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Reviewed by:
  • Playing for Life: Performance in Africa in the Age of AIDS
  • Mary Jo Arnoldi
Playing for Life: Performance in Africa in the Age of AIDS By Louise M. Bourgault Durham: Carolina Academic P, 2003. 315 pp. + CD. ISBN 0-89089-125-7.

Louise Bourgault's book is a timely addition to a growing body of literature that highlights Africans' efforts to manage the AIDS crisis on the continent. The focal point of her book is the role that African performance plays in AIDS education. Bourgault divides the book into two parts. She sets the stage by first introducing the reader to the African continent focusing on African history since colonialism and identifying key issues relating to contemporary society and development. She then introduces the reader to the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS and discusses its impact in Africa. This section includes a discussion of factors that fuel this epidemic, touching upon political, ecological, economic, and social factors. Her third chapters profiles two African countries: South Africa and Mali, which are experiencing radically different rates of HIV infection. South Africa has a high rate of infection, while Mali has one of the lowest rates on the continent. Her country profiles include information on demography and history and on each country's current efforts at AIDS interventions. In the last chapter in Part 1, she introduces the topic of performance and focuses on articulating the differences between African and Western performance. I found this chapter to be problematic. It was bothered by the dichotomy she sets up, as her framework is unhistoricized and it conflates and essentializes diverse African and Western performance forms that have quite different histories and trajectories.

Part 2 opens with discussions of orality and performance in Africa, followed by individual chapters devoted to specific genres, including oral narratives and epics, chants and songs, dance, and drama. In each of these chapters, Bourgault introduces the reader to a variety of time-honored forms and also gives examples of how these forms have been adapted and put in the service of HIV/AIDS education. She takes a sweeping approach and draws her examples not only from South African and Malian performance forms, but from around the African continent. In the final chapter, Bourgault focuses on some of the classic anthropological studies of ritual practice [End Page 121] and of performance theory. She ends with a section that includes suggestions for how Africans might adapt their performance forms both as education about HIV/AIDS for local audiences and as a political strategy to focus world attention on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.

The book is written for a nonspecialist audience. It is an ambitious undertaking that attempts to weave together complex information on African history and societies and development and the HIV/AIDS crisis on the continent with the nature of African performance and its potential as a development tool. The organization of the book is not wholly successful. For example, I found the shift from a focus on two African countries in the first section to a broad continental approach in later discussion of African performance genres to be confusing. Despite its shortcomings, however, the book would be useful for undergraduates in introductory courses in performance studies and communications, applied anthropology and development, and African Studies.

Bourgault's style is clear and engaging, and she includes a set of review questions at the end of each chapter to stimulate further discussion. The book also includes an extensive glossary of terms that might be unfamiliar to her readers. There is a large bibliography that would have perhaps been more useful for students if it had been organized by topic. The book includes a CD that allows the reader to access short excerpts of a number of different performance traditions discussed in the text. This is an excellent addition to the text. While the CD is supposed to be accessible either on a Windows or Macintosh platform, I was unfortunately unable to access it through the Windows platform, although it worked very well on the Macintosh platform.

Mary Jo Arnoldi
National Museum of History, Smithsonian Institution


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pp. 121-122
Launched on MUSE
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