- Performance and Politics in Tanzania: The Nation on Stage
Based on research conducted during 1996 and 1997, Laura Edmondson’s Performance and Politics in Tanzania aims at laying bare the very “uniqueness of Tanzanian popular theatre,” represented by its three outstanding commercial companies: TOT (Tanzania Theatre One), the Muungano Cultural Troupe, and the Mandela Cultural Troupe. While integrating the same live-theatre components used by older and perhaps better-known West African traveling popular troupes (such as the Yoruba Traveling Theatre and the Ghanaian Concert Parties), the Tanzanian groups have developed a clearly distinctive performance structure. In contrast to the Yoruba Traveling [End Page 145] Theatre’s linear narratives and the Ghanaian Concert Parties’ entrenched performance structures, the Tanzanian troupes collage neatly compartmentalized “clusters” of special types of performance, the arrangement of which is not fixed and may vary from show to show. The clusters are traditional ngoma (dance), short skits, elaborate plays, taarab (an East African music genre), contemporary pop music, kwaya (choral music), and, uniquely, acrobatics. The book suggests, convincingly, that this peculiar form evolved during the 1980s out of a complex interplay of the legacy of British cultural colonialism, a specific national understanding of performing culture, and the post-independence, socialist-oriented structure of cultural institutions and artistic practices.
The author’s chief interest, however, is in exploring the companies’ highly complex, often bewildering perspectives on the country’s societal realities. For Edmondson, surveying the troupes’ attitudes toward the ruling party and their perspectives on dominant cultural and political values, it “becomes virtually impossible to distinguish between moments of transgression and capitulation” (8). She notes that she never witnessed performances “that openly criticized the state or ruling party” (5); rather, performers and audiences alike appeared to confirm their loyalty as if in defiance of international dictates that “situate ‘free’ markets and liberalization strategies as the panacea for Africa’s political ills” (5). The complexities of Tanzanian performance, “which both defends the established order and strives for a better world,” could offer new ways of thinking about African popular culture. An exploration of these performances, claims Edmondson, “leads to a creative understanding of resistance. . . . The shifting allegiances among and between the theatre companies, their audiences, and the state culminated in an explosion of multi-narratives and unwieldy, often contradictory versions of Tanzania” (8–9).
The book consists of three parts. Part 1, “Imagining the Nation,” is most interesting when focused on the ways that alternative nations are conceptualized by these theatre troupes as they negotiate tradition, morality, and power. Part 2, “Sexing the Nation,” deals especially with the politics of the ngoma and with the portrayal of family life. Here, Edmondson offers clear insight into the contradictory, multifaceted ways in which the troupes confronted the sociocultural onslaught of the unleashed free-market economy during the mid-1990s. She analyzes TOT’s Control Yourself, Muungano’s drama Such Matters (both of which treat the alarming increase of rape cases in the country), and Mandela’s plays about struggling with abject poverty and AIDS. Part 3, “Contesting the Nation,” looks to the popular (and videotaped) annual staging contests between TOT and Muungano as a modern version of mashindano, a dance- and oral-performance competition that is traditional along the Tanzanian coast, dating back to the nineteenth century.
In a concluding chapter, “Popular Performance in the New Millennium,” Edmondson presents observations made during her short return trips in 2001 and 2004. Since her initial research, the troupes’ performance structures and their status as powerful cultural icons had undergone significant changes. In 1997, the author could attend five performances a week; during her return trips, she could hardly find any. Muungano, and particularly Mandela, were struggling for mere survival as relevant theatres. When Mandela could not pay the rent, its favorite venue was bulldozed into rubble. The company now played to inattentive audiences in noisy, rather seedy bars. Only TOT, loosely affiliated with the ruling party, had gained in status. According to Edmondson, however, the company, which had lost its critical social bite...