Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 215-218
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West African Popular Theatre, ed. Karin Barber, John Collins, and Alain Ricard. Bloomington: Indiana UP; Oxford: James Currey, 1997. xxix + 285 pp. ISBN 0-253-21077-1 (Indiana), 0-85255-244-0 (James Currey) paper.
In response to a conference of African writers in Uganda in 1962, Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote his legendary essay "The Language of African Literature." He questioned the hegemony of European languages at such conferences and the marginalization and exclusion of those who write in [End Page 215] African languages. "The whole area of literature and audience, and hence of language as a determinant of both the national and class audience, did not really figure: the debate was more about the subject matter and the racial origins and geographical habitation of the writer" (Decolonising the Mind, England: James Currey, 1986, p. 6). First delivered in 1981, this polemical address continues to have great relevance. In his keynote address to the 24th Annual Conference of the African Literature Association (ALA) in Austin, Texas, on 28 March 1998, Ngugi reiterated many of these same points: whereas the idea of someone getting a degree in French literature without speaking French is ludicrous, indeed unimaginable, few non-African scholars getting degrees in African literature gain even basic familiarity with an African language. Furthermore the overwhelming dominance of European-language texts in the field of African literature has profound class implications, for the authors and audiences of such texts tend to represent an economically privileged minority. Despite Ngugi's critique, much literary theory and criticism continues to assume that African literature written in European languages expresses conditions experienced by African societies as a whole, even though most producers and consumers of this literature represent a rarified minority.
The obstacles to bringing African language literature into mainstream scholarly discourse are many, including issues of language competence and translation, distribution, geographic distance (since so much scholarship is produced in the USA), and the ephemerality of performed, improvised, and nonscripted oral arts. In light of this long-standing problem concerning the status of African-language material within the discipline of literary studies, the new anthology West African Popular Theatre edited by Karin Barber, John Collins, and Alain Ricard makes a refreshing intervention. West African popular theater earns its "popular" appellation for several reasons, chief among which is its widespread appeal among ethnically and socioeconomically heterogenous African audiences. Spectators of Yorùbá popular theater, according to Biodun Jeyifo, cut "across the nascent division of people into groups and classes differentiated on the basis of wealth, privilege, and power" (The Yoruba Popular Travelling Theatre of Nigeria, Lagos: Nigeria Magazine, 1984, p. 4). The authors of West African Popular Theatre argue that the primary patrons and producers of popular theater in Ghana, Togo, and western Nigeria are the "underprivileged majority," the school leavers, apprentices, drivers, small business owners, and unemployed.
West African Popular Theatre represents a ground-breaking contribution to the field of African literature, for it brings together for the first time popular theater texts from three different West African countries, all of which were originally performed in African languages: the Akan play Orphan Do Not Glance (Awisia Yi Wo Ani) by the Jaguar Jokers of Ghana; the bilingual Ewe and French play The African Girl From Paris (L'Africaine de Paris) composed by the Happy Star Concert Band from Togo; and Yorùbá play The Secret is Out (Gbangbá dEkùn) by Lérè Pàímó's Édá Theater Company. The introduction to each play includes background on the theater troupe and performance conventions, analysis of the sociological and economic [End Page 216] dimensions of life on the road for touring troupes, and discussion of the creative process each group uses to compose and develop new shows.
The editors also suggest the deeper cultural and social significance of these plays. John Collins reads the orphan theme, so ubiquitous in the Ghanaian concert party and dramatized in Orphan Do Not Glance, as a way of "describing the acute loneliness, rootlessness, and loss of primary social relations encountered...