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Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 1-5

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Drama and Performance

John Conteh-Morgan and Tejumola Olaniyan

An exciting development in African cultural criticism over the past decade has been the growth of critical interest in African theater. Valuable book-length studies have been published on the subject, 1 not to mention the reference books wholly or partly devoted to it—The Cambridge Guide to African and Caribbean Theatre, edited by Martin Banham (1994), The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, also edited by Banham (1995), The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, volume 3, edited by Don Rubin (1997)—or the recent founding at the University of Leeds of African Theatre, the only journal of its kind in Britain and the US, whose first number appeared in summer 1999. This growing academic interest in African theater has led to a greater understanding of the subject and focused attention on a medium of cultural expression that (compared to the novel) has suffered relative critical neglect—a neglect that is at odds with the vitality of theatrical activity in Africa.

Not only do plays continue to be written and published (see Dunton's Nigerian Theatre in English; see also Wurtz and Thfoin), African social life never fails to impress with its own theatricality and its rich variety of constantly evolving, nonliterary, performance genres (sacred and secular, "traditional" and "popular") whose functions range, with varying degrees of overlap, from the instrumental to the purely aesthetic. It is with a view to exploring aspects of this diverse performance activity, of which "drama" is only a subset, and to drawing further critical attention to it that Research in African Literatures decided to devote a special number to it.

As the editors of this number, our concern has been to avoid what we see as a major pitfall of current African theater criticism, namely its inordinate attention to "drama" (by which we mean the Western-inspired literary play) at the expense of oral, nonliterary modes of performance. By presenting articles that deal not only with "dramatic literature" but also with examples of the other performing arts, as well as with social performance, we have sought to illustrate a less restrictive and more interdisciplinary approach to African theater and, in the process, to align critical discourse on the theater with the concrete practice of Africa's playwrights and theater practitioners. The two opening articles—by Wole Soyinka and Johannes Fabian—respectively define the number's general orientation.

In "From Ghetto to Garrison: A Chronic Case of Orisunitis," Soyinka describes his old and abiding passion—which he compares to an infection—for a certain theater practice, one animated by what he calls the "orisunic ideal." A theater that is iconoclastic, with a "social focus," and that operates from the interstices of society as the "voice of the underdog," an instrument of urban cultural warfare. Whenever he felt cured of this life-giving passion, it would pleasantly resurface. In an absorbing, even moving, discussion of its most recent manifestation, and of its transformative potential [End Page 1] on society, Soyinka describes how his recent attempt to produce The Beatification of Area Boy in a violent slum of Jamaica became more than an adventurous artistic enterprise. As a result of their intense involvement in, and experience with, staging The Beatification, his cast of alienated Jamaican youth—hardened and aspiring gangsters, thugs, and victims—had found a new purpose in life. They went on to establish a troupe—The Area Boys Club—whose objective, "to transform their neighborhoods and, progressively, the society and its political culture," is one that Soyinka himself, who founded the activist and socially committed Orisun theater in Nigeria in the 1960s, confesses never to have dared dream of.

In a contribution that is, like Soyinka's, part personal recollection and part analysis, Johannes Fabian provides an insight into the autobiographical factors that shaped his sensitivity to the theatricality of social life and to the performative dimension involved in learning a language or culture. Using as his point of departure a nineteenth-century French text describing a cultural performance in the then Congo Free State...


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