New hybrids grown from very old roots

Postcolonial Plays
August 29, 2003

Post-colonial studies has become so diverse that any anthology purporting to offer representative texts is bound to be mired in some controversy, especially over what has been left out or how the editor has defined the discipline. In her introductory essay Postcolonial Plays, Helen Gilbert antici-pates most of the possible criticism and ably defends the value of her selection without claiming that it offers exhaustive coverage.

The anthology brings together a variety of texts mostly from countries formerly colonised by Britain - South Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean and Ireland. Some readers may quibble with the inclusion of the Charabanc Theatre Company from Northern Ireland, but that can be easily countered by the fact that there is a growing consensus that the focus in Irishliterature on the hierarchical structures that are a legacy and continuation of colonial and imperial power makes it a legitimate and significant part of post-colonial studies.

However, the inclusion of a play from Hawaii could justifiably be seen as an unnecessary extravagance in a project that by necessity has to be compressed and that, as a consequence, excludes genuinely innovative playwrights such as Robert Serumaga of Uganda or Zakes Mda of South Africa.

That aside, the book contains quite a number of familiar names: Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Ama Ata Aidoo and Girish Karnad, and Guillermo Verdicchia, while also introducing lesser-known playwrights. This gives the anthology a particular strength as a teaching tool.

The section on South Africa is especially strong, bringing together plays written both under apartheid and after. The juxtaposition of Maponya Maishe's 1970s play The Hungry Earth, based on Steve Biko's Black Consciousness philosophy, with the clearly postmodernist multimedia event Ubu and the Truth Commission , by Jane Taylor, William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company, provides a refreshing insight into the ways drama and theatre idioms in South Africa have been shaped by immediate historical circumstances while at the same time carrying out a dialogue with international cultural movements.

I was particularly fascinated by the influence of Brecht's ideas on the two plays, which have different historical settings and ideological frames.

While Maishe's adopts the Manichean ideology underlying apartheid against that very system, Ubu and the Truth Commission is located in a world in which the moral certainties of the 1970s are seen as an inadequate basis for post-apartheid reconstruction; indeed, just as unsatisfactory is the liberating political morality behind the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission's very constitution as performance ensures that its truth is mediated by the laws of theatrical representation.

Furthermore, the inclusion of Judith Thompson's play offers another perspective. The Canadian playwright gives us an outsider's view of apartheid but, more significantly, through the defamiliarising gaze of a white child in his relationship with his dead black nanny, killed during a protest march.

The anthology also provides for transnational comparative work. Soyinka (Africa), Karnad (India) and Walcott (the Caribbean) are presented in terms of their efforts at translating the local and received aesthetic forms into new hybrid languages of theatrical representation. The linguistic tensions in their work, be it between traditions of modern theatre and those of Indian folk theatre or Yoruba religious ritual, poignantly recall Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia, in which the multiplicity of language is implicated in the politics of power, resisting hegemonic monoglossias.

Aidoo's classic play Anowa stages the play of power in gendered terms. Its presence attests to the anthology's attentiveness to an important aspect of post-colonial theory - concern with the politics of gender not in its exclusivity but in the broader history of uses and abuses of power, beginning with the colonial moment and including the post-colonial present.

The play's concerns echo those of other women playwrights such as the Sistren Theatre Collective from Jamaica, as well as those of male writers such as Canada's Tomson Highway and Nigeria's Femi Osofisan.

In Once upon Four Robbers Osofisan's analysis of the dehumanising materialism of post-colonial formation is at one with the ethical and political concerns in Manjula Padmanabhan's science-fictional Harvest, which probes the values underlying the organ trade in India. Both writers attackthe moral depravity of their societies while forging new representational discourses. Like other post-colonial writers, they seek to transcend realist modes of representation to achieve new ways of seeing the familiar.

The introduction roots the plays in the broader theoretical and cultural debates in post-colonial studies while outlining the rationale behind the anthology's structure. The headnotes enable the reader to contextualise the play within each writer's wider political and aesthetic concerns.

Postcolonial Plays has filled an obvious gap in post-colonial studies, a field that is concerned mostly with fiction to the significant exclusion of poetry and drama. A collection of plays that brings together what, on the whole, are representative texts should, one may hope, effect an overdue shift towards greater recognition of, and attention to, theatre and drama.

Gilbert shows how post-colonial drama and theatre are central to the production and performance of post-colonial identity and thus a vital site for rethinking the past and the present and imagining the future.

Mpalive-Hangson Msiska is lecturer in English and humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Postcolonial Plays: An Anthology

Editor - Helen Gilbert
ISBN - 0 415 16448 6 and 16449 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £65.00 and £18.99
Pages - 469

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