African Drama: History, Characteristics, Themes, and Major Writers

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I. Introduction

A. Definition of African drama

African drama refers to the body of plays, performances, and theatrical traditions that originate from the African continent. It encompasses a wide range of theatrical forms, from ancient rituals to modern experimental theatre, and incorporates a diverse array of cultural influences, including traditional African mythology, colonialism, and globalization. African drama is characterized by its emphasis on storytelling, social commentary, and the use of performance as a means of resistance and empowerment.

B. Importance of African drama

African drama plays a crucial role in the cultural identity of African communities, serving as a means of preserving and passing down cultural traditions and values from one generation to the next. It is also an important tool for social and political activism, allowing artists to use their work to address issues such as colonialism, racism, and gender inequality. In addition, African drama has made significant contributions to the wider field of theatre and performance, inspiring new forms of storytelling and experimentation with theatrical conventions.

C. Purpose of the paper

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of African drama, its history, characteristics, major playwrights, and major plays. The paper will also examine the challenges facing African drama and discuss the future of the art form.

II. Historical Overview of African Drama

A. Pre-Colonial Era

The origins of African drama can be traced back to the pre-colonial era, where theatre and performance were integral parts of traditional African cultures. These performances served a variety of functions, including religious rituals, social celebrations, and educational storytelling. They often incorporated music, dance, and elaborate costumes, and were performed by community members for the benefit of the entire village.

B. Colonial Era

During the colonial era, European influence had a significant impact on African theatre, as European missionaries and colonizers introduced new forms of theatre and performance. European-style theatre, with its emphasis on realism and individualism, challenged traditional African performance traditions, leading to a decline in their popularity.

C. Post-Colonial Era

Following the end of colonial rule, there was a resurgence of interest in traditional African performance traditions, as artists sought to reclaim their cultural heritage and use theatre as a tool for political and social change. This period saw the emergence of a new generation of African playwrights who drew on both traditional African performance techniques and contemporary Western theatre to create a unique theatrical style.

III. Characteristics of African Drama

A. Themes

African drama often explores themes such as identity, community, social justice, and the struggle for independence. Plays may also address issues specific to the African continent, such as the legacy of colonialism, corruption, and poverty.

B. Language

African drama incorporates a wide range of languages, including indigenous African languages, colonial languages such as English and French, and hybrid languages that blend African and European influences.

C. Performance Style

African drama is characterized by its use of music, dance, and other performative elements. It often incorporates traditional African performance techniques, such as call and response, storytelling, and audience participation.

D. Use of Rituals

African drama often incorporates ritualistic elements, such as libations, offerings, and ceremonial dances, which are used to connect the audience to the spiritual world and to the ancestors.

IV. Major African Dramatists

A. Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka is one of the most prominent and influential African playwrights of the 20th century. He is known for his use of Yoruba mythology and his exploration of themes such as cultural identity, social justice, and the legacy of colonialism. His most famous plays include "The Lion and the Jewel," "Death and the King's Horseman," and "A Dance of the Forests." Soyinka was the first African playwright to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1986.

B. Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard is a South African playwright whose work explores the themes of apartheid, social injustice, and human dignity. He is known for his realistic portrayals of life in South Africa and his use of the "two-hander" format, in which two actors play all the roles in the play. His most famous plays include "Master Harold...and the Boys," "The Island," and "Sizwe Banzi is Dead."

C. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan playwright, novelist, and scholar who has made significant contributions to African literature and theatre. He is known for his use of African languages, particularly his native Kikuyu, and his exploration of themes such as colonialism, nationalism, and cultural identity. His most famous plays include "The Black Hermit," "I Will Marry When I Want," and "The Trial of Dedan Kimathi."

D. Efua Sutherland

Efua Sutherland was a Ghanaian playwright, educator, and cultural activist who played a key role in the development of African theatre. She is known for her use of traditional Ghanaian performance techniques, such as storytelling and music, and her exploration of themes such as gender roles, cultural identity, and the impact of colonialism on African societies. Her most famous plays include "The Marriage of Anansewa," "Edufa," and "The Voice in the Forest."

V. Major African Plays

A. The Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka

"The Lion and the Jewel" is a play by Wole Soyinka that explores the clash between traditional African culture and modern Western influence. Set in a Nigerian village, the play tells the story of the love triangle between a young village girl, a local chief, and a schoolteacher from the city.

B. The Island by Athol Fugard

"The Island" is a play by Athol Fugard that explores the struggle for freedom and dignity under apartheid in South Africa. The play is set on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, and tells the story of two cellmates who rehearse a performance of "Antigone" in their cell.

C. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and Micere Githae Mugo

"The Trial of Dedan Kimathi" is a play by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and Micere Githae Mugo that explores the life and death of Dedan Kimathi, a Kenyan nationalist who fought against British colonial rule. The play uses a mix of traditional African performance techniques and Western dramatic conventions to create a powerful and politically charged work.

D. The Marriage of Anansewa by Efua Sutherland

"The Marriage of Anansewa" is a play by Efua Sutherland that draws on traditional Ghanaian mythology to tell the story of a young girl who is offered as a bride to the trickster spider Ananse. The play explores themes of gender roles, power, and the clash between tradition and modernity.

VI. Challenges Facing African Drama

A. Lack of Funding

One of the biggest challenges facing African drama is a lack of funding, which makes it difficult for artists to produce and promote their work. Many African countries have limited resources to invest in the arts, and there is often a lack of support for emerging artists and theatre companies.

B. Limited Access to Training and Education

Another challenge facing African drama is limited access to training and education. Many aspiring playwrights and actors in Africa do not have access to quality training programs or educational resources that can help them develop their skills and advance their careers. This can make it difficult for African theatre to compete with other industries for talent and resources.

C. Censorship and Government Interference

In some African countries, censorship and government interference can limit the freedom of expression of artists and prevent them from tackling sensitive or controversial issues in their work. This can stifle creativity and make it difficult for African drama to have a meaningful impact on society.

D. Limited Exposure and Distribution

Finally, African drama faces the challenge of limited exposure and distribution. While there is a growing interest in African theatre in some parts of the world, many productions still struggle to find audiences outside of Africa. This can make it difficult for African playwrights and theatre companies to gain recognition and make a living from their work.

VII. Future of African Drama

Despite the challenges facing African drama, there are reasons to be optimistic about its future. There is a growing interest in African theatre both within and outside of Africa, and many artists are finding innovative ways to overcome the limitations of funding, training, and distribution.

One promising development is the growth of African theatre festivals, which provide a platform for emerging playwrights and theatre companies to showcase their work and connect with audiences and industry professionals from around the world. Examples of these festivals include the Lagos Theatre Festival, the Zimbabwe International Festival of the Arts, and the Kampala International Theatre Festival.

Another promising development is the increasing use of digital platforms and social media to distribute and promote African theatre. Many African theatre companies are using online platforms to reach new audiences and expand their reach beyond traditional theatre spaces.

In conclusion, African drama is a vibrant and diverse art form that has made significant contributions to world theatre. Despite the challenges it faces, there are reasons to be hopeful about its future, as artists continue to push boundaries, experiment with new forms and techniques, and find ways to connect with audiences both within and outside of Africa.

Here are some references for further reading on African drama:

  1. Conteh-Morgan, J. (2004). Theatre and drama in Francophone Africa: A critical introduction. Indiana University Press.

  2. Dieng, R. (2014). Theatre and politics in Francophone Africa. Indiana University Press.

  3. Drewal, H. J., & Mason, J. (Eds.). (2008). Sacred spaces and powerful places in African culture. Indiana University Press.

  4. Gikandi, S. (2002). African theatre: Development and challenges. Cambridge University Press.

  5. Ijere, O. H. (2009). Contemporary Nigerian drama and theatre. Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd.

  6. Puplampu, K. P. (2011). A historical perspective of African drama. African Research Review, 5(3), 358-372.

  7. Ugwu, C. N. (2009). Perspectives on African drama: Aesthetics, tradition, and social change. Trafford Publishing.

  8. Van Wyk, C. (2009). African theatre today. University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

  9. Winks, R. W. (Ed.). (2006). The Oxford history of the British Empire: Historiography. Oxford University Press.

  10. Zell, H. M. (1997). From colonial to liberation psychology: The Philippine experience. Psychology Press.

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  1. Can I have example of African/non African dramas that has the tenet of old comedy

    1. Old comedy refers to a style of comedic drama that originated in ancient Greece, particularly in the 5th century BC. It's characterized by its satirical and often bawdy humor, as well as its focus on societal and political commentary. While there may not be direct equivalents in African traditional drama, there are certainly contemporary African and non-African dramas that exhibit elements of old comedy. Here are some examples:

      **African Dramas:**

      1. **"The Gods Are Not To Blame" by Ola Rotimi (Nigerian)**: This play is a modern adaptation of the Greek classic, "Oedipus Rex," but it incorporates elements of old comedy through its satire of traditional African beliefs and societal norms. It critiques the role of fate and the gods in human affairs while also providing humorous moments and exaggerated characters.

      2. **"The Trials of Brother Jero" by Wole Soyinka (Nigerian)**: This play is a satirical comedy that follows the exploits of a self-proclaimed prophet in Nigeria. Through humor and wit, Soyinka critiques the hypocrisy and opportunism within religious institutions, mirroring themes found in ancient Greek comedies.

      3. **"The Marriage of Anansewa" by Efua Sutherland (Ghanaian)**: While not strictly adhering to the structure of old comedy, this play incorporates elements of satire and farce. It tells the story of Ananse, a trickster figure from West African folklore, and his attempts to marry off his daughter to the highest bidder. The play uses humor to critique societal values and the institution of marriage.

      **Non-African Dramas:**

      1. **"The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde (Irish)**: This play is a classic example of old comedy from the late 19th century. It features witty dialogue, mistaken identities, and social satire, particularly targeting the hypocrisy and triviality of the upper class in Victorian society.

      2. **"Lysistrata" by Aristophanes (Greek)**: As a direct example from the ancient Greek tradition, "Lysistrata" is a comedic play that follows the women of Athens and Sparta as they withhold sex from their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War. It's filled with sexual humor, slapstick comedy, and sharp political commentary.

      3. **"The Government Inspector" by Nikolai Gogol (Russian)**: This play, also known as "The Inspector General," is a biting satire of bureaucracy and corruption in 19th-century Russia. It features absurd situations, mistaken identities, and exaggerated characters, all hallmarks of old comedy.

      While these examples may not perfectly align with the exact structure and conventions of ancient Greek old comedy, they share thematic elements such as satire, social commentary, and exaggerated characters, making them modern counterparts to the genre.

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