Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 220-221
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New Theatre in Francophone and Anglophone Africa, ed. Anne Fuchs. Matatu 20. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.
Politics and Performance: Theatre, Poetry and Song in Southern Africa, ed. Liz Gunner. Witwatersrand: Witwatersrand UP, 1994.
The initiative taken by the journal Matatu deserves recognition: assembling the main contributions from the colloquium held on 23-26 June 1995, under the sponsorship of the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, in Mandelieu, France. Dedicated to the memory of playwrights Sony Labou Tansi and Matsemela Manaka, the text is structured, for the reader's convenience, in four distinct parts: articles, marketplace, interview, and creative writing.
Was the goal of the colloquium met? "Originally," writes Anne Fuchs in her introduction, "our intention had been to give the participants an opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in the field of African theatre" (xi). Nevertheless, with regard to certain articles that reprise the old debate on tradition vs modernity in African theater, one can ask: what, exactly, is the meaning, for the authors of the articles collected in this volume, of the adjective "new" when joined to the noun "theater"? One might have wished that the colloquium participants could help us discover other day-to-day experiences on the African theater scene—the theater that is inventing itself far from the usual clichés, in the increasing number of independent venues but which no one ever mentions. It seems impossible to us that one could envisage, for example, a study of reverse influences as found in "L'Afrique dans la dramaturgie de Peter Brook" (Africa in the Dramaturgy of Peter Brook), as does Françoise Quillet, without ever admitting that contemporary African theater has experienced similar, diverse influences. Indeed, there is the example of Soyinka, analyzed in James Gibbs's "Soyinka and a Tattered Power: Notes on Wole Soyinka Contacts with France, 1955 to 1995," and in Christopher Balme's "Syncretic Theatre: The Semiotics of Postcolonial Drama and Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman," but especially today there is an entire "underground" theatrical [End Page 220] current to which academics ought to pay more heed. One will note, nevertheless, that the reasons for silence surrounding this alternative theater are the same as for the type of theater analyzed in this text. Among the reasons, we can cite: the lack of national subsidies that prevents the development of professional troupes, the difficulties of organizing tours, therefore of establishing an audience and a visible presence. Eckhard Breitinger thus at one point notes that "the economic decline [. . .] has brought this tradition to an end. The groups can no longer afford the expense of travelling and the spectators can no longer afford to buy the tickets for the show" (4).
Two excellent articles, the first by Ambroise Kom, "Théâtre et censure au Cameroun" (169-77), the second by Geoffrey Davis, "Of Undesirability: The Control of Theatre in South Africa during the Age of Apartheid" (183-208), analyze another fundamental reason for theater's stagnation on the Continent: censure, of which the least that can be said is that (happily!) it has not always succeeded in killing the political consciousness of playwrights and their taste for provocation, qualities that are both consubstantial with any aesthetic rupture and with any significant advance in the realm of the arts. As Davis aptly remarks, "In South Africa, as elsewhere, censorship failed to prevent change in political ideas or in manners. How could it have, since perceptions of what is politically acceptable or what may be counted obscene, indecent or blasphemous in language, in dress or in performance, are everywhere in constant flux?" (208).
Politics and Performance nicely completes this vision of a theater that is evolving despite the contingencies, even if it is through the association of two apparently heterogeneous concepts applied to South African Zambian and Zimbabwean productions: it is to a regional but broader reading of the theatrical act that we are invited. This type of...