Cast of the colonised

African Popular Theatre
May 30, 1997

Towards the end of his book David Kerr, a Malawian now based in Botswana, concludes that he has been outlining "the double rape of African culture which has taken place in the last hundred years: first, the colonial intrusion which tried to devalue or even crush indigenous culture, and, second, the more insidious neocolonial attempts at hegemony through co-opting the people's culture". I am glad that the remarks are made in the summing-up rather than at the start, for they suggest an ideological methodology and a beholding to new critical jargon that do not really characterise Kerr's approach. Of course he is in favour of theatre that uses indigenous forms and speaks of living issues, but he nevertheless recognises the contribution of westerners to the development of modern African theatre, and indeed of colonial clubs such as the Donovan Maule in Nairobi where I once saw Hay Fever.

Kerr's terrain encompasses village drama, travelling opera, radio and television scripts, African cinema, South African tourist musicals (though he is wrong to lump Umabatha, the Zulu Macbeth, into the same derogatory sentence as Ipi Tombi), Nobel prize-winning texts by Wole Soyinka and even the work of national dance troupes. It works because each inclusion is radially connected with the domestic lives and indigenous popular culture of ordinary African people. So we see the emergence of the great Yoruba playmakers Hubert Ogunde and Duro Ladipo from the pre-colonial Egungun masquerades, the interconnections of the Chikwaka Travelling Theatre of Malawi, in which Kerr himself was involved, with the development ideas of the Laedza Batanani players of Botswana, and the veiled protests against supremacist rulers that were evident in the Nyau satires of Nyasaland in the 1920s and in the township plays of apartheid South Africa as recently as the early 1990s.

Kerr is informative on every page and often one wants to hear more. Did sailors really perform Hamlet and Richard II off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607? How was the great Concert Party artist Bob Johnson influenced by Al Jolson - was The Jazz Singer widely seen in Africa? If Sembene Ousmane made his film Le Mandat in both a French and a Wolof version and was surprised by the success of the latter did this bring in a nonbourgeois audience for African cinema, as we know Ngugi wa Thiong'o's decision to write plays in Kikuyu and see them performed in villages antagonised the Kenyan government because it took his anti-capitalist message to the ordinary people?

Towards the end there is a roll-call of theatre people in Africa who have been oppressed or worse, as in the case of Byron Kawadwa, director of Uganda's National Theatre, who was murdered by Amin, or the recently hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa. Their valour is matched by countless others, for Kerr's book is really the history of extraordinary endeavour in circumstances that were often physically as well as politically hostile. It is good that someone has told their stories so carefully and a triumph that no fewer than five companies have combined to publish it. In his preface Kerr modestly pleads that his book is not definitive. Since new theatre is being created all the time it could never be so, but it will do for a very long time to come, enthralling to theatre historians and Africanists alike.

Alastair Niven was formerly director general, Africa Centre, and is now head of literature, British Council.

African Popular Theatre: From Pre-Colonial Times to the Present Day

Author - David Kerr
ISBN - 085255 534 2 and 533 4
Publisher - James Currey
Price - £35.00 and £11.95
Pages - 8

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