Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 176-185
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Theatricality and Social Mimodrama
Pius Ngandu Nkashama
Textbook definitions of theater are often based on "performance" and necessarily limit it to the play. It is therefore appropriate to reflect on the principle of "performance" as the objective and aim of drama. That same definition, however, does not pay sufficient attention to the implications of "scenography." Unconditional factors deal with the relationship that must be established between the actors, on one hand, and the audience, on the other, through the intermediary of the scenic space. If such facts, however, appear definitive in the case of Western theater, even throughout its different metamorphoses and mutations, the same cannot be said for African theater, for the term itself is full of ambiguities, and these are not only due to the perspective brought to bear upon theatricality.
The most classic manuals often dwell at length on "traditional forms" and are often quite tenacious in seeking correspondences in the realm of the religious, the mythic, or especially the magical. It is possible that the literature on the subject contributes to creating such misunderstandings. The role of successive ethnologies, or even certain postulates advanced by cultural anthropology, must not be neglected in this context. The most standard references to the works of Bakary Traoré, dating back, however, to around 1958, allow an a posteriori confirmation of these partial conclusions. For more than a decade now, prospects for analyzing theatrical productions have become a possibility. Research methodologies have changed, as well as the stated desire of authors to arrive at a "theory of theater" capable of explaining concrete practices as well as the various expressions of social mimodrama.
This essay intends to show the close relationships between what is properly called dramatic art and its permanent projections created in social scenography. The topic will be considered from all perspectives, even venturing beyond the stage itself, but an effort will be made to remain within the limits of "production" and stage modalities as discussed above.
The first part of this study presents a consideration of historical tragedy, as well as its resulting dramatic resonances. The second is based upon the prolepses and analepses in the stage play, to show how the experience of theatricality produces its own mythologies. The third part touches on the circularity within which the function of theater acts, using the model of the kotéba, or the concert-party.
One of the most important aspects of African esthetics is its function of transgression. The term thus designated not only marks an instance of subversion or even a power of catharsis, but also refers to a manner of institutionalizing a transitive culture, by allowing an actual space of rupture from the modalities of the law. That would mean that the observance of the norm as a moment of legitimation of social (and legal) constraints is necessarily effected through such esthetic acts of social transgression. In a society where the contestation of paternal authority is met with overly severe punishments, the culture simultaneously institutes exaggerated forms of [End Page 176] "challenge." The kotéba, for example, authorizes an appropriation of social discourse by those very persons who are held in total submission by patriarchy's restrictive "rules." They can thus "play the father," debating him or even contradicting him by reducing him to his own social game.
In certain Central African communities where the husband's authority is intransigent, at his funeral rites, the wife who considers herself thwarted by her dead husband's behavior can "play" his role, before his corpse. She can put on his clothing, strut before him out in the open, and recount their private life before a large audience. The scene can thus be extended in time and space, for it can last as long as the audience wishes or as long as it takes for the wife-turned-actor to experience a sense of release. Indeed, this is implicit theatricality, even if it is also a matter of purification rituals. In Théâtres et scènes de spectacles, other paradigms...