Ousmane Diakhaté*

The sub-Saharan countries referred to as francophone Black Africa actually divide into four groups: the countries of the former French West Africa; the countries of the former French Equatorial Africa; the former French colonies of the Indian Ocean; and the former Belgian territories. A few remarks on each of these four groupings follow.

French-Speaking Africa

The countries of former French West Africa (known in French as Afrique Occidentale Française, AOF, and created in 1885) formed a kind of federal territory with its capital in Saint Louis and, later, in Dakar (both cities in Sénégal). Included in this grouping were Côte d’Ivoire, Dahomey (contemporary Bénin), French Guinea, Upper Volta (contemporary Burkina Faso), Mauritania, Niger, Sénégal and the French Sudan (now called Mali).

Also included in French West Africa was the former German colony of Togo, which later became a territory under French mandate. With the exception of the Arabo-Berbers (Moors) of Mauritania and the Touaregs of Niger-Sudan, all the peoples of this area are essentially black and belong to the Mandingo ethnic group (comprising Bombara, Malinké, Susu, Diola, Songhai, Mossi and Senufo); the Sudano-Guinean group (Fan, Ashanti, Baule and Hausa) or smaller groups, such as Wolof, Dogon and Peul (Fulani).

The countries of the former French Equatorial Africa, known in French as Afrique Equatoriale Française (AEF), included four territories, with Brazzaville as its capital: Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Ubangi-Shari (now called the Central African Republic) and Chad. There is great ethnic diversity in this region, the principal group being Bantu.

The Indian Ocean Colonies included the island of Madagascar; a single colony which comprised the Comoros Islands, Réunion Island, the French coast of the Somalis and the island of Mauritius; and the Seychelles Islands.

The Belgian territories included the Congo, Zaïre, Rwanda and Burundi (the latter two originally German colonies mandated to Belgium in 1918 and dominated by two ethnic groups—Tutsi and Hutu).

By the eve of the First World War, French and Belgian influence was clearly felt throughout all the francophone regions, and its cultural destiny became clearly linked to French colonial policies. In the domain of theatre, colonization created a double cultural life: a literary theatre written in French and performed in accordance with European models (what is referred to here as francophone Black African theatre) and a theatre drawn from traditional forms.

Francophone Black African theatre, therefore, is actually a late phenomenon, emerging along with French colonial expansion on the continent between the two world wars. Seeking to establish reproductions of their own culture, their own ways and even their own religion in Africa, French colonial policy was aimed at cultural assimilation, at making Africans into proper French citizens, reshaping the culture of the African world along French lines. Such a policy included an emphasis on education and evangelization. These two cornerstones also introduced European theatre into Africa and were the principal forces in the birth of francophone Black African theatre.

Christian missionary education was certainly a key factor in this development. Making extensive use of dramatic representation in the teaching of the Bible, European-style playlets began to be seen in all regions where Christianity was implanted. On the occasions of Christmas and Easter, for example, the Ploërmels Brothers, who ran the Secondary School of Saint Louis (founded in 1841), organized a series of theatre performances as had their predecessors, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny and Abbé Boilat. Catholic school students throughout the colonies, especially in Gabon and Dahomey, were encouraged to put on their own French-language sketches on themes taken from the Bible. These productions, inspired by religious themes, were conceived exclusively on a European dramatic aesthetic and became the first examples of francophone African theatre. It was only with the development of secular schools in the 1930s that these evolved into more modern theatrical forms.

A major development came in 1913, when Georges Hardy, himself a playwright, became Director of Education of French West Africa. Under Hardy, the theatre would gain an important place in the schools. Writing in 1917, Hardy saw the theatre as a way for his students

to avoid the fatigues, boredom, homesickness that could afflict these young people separated from their families for an entire year. . . . These ceremonies provided many surprises for the spectators: the surprise at seeing with what ease and with what sense of nuance our students interpreted the French texts, the surprise at realizing the eternal youth and universal appeal of [French] masterpieces.

The site of the original École William Ponty in Gorée

This secular form of school theatre spread through the territories as more and more schools were established. But it was mainly at the William Ponty Normal School near Dakar that the most significant francophone Black African theatre work emerged. The first laboratory of francophone African dramatic art, the Ponty School’s role in the birth of this theatre bears closer examination.

Named for William Merlaud-Ponty (1866-1915), who left his mark on educational policy in French West Africa during his time as Governor-General there (1908-15), the all-male Ponty School was the most famous of the training schools of the federation. Founded in Saint Louis in 1903 and transferred to the island of Goree (off Dakar) in 1913, its major aim was to provide a basic European education for future African civil servants. Most of the black francophone colonial elite were trained there, especially elementary school teachers and those called African doctors (trained to give basic medical care). Students were admitted by competitive examination and were recruited from among the brightest in the territories.

William Merlaud-Ponty (1866-1915)

School authorities at Ponty quickly realized the educational value of theatre and actively encouraged it. Teachers had students write plays for various occasions, plays in some instances based on research collected from their home communities. Not only did such exercises give the students a taste for theatrical research, but it also led them into regional groupings to discuss the themes best suited for dramatization. In such an atmosphere, theatre at Ponty—and later across French West Africa—was nurtured.

At the end of the academic year 1932-3, a play composed by the student group from Dahomey (Bénin), Bayol et Behanzin, was produced along with a farce of Molière. This was arguably the first original French-African play written in the European style. (The other candidate for this honor is Les Villes,  or The Cities, by Bernard Dadié of Côte d’Ivoire, but the manuscript is now lost. This play dates back to about 1931, when Charles Béart became director of the primary school of Bingerville in Côte d’Ivoire. Here, too, francophone Black African plays were produced, Dadié’s among them.)

The years 1936-7 marked the apogee of Ponty’s theatre activities, with student productions emerging from Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Dahomey. In 1939, the school was transferred to Sebikotane (near Dakar). Theatre continued to thrive. In 1948, on the occasion of festivities for the Centennial of the Abolition of Slavery, students from the Normal School for Girls in Rufisque joined the “Pontins” for the first time in a dramatic production.

After the Second World War, colonial cultural policy and educational policy both changed. As a result, theatre began to disappear from the curriculum. Nevertheless, the work done at the Ponty School clearly played a seminal role through the later activities of its graduates, several of whom founded troupes on their return to their respective countries. Especially noteworthy was one created in 1938 by the Ivoirians François-Joseph Amon d’Aby and Coffi Gadeau, the Indigenous Theatre of Côte d’Ivoire, which became, in 1953, the Cultural and Folklore Circle of Côte d’Ivoire. Another outstanding example was the theatre of the Guinean Fodéba Keita, a school teacher and Ponty graduate who founded the troupe that would become the forerunner of the Ballets Africains, a company that had great success on its world tours.

Guinean Fodéba Keita

With this proliferation of dramatic activities, the colonial administration announced, in 1953, that it would begin the construction of a series of Cultural Centres in each of the large cities of the federation. Conceived as meeting places for the urban African and European elite, such centres were actively supported by the government. A promotional information bulletin launched in 1954, Trait d’union (Hyphen), covered theatre extensively and included information on the publication of plays, as well as reviews of productions and practical advice for aspiring artists.

In 1955, an ambitious dramatic competition was organized among the Cultural Centre groups, an event closely monitored by the colonial administration. All Cultural Centres were required to participate. After elimination rounds in each territory, a local final was held and, then, quarter-finals among neighboring territories, the host town drawn by lot. Grand finals were, subsequently, held in Dakar, in the presence of the High Commissioner. The competition spawned considerable theatrical activity all across French West Africa. The Cultural and Folklore Circle of Côte d’Ivoire was the winner in 1955 and 1956; in 1957, the Cultural Circle of Banfora (Upper Volta) won.

In addition, a contest for playwrights was also organized. This period of francophone  Black African theatre, called (for obvious reasons) the “period of Cultural Centres,” lasted until 1958, the date of the breakup of the federation and the beginning of what would be called the Era of Independence (from 1958), when new forms emerged more adapted to the socio-political realities of Africa.

Under the influence of new authorities, many of whom were educated in the Ponty tradition, European-style theatre continued to be encouraged. Conditions seemed particularly favorable for the creation of national companies, the encouragement of amateur troupes and the construction of infrastructures for the theatre. Such efforts were made in most of the new states and most had governmental support. Even schools of drama to train Africans in those techniques were opened in Sénégal, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire. In these schools, there was a desire not only to conserve traditional values, but also to benefit from the wise utilization of techniques that had been tried and tested throughout the world. In many countries, the theatre benefited greatly during this period and many African dramatic artists who had through the years moved to France began to return to their native countries.

As well, theatrical scholarship emerged. In 1958, the Sénégalese critic Bakary Traoré published Le Théâtre africaine et ses fonctions sociales (The African Theatre and its Social Functions), a first attempt at analyzing the specificity of African theatre. Colloquia and international meetings were organized widely. Among these were a colloquium on Black African theatre organized by the University of Abidjan, in Côte d’Ivoire, in 1970; an Inter-African Theatre Seminar organized by the African Cultural Institute, in 1978, at the National Institute of the Arts, in Abidjan; and the Bamako Theatre Meeting, in Mali, in 1988. These meetings conducted extensive reviews of the situation of African theatre, and gave both theorists and practitioners opportunities to become aware of problems and to find solutions.

During this period, dramatic writing also improved considerably. Playwrights from the Ponty and Cultural Centre periods were almost always amateurs. Most of them considered the theatre a recreational activity and, with the possible exception of the plays of the Sénégalese author Amadou Cisse Dia (La Mort du Damel/The Death of the King and The Last Days of Lat Dior, both written in 1942), few important plays emerged. It was only after independence that dramatic writing flourished, plays of real aesthetic quality began to appear and publishing houses, both in Africa and abroad, began to take them seriously. Among these were Presence Africaine, in Paris; Nouvelles Éditions Africaines, in Dakar and Abidjan; and l’Harmattan in Paris. All contributed significantly to the distribution of dramatic works, as did the Concours théâtral inter-africaine (Inter-African Theatre Competition) created in 1968. One must note here as well the work of the French publisher Pierre-Jean Oswald and his African Theatre Collection.

Bernard Dadié of Côte d’Ivoire

Cheik Aliou N’dao from Senegal

Historical themes exalting the past—by far the most important trend—and satires of social and political mores dominated the dramatic literature of this period and produced writers whose reputation transcended national borders: Bernard Dadié of Côte d’Ivoire; Abdou Anta Kâ, Cheik Aliou N’dao and Thierno Bâ of Sénégal; Djibril Tamsir Niane and Condetto Nenekhaly Camara of Guinea; Seydou Badian of Mali; Guillaume Oyono-Mbia of Cameroon; and Maxime N’Debeka, Guy Menga and Sylvain Bemba of the Congo. It should also be noted that while the historical vein was predominant in West African countries, the playwrights of Central Africa had a preference for comic theatre.

Maxime N’Debeka
from Congo

Guy Menga from Congo

Clearly, this period qualifies as a great one in the history of Black African theatre, yet, it also showed the need for ongoing state support, especially in the development of infrastructure and equipment. With the exception of the Daniel Sorano National Theatre in Dakar, no other country in francophone Africa had a properly equipped theatre, and training in dramatic arts was barely supported. Few could make professional careers, unless they were connected to national companies and, therefore, considered civil servants. For financial reasons, little thought was given to independent productions. Indeed, almost all attempts to create private professional companies in the francophone community failed for lack of support. Nor was consideration given to the importance of amateur theatre, especially in those countries that had opted for professional state theatres.

Yet, despite the growth in dramatic activity, audiences were not significant. The problem was that French, rather than a local language, was used in the vast majority of productions. Even as late as the mid-1990s, more than seventy per cent of people who were called francophone Africans were still not proficient in the language.

But, sophistication in theatrical forms and methods grew and universities began to develop curricula in the area of dramatic arts. Through the 1980s, many more professional troupes emerged and the level of amateur and university troupes grew. Even countries that were not particularly noted for the vitality of their theatre in the 1960s and 1970s were, in the 1990s, making a name for themselves both in Africa and internationally, among them Togo, Congo and Burkina Faso.

By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, plays had become much more militant and political than ever before, more innovative and more diversified in style. A class of professional theatre artists was emerging, many with a range of talents. The new francophone playwrights were often not only writers but also directors, actors, administrators and even theorists. Among them the Congolese Sony Labou Tansi, the Togolese Sénouvo Agbota Zinsou, the Malian Gaoussou Diawara, the Ivoirian Bernard Zadi Zaourou, the Cameroonian Wéré-Wéré Liking (who was working mostly in Côte d’Ivoire), the Burkinabe Jean-Pierre Guingané and the Mauritanian Moussa Diagana, to name just a few.

Togolese Sénouvo Agbota Zinsou

Dramatic criticism in the 1990s, however, had no specialized publication anywhere in francophone Africa. Sometimes, in the general press, space is reserved for theatre, while, in the universities, research is generally limited to dramatic structure, the principle interest being its connection to sources and the rehabilitation of African aesthetic forms including ritual, orality and dance.

The performing arts centre Mudra Afrique in Dakar was for some time the main reference for African dance. Created in 1977, by the Belgian choreographer Maurice Béjart, on the initiative of Sénégalese President Léopold Sédar Sénghor (the centre operated early on with the support of Unesco and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation), Mudra was an active and important pan-African centre. Though it closed after only seven years of operation, its director, Germaine Acogny, continued to organize training programmes and, in 1996, she founded a new Centre for Traditional and Contemporary Dance in Toubab Dialaw, a village located about fifty kilometers from Dakar.


Two other francophone artists of note from the modern period are the Cameroonian Wéré-Wéré Liking and the Ivoirian Souymane Koly, both of who worked mostly in Abidjan. Liking was the director of the Ki Yi Mbok Theatre, which attempted to treat Black African theatre experience in relation to ritual and puppets, while Koly, director of the Koteba troupe, used music and dance as essential elements in his theatrical research.

Perhaps the most important artistic exploration in the 1980s and 1990s was in the area of folk tales. Many theatre specialists were re-examining and experimenting with them as the basis of new dramatic techniques. One notable example was the work of the Didiga Company, created in 1980 out of a group engaged in research on oral tradition, under the direction of professor and playwright Bernard Zadi Zaourou, at the University of Abidjan. Two of his colleagues, Dieudonné Niangoran Porquet and Abdoubakar Cyprien Touré, also adapted the oratorical art of the African griot (praise singer) and formed their musical accomplishments into a new dramatic form called the griotique. Still another evolved in Togo—the transposition of the Concert Party tradition (also seen in other West African countries) into a dramatic form using formally structured music and dance.


Griot: African troubadour-historian

Francophone Africa has long had connections with Europe, but it is only since the 1980s that African theatre artists began to develop exchanges among themselves. In spite of attempts at regional and sub-regional theatre meetings in Bénin, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, exchanges of productions are still rare. The Festival of Theatre in Bénin, organized by the French Cultural Centre of Cotonou, the Ministry of Culture in Bénin and the Kaïdara Theater, was first held in 1991. The International Theatre and Puppet Festival of Ougadougou was organized every two years by the two principal associations of theatre artists in Burkina Faso. Côte d’Ivoire hosted a National Festival of School and University Theatre, from 1981, and an African Festival of Francophone Theatres, from 1994.

In 1993, the Agence de cooperation culturelle et technique (the ACCT, Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation) created in Abidjan the Market for Performing Arts in Africa (MASA). Outside of Africa, the Foundation Afrique en Créations, with headquarters in Paris, greatly contributed to the development of the art through the promotion and production of African cultural products. This organization collected documentation on African performance generally and published a magazine called Afrique en scène (Africa on Stage) in collaboration with Radio France International and the ACCT.

Another international initiative was the Concours théâtral inter-africaine, founded in 1966 during a colloquium of directors of broadcasting in francophone Africa and Madagascar. Later run by Radio France International, this competition played a significant role in promoting francophone African theatre generally.  More than seventy per cent of the plays presented in French before 1978 were, in fact, directly or indirectly linked to this contest. Involving all African and Indian Ocean francophone countries, the competition gave a large number of authors a forum to make their works known, to make contact with theatre troupes and to solicit productions in other countries.

One more international forum for francophone African theatre was the Festival International des Francophonies, held annually in Limoges, France. Created in 1984, the Festival invited many African troupes to present productions there and a number of African dramatists completed projects as writers-in-residence under Festival auspices.

Still another French endeavor which was helpful to African dramatists was the Theatre International de Langue Française, created in 1985 by the French director Gabriel Garran. Part of the francophonie movement, its aim was to make known contemporary dramatic literature from French-speaking communities. As such, it staged several major African plays in France such as Je Soussigné cardiaque (I the Undersigned Cardiac Case) by Sony Labou Tansi (Paris, 1985), Le Destin glorieux du Maréchal Nnikon Nniku by Tchicaya U Tam’si, in collaboration with the Daniel Sorano National Theatre of Sénégal, and especially his Le Bal de N’Dinga (N’Dinga’s Ball).

One should also note the contribution of French director Jean-Marie Serreau, who staged Aime Césaire’s La Tragédie du roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe), at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, in Dakar, in 1966. He later founded the Toucan Company in Paris, a troupe of black actors which launched, among others, the careers of the Sénégalese actor Douta Seck and premiered in France the plays of Bernard Dadié.

A helpful American initiative in this regard was the editorial work of critic Françoise Kourilsky and her Ubu Repertory Theatre in New York, and its associated publishing ventures. Ubu was committed for many years to the production and publication of francophone plays in translation, and brought the work of many African writers to the attention of anglophone audiences and producers.

Debebe Eshetu

In 1983, Unesco’s International Theatre Institute organized an important meeting in Harare (Zimbabwe) under its then Secretary-General Lars af Malmborg. This led to the creation of a Union of African Performing Artists headed by the distinguished Ethiopian stage and film star Debebe Eshetu. In 1985, the ITI sponsored another gathering, presided over by Nobel Prize winning playwright Wole Soyinka, in which fifteen African countries reflected on the future of theatre in Africa, and in 1991, ITI opened a regional office in Dakar to identify the needs of the performing arts in Africa and to support coordination of cultural exchanges. By 1994, the ITI had fourteen national centres in sub-Saharan Africa: Sénégal, Nigeria, Zaïre, Madagascar, Mali, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Kenya and Bénin.

*Ousmane Diakhaté is a Professor at Cheik Anta Diop University in Dakar. 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.

Copyright © 2017 Ousmane Diakhaté
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
French Language Theatre in Africa: Connecting to the Francophonie