English-Language African Drama Analysis

East Africa: Uganda

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In East Africa, Kenya and Uganda have been the most active dramatically. Makerere University in Uganda, with its own traveling theater company, has had a tremendous impact. The plays that have come out of this region, despite considerable diversity, have common, identifiable features. For the most part, they are well made. With the exception of Ngugi wa Thiong’o (who wrote as James T. Ngugi until 1970), the dramatists rely on simple, intimate situations, choosing to reveal the larger social setting within the microcosm of a small group. Even when the setting is a traditional village, either in the past or in contemporary times, with one or two exceptions the complicating features of song, dance, and ritual are absent. In addition, a pervasive motif preoccupies dramatists, whether they are speaking of the traditional life of the people or the modern conflict between African and non-African, both European and otherwise: On the most basic level, the motif is self-aggrandizement, an imposition of the self on others. In Ugandan plays, especially, self-aggrandizement frequently leads to self-destruction as well.

Nuwa Sentongo ’s The Invisible Bond (pb. 1975) is a paradigm of this theme. Kibaate murders his wife’s beloved only to have the corpse return to haunt him. While he slowly becomes a slave to this dead master, his wife is killed and joins her lover, Damulira, in death. In the background of the personal conflict, night-walkers (cannibals), acting as a chorus of dancers, stalk the dead, first calling up Damulira, then Kibaate’s wife, as food for their tables. The feeding of one on another attains a level of ritual condemnation. Elvania Namukwaya Zirimu in Family Spear (pr. 1972; radio play) and Tom Omara in The Exodus (pr. 1965) call into question the role of tradition in sanctioning such behavior. In both plays, the ancestral spear, the symbol of authority, signifies the continuing power of tradition to prevent a sensitive response to the human needs of the present.

Several Ugandan and Kenyan dramatists are of Asian (Indian or Pakistani) ancestry. Their special situation within the African setting raises issues of race, belonging, and patriotism. Significantly, however, the theme of self-aggrandizement remains the key concern. Jagjit Singh ’s Sweet Scum of Freedom (pr. 1972; radio play) ennobles the “scum,” or victims, of society (the heroine is a prostitute) and suggests strongly a desire for self-destruction in those who exploit them. Ganesh Bagchi shows, in Of Malice and Men (pb. 1968), the difficulty an Indian,...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Kenya ’s dramatists Kuldip Sondhi and Ngugi wa Thiong’o face a situation similar to that of the Ugandan dramatists. Although he was educated in Kenya, Sondhi was born in West Pakistan and thus is sensitive to the social ostracism that characterizes the modern African state. In his plays, this emerges as an imposition of one’s culture or personal values or prejudices on another. In The Magic Pool (pb. 1972), it is the social rejection of a hunchback; in the radio play Sunil’s Dilemma (pr. 1970), it is the invasion of an Asian’s home by Africans identified as both thieves and police. With Strings (pb. 1968) warns of the imposition of the past on the present. When a wealthy uncle, who, for whatever motive, uses a promise of money to influence critical decisions in the lives of the younger generation, suddenly dies of a heart attack, the hand of the past releases its grip. The young Indian man and African woman who are the play’s focus can make their decision about marriage without prejudice, and, it would seem, the two races can merge, albeit with some difficulty.

In Undesignated (pb. 1968), Sondhi explores what appears to be a personal dilemma (he is both engineer and writer). The main character, an African named Solomon, is tempted to become the head of a department in an engineering firm so that he can have wealth and influence, motives that are ultimately self-destructive. Because another is chosen for the position, however, he is forced to use his talents as an artist instead, to the benefit of both himself and his country. Sondhi’s play Encounter (pb. 1968) not only reiterates this theme but also does so in a context that is more common to the work of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Two encounters, one between a British lieutenant and a fellow officer, the other between the lieutenant and a rebel, General Nyati, reveal the power of ideology and cultural loyalties. Both the lieutenant and the general are idealists, but the force of the general’s personality prevails because it is ultimately in the service of freedom and not of exploitation. In the early twenty-first century, to survive financially, Sondhi increasingly concentrated his energies on the Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association, winning an award in June of 2002 for his efforts on behalf of Kenya’s tourism industry.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o , as the most prominent figure in East African...

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Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Because of the ideological commitment to Swahili as the official language of Tanzania by its first post-independence ruler, Julius Nyerere, Kenya’s neighboring country to the south has not experienced much dramatic output in English. In the early twenty-first century, foreign plays were performed in English by two companies in the capital, the Dar es Salaam Players and the Arusha Little Theatre . Some works by Tanzania’s playwrights such as Ebrahim Hussein have been translated into English.

Most of Malawi ’s dramatic output is in the local language of Chichewa. The 1990’s saw a continuous rise in the popularity of the radio programs featuring English-language plays that were broadcast on Saturday evenings, such as Theatre on the Air by the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. The end of that decade saw the publication of many of Du Chisiza, Jr.’s plays, such as De Summer Blow . . . And Other Plays (1998) and Democracy Boulevard and Other Plays (1998), which focus on the daily struggles of the Malawi people in the cities and the countryside.

In the early twenty-first century, Zambia ’s capital of Lusaka possessed two major theatrical venues, the Lusaka Playhouse and the Tikwiza Theatre , which staged impressive production schedules based on Zambian and international plays in English. At the Lusaka Playhouse during this period, Zambia’s first privately organized theater festival combined performances with special workshops aimed at improving artistic standards; more than 120 performers from Zambia and southern Africa participated. Zambian playwrights working in English often focus on the issues of the urban society and other local problems. The country also had a tradition of traveling theater groups, one that had begun in 1971 when the Chikwakwa Theater started to tour the country, and remained in groups such as the Zhaninge Travelling Theatre Group , founded in 1984.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Theater got off to a successful start when Zimbabwe became a new nation in 1980. The government was interested in supporting community-based theater movements and embraced the idea of theater-for-development, using short plays and dramatic performances to highlight the need for positive changes. Under the guidance of playwright Stephen Chifunyise , who became a minister of education, sport, and culture, many performance groups were founded and theater was widely supported. In 1984, the University of Zimbabwe began offering classes in dramatic arts and staged local plays.

By 1996, more than one hundred theater troupes existed in Zimbabwe, and the National Theatre Organisation, located in Harare, had been invigorated by the influx of local playwrights writing for its production schedule. Zimbabwe offered a flourishing patronage for theater, as well as excellent theaters for successful productions. International theater festivals were organized and brought global talent in touch with Zimbabwean playwrights, producers, and performers. Zimbabwean, British, and African dramatic heritages started to fuse to create an exciting new national theater. Amakhosi Productions of Bulawayo drew its material from the popular concerns of the urban and rural people and invigorated traditional folk theater. International and domestic organizations sought to ameliorate the issue of homeless teenagers by integrating them in well-funded production companies.

Yet, by...

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Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Theater in the southern African nations of Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland is often based on traditional African forms and performed in local languages. Local dramatists who write in English generally produce plays that are appreciated mostly by an urban audience. Local playwrights commonly work together with theater-for-development projects funded in part by the United Nations and write scripts for educational plays performed by traveling troupes or amateur actors.

In Namibia , the National Theatre in the capital of Windhoek offers formal drama, musicals, and ballet based on Western models and revivals of Western plays. The Warehouse Theatre in Windhoek, to the contrary, focuses on informal theater,...

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South Africa

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Republic of South Africa offers a variety of plays written in English. The least compelling of them seem carbon copies of plays from other countries in Africa. They are not uninteresting, but they do not seem to arise from the particular complex of issues in the South African setting. Alfred Hutchinson ’s Fusane’s Trial (pb. 1968), for example, deals with a typical conflict between the old and new cultures. A young girl, Fusane, refuses to become the fourth wife of an old man. Before the actual marriage ceremony, he forces himself on her. In defending herself against rape, she kills him. When the court finds her innocent, her family is both penitent and joyous. New concepts of love and marriage win over the old....

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West Africa

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The plays of West Africa are distinctly different from those of the east and south. Because Europeans did not settle there and take away the land, racial conflict and demands for the recovery of economic and political rights are not major themes. It is not the residual colonial presence, or ideology, or patriotism that primarily motivates West African drama. Plays from this region tend to be exposés of political, social, or economic chaos, or of the corruption among the high and low officials who have replaced the white bureaucracy. Some of the plays attempt to deal with the conflict of values between the old and new cultures; they often broach such topics with detachment and even with a comic spirit. These plays of West Africa...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Sanya Dosunmu ’s God’s Deputy (pb. 1972) is a Cinderella story set in Nigeria in the late nineteenth century. The divine right of a local king is enough to overcome all obstacles to permit him to marry the beautiful princess, the daughter of a village chief. The play incorporates the paraphernalia of traditional customs—children’s games, a festival, the Egungun dance, symbols of various gods such as Ogun and Esu—but it is, in the final analysis, a light piece of entertainment, a musical. Kofi Awoonor ’s Ancestral Power (pb. 1972) is a dialogue between a proponent of the past and a man of the new age. The traditionalist claims to possess powers from his dead ancestors, only to be abruptly exposed as a...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Immediately after independence in 1957, Ghanaian playwrights were invited to play an active role in supporting the new government. Efua Sutherland established the Ghana Drama Studio in Accra in that year, and her plays fused Western and African ideas as well as mixed media. Ama Ata Aidoo built her pan-African fame with her play The Dilemma of a Ghost (pr. 1964), which tells of the conflicts between a Ghanaian husband and an African American wife. She was appointed minister of education in 1982, but disillusioned with Ghana’s continuing slide into economic depression during the 1980’s and 1990’s, she left for exile in Zimbabwe in 1983, focusing there on novel writing.

Economic decline saw the departure of...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The small West African nation Gambia , along the Gambia River, has struggled to maintain a viable live theater. In the 1960’s, troupes such as the Dimbalanteh Company performed to enthusiastic audiences. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, plays about Gambia’s history and contemporary social issues still found spectators, and Gambia’s Association Dramatique Nationale represented the country at international theater festivals. By the late 1990’s, live theater experienced a steady decline in Gambia. Radio plays survived, but audience interest had waned. In the early twenty-first century, Gambia lacked a permanent theater.

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Liberia and Sierra Leone

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In Sierra Leone , plays in the local Krio language, which has its roots in English, were popular after independence in 1961. Dele Charley staged the popular dance-drama Fatmata (pr. 1977), which founded a new genre. Yulisa Amadu Maddy produced Big Berin in the early 1970’s, which was highly critical of the government’s attitudes toward the urban poor. Imprisoned and forced into exile by the late 1970’s, Maddy tried sporadically to return to Sierra Leone in the 1980’s and 1990’s to revive its theater. From 1978 to 1986, plays in Krio and English were performed in the capital’s new city hall, which could house one thousand spectators, before it was closed to theater. The lengthy and brutal civil war that...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Scripted African drama in the English language, with the exception of the situation in South Africa, is still in its development phase, but dramatic activity is extensive. For various reasons—political, cultural, aesthetic—the commitment to the form is real. Where peace, stability, and democracy have been established, formal theater has flourished and traditional dramatic forms have reached large, widespread, and appreciative audiences. Political freedom also has encouraged playwrights, actors, and producers to give free rein to their remarkable creativity. The steady presence of African plays in English at international theater festivals is a positive indicator of the intense vitality and viability of the form.

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brown, Lloyd W. Women Writers in Black Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. Still a groundbreaking study of the development of African women writers, among whom the Ghanaian dramatists Efua Sutherland and Ama Ata Aidoo are discussed in detailed chapters of their own. Notes, bibliography, and index.

Etherton, Michael. The Development of African Drama. New York: Africana, 1982. An excellent work on the origins and development of traditional and contemporary African drama. Unsurpassed in its cogent analysis of the roots of African drama and the effect of the European dramatic influence on modern African drama. In-depth...

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