatic visions.
It is also at the root of the investigations of those trained in Performance Studies seeking to understand the role of the performative in daily life, theatre anthropologists all who seek to enlarge the notion of the theatrical to make us realize that theatre is not necessarily limited to a few hours in a closed darkened building with a carefully prepared text being spoken to a group that has somehow been allowed entrance. It is an attempt to make us aware that theatre, the theatrical and the performative are quintessentially connected in Africa to universal human experiences: birth, death, rites of passage, marriage, namings and even funerals.
The theatrical—as Africa well knows—is to be found in sporting events and in circuses, in storytelling and in public scenes, in dances and other mating events, in clothing and in hairstyles. And yes, the theatrical is even to be found in theatre buildings and scripts from Johannesburg’s splendid Market Theatre to Addis Ababa’s National.
All of these are part of a continuum of the performative in which we can and do participate in daily; a theatre that requires active rather than passive involvement, to be lived as well as watched. Not theatre or ritual but theatre and ritual. It is an understanding of this sense of theatre—at once older and newer—that this special issue of CS seeks to illuminate.
From Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman
 This essay was originally written for the Africa volume of the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. It has been revised for this special issue of Critical Stages by the General Editor of the WECT series and appears here with the permission of the General Editor and WECT Ltd.
*Don Rubin is Editor of the six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. He is a Professor of Theatre at York University in Toronto and Founding Director and Former Chair of both York’s Department of Theatre and its Graduate Program in Theatre Studies.