Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 206-207
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Community in Motion: Theatre for Development in Africa
Community in Motion: Theatre for Development in Africa, by L. Dale Byam, Westport: Bergin and Garvey, 1999. xx + 216 pp. ISBN 0-89789- 581-9, US$59.95.
Dale Byam's first sentence: "The implications for a new African theatre mushrooming on the heels of colonialism [. . .] give rise to a number of conjectures." Her unfortunate fungal mixed metaphor is regrettably symptomatic of the standard of writing and analysis in this book. Ignoring much of the rapidly growing body of work on theater and development, Byam has set out analyze what is desirable in creating development theater according to a Freirean model. The first chapter lays out Freirean ideology against the [End Page 206] context of postcolonial Africa--an Africa that is here seen in simplistically homogenous terms, both historically and culturally. Chapter two focuses on case studies from Botswana, Zambia, Nigeria, and Kenya. The line followed is progressive. The work of Laedza Batanani in Botswana is castigated for lack of popular grass-roots involvement. Projects in Zambia and Nigeria are seen as improvements, but still as partial failures because they were led by either foreigners or university students, and not by "organic intellectuals," and because they failed to work closely enough with communities using indigenous cultural forms. Only when we come to the Kamiriithu project in Kenya does Byam perceive what has been widely recognized as a truly community-based, Freirean kind of theater.
The main body of the book then concentrates on the development of community theater in Zimbabwe, and in particular on the work of ZACT (The Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatre). ZACT is seen in glowing terms as the child of Kamiriithu, and is framed as the progenitor of not just a national movement but also a regional family covering most of Southern Africa.
What is most worrying is the uncritical nature of Byam's evaluation. Her analysis fails to consider questions such as growing difficulties posed by state censorship, the enormous problems experienced by women in Zimbabwean theater, the question of how representative ZACT groups are when they are nearly all composed of young people, the pressures and compromises induced by the need for groups to earn money, and the fact that many plays are propagandistic and give information rather than following a Freirean dialectic approach.
Byam writes off Zimbabwe's other theater organization, the National Theatre Organisation (NTO), as a purely colonial left-over, when this is simply untrue. She criticizes most of the other theater projects examined for being run by foreigners but never mentions this in relation to ZACT's Kenyan chairman. She fails to query why some groups have left ZACT. Most worryingly there is very little analysis of the actual theatrical products of various ZACT groups, and Byam sees Theater for Development purely as a tool of education and consciousness raising without any mention of creativity, imagination, or aesthetics.
Most of the research for this book appears to have been carried out in 1989, so that it is now fairly out-of-date. I have tremendous admiration for the community theater movement in Zimbabwe, but this account does not serve either that country or community theater well. For a much better balanced text see Martin Rohmer's Theatre and Performance in Zimbabwe (Bayreuth, 1999).
Jane Plastow is with the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, where she has written and practiced widely in the areas of African theater and theater for development.