By Iyorwuese Hagher
256 pp. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America
Reviewed by Don Rubin  (Canada)
Africa’s theatre is still, by and large, a secret for most theatre people around the world. The occasional book on the subject is truly that—an occasion—and when the book is as rich and evocative as Iyorwuese Hagher’s recent volume on a populist form of Nigerian puppet theatre that almost died out until he himself brought attention to it, it is truly an occasion to celebrate.
What Professor and former Nigerian Ambassador to Canada and Mexico Hagher has done is to throw light on one of those African theatre secrets, a little-known form called Kwagh-hir. Created and still produced on special occasions by the Nigeria’s Tiv ethnic community (at five million people they are Nigeria’s fifth largest ethnic group), Kwagh-hir (literally meaning puppet theatre) is produced exclusively in Tiv areas of central Nigeria, a part of this large country right on the knife-edge of the ongoing religious strife between the Christian communities of southern Nigeria and the Muslim communities of the north. From 1939 to 1967, as we learn from Hagher, “the British Government in collaboration with the Native Administration, ruled Tivland with an iron hand.”
But the Tiv people—proud of their ancient cultural heritage (one rooted in farming) and determined not to be colonized or homogenized by either the British or the Islamic communities—began to fight back in the only way they knew, by being themselves and by telling their own stories in their own way. The stories were simple—farmers farming, family’s passing on traditions, men and women working as they have for millennia—but now coded with particular Tiv inflections speaking to those who understood the deeper notions of cultural independence.
On the many nights when the communities gathered, the stories—most reaching back into the beginnings of time—were embellished with music, songs and dances, and the favourites were enacted not by individuals but by puppets of varying sizes with one or more people inside them, puppets representing the core values of Tiv life—the farmer tending his field, the herder, the woman giving birth. All these figures made of polished wood with articulated elbows, knees, hands and feet allowing even puppet drums to dance across the stage to their own music, animals to hunt, and even pregnant women to produce puppet infants in full view. Bearing as much of an Indian or even Indonesian feel as an African one, the puppets are polished in red (making their skin seem to glow) and fire often accompanies their actions.
Hundreds of tiny Aesopean puppet tales evolved from the stories and by the 1950s the form emerged full-blown in Tivland. And as the British began to impose their rule, the real politicization of the Kwagh-hir sketches began to be seen. As Hagher puts it, “the Kwagh-hir was … reborn at this time when Tiv survival as a unique cultural entity was seriously threatened.”
The great German dramatist Bertolt Brecht in this same period argued long and hard in his theoretical works for a theatre that created “critical consciousness” in its audiences. Kwagh-hir did exactly that, utilizing a non-mimetic puppet theatre that Brecht would have deeply appreciated. In the 1960s and 1970s, Brazilian theatrical provocateur Augusto Boal called for the creation of a theatre that would go even further than critical consciousness, a theatre that would itself be a “rehearsal for the revolution.” Had he been able to see and understand what Kwagh-hir was doing in this tiny area of Africa he too would have celebrated.
For Kwagh-hir helped coalesce political protest in Tivland in 1960 and again in 1964 when the Tiv revolted against regimes that they saw as repressive to their way of life, to their culture and individuality. Hundreds of tiny groups emerged doing this type of work—evenings of short politically- and culturally-coded sketches—that brought a people together and indeed saved their culture. Sadly, by the late 1970s, Kwagh-hir was no longer quite so necessary and interest in the form began to fade.
That’s when Hagher entered the scene. An established writer himself in the area of theatre for social action, a professor of theatre, a former head of the national Arts Council, a television personality and a well-known cultural animator who would later be asked to join the Nigerian cabinet, Hagher began interviewing Kwagh-hir performers (all of them farmers in daily life), Kwagh-hir puppet masters and puppetmakers along with their musicians and costumers trying to understand whether this was truly an ancient form or a modern one, an individually-created art or a true collective creation, a populist form that had simply stumbled into politics or a genuine voice of a people. And he has continued to do this research for almost four decades.
His interest in Kwagh-hir eventually led to government promotion of the form through performances in neighbouring parts of the country and eventually to performances on national television. His interest in the interface between the popular and the political, art and culture, led to official support for some of these groups to tour outside Nigeria and eventually to play at puppet and other theatre festivals in Europe and the Americas.
And now Hagher has brought us yet another gift from his world—his world, for he himself is a Tiv—the first book on the subject, the first genuine attempt to document, contextualize and theorize the Kwagh-hir. This is not European-style, text-based “theatre of the elite” he tells us, but rather “popular theatre,” “secular and serious theatre,” theatre in which the audience sees “core metaphors and parables of their lives.”
This is also theatre—as I can personally attest having seen examples of it on a lecture tour through Nigeria in 2009 (full disclosure: the visit was hosted by Ambassador Hagher)—in which the audience calls out, shouts, ululates and hisses as they recognize images from their daily experiences. That is to say, theatre rooted neither in ritual nor religion, neither in the literary nor the personal but rather in the communal, theatre that is still of vital and continuing significance to its community.
No, I did not understand the coding or most of the cultural references in the shows that I saw, but through it I did become an active part of that community for a few hours and I did recognize the essential humanity of the work. As well, I saw extraordinary master puppeteers creating magical worlds inside real worlds, multiple worlds that I had never seen before on a stage anywhere.
“The sub-Sharan traditional artist,” writes Hagher early on in this important volume, “is witnessing the world pass him by.” Hagher is demanding here that we all slow down for a moment and witness the magic, enter into essential cultural conversation with these artists and with these people, and try to understand the essence of popular theatre in all its simplicity and its sophistication.
This book is an occasion for anyone who cares about puppetry, committed theatre, scholarship and cultural survival. So bravo for Iyorwuese Hagher, truly this form’s most eloquent and enthusiastic ambassador. And bravo for this book. May it bring Kwagh-hir out of the shadows at long last.
Let me say in conclusion here that this is not a book review in any objective sense. I first read this book in draft form and wrote enthusiastically about it to a publisher. My comments—essentially these same comments—wound up as an introduction to the book. Having now seen the final version of the project with its numerous texts, songs, essays, interviews and visual materials, I can only say amen to what I wrote earlier and hope that this latter response brings a little more attention to this most unusual subject.
 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.