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TDR: The Drama Review 45.1 (2001) 128-152

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Tanzanian Theatre
From Marx to the Marketplace

Thomas Riccio



The scene was the National Museum of Tanzania in Dar es Salaam on a hot and humid late November day, 1999. The event was a celebration to mark the 150 years since the first publication of the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. Sponsored by the Finnish Embassy, the occasion included displays, cocktails, finger food, and pastries, a Finnish folk rock band, and speeches. The Finnish ambassador spoke about cooperation, a scholar talked about a recent translation of the epic into Kiswahili, and the Tanzanian Minister of Culture spoke about how the Kalevala, written and published in Finnish, was the spark igniting Finnish nationalism. He went further to say how the fragments of folklore were turned into an epic work and became a shared point of reference, validating a people, language, and national identity. The Minister saw that Tanzania was at a similar point in history. Like the Finns of the 1830s, the culturally nascent nation of Tanzania was identifying and recording its rich and disparate folk traditions. Like Finland, Tanzania had suffered under colonial rule, which feared folk customs and indigenous language as subversive. Finland, too, had thrown off its colonial rulers and unified its various folk traditions into a national culture.

The Kalevala celebration then moved outdoors under the shade of a large mango tree. There, two well-known (if not the best-known) Tanzanian troupes performed--the Parapanda Arts Company and the Mandela Theatre. Both groups were commissioned by the Finnish embassy to give presentations celebrating the Kalevala. The Parapanda Arts Company, wearing matching batik shirts and pants, presented a heroic recitation-styled poem with musical accompaniment 1 augmented by a variety of dance movements culled from traditional Tanzanian dances. Interspersed throughout their Kiswahili text they shouted in emphasis the word "Kalevala" several times. The Mandela Theatre was less concerned with including the Kalevala in its presentation, and gave instead an entertaining and action-packed sampler presentation of Tanzanian tribal dances. The Mandela performances were a collage stitching several tribal performance traditions together for no other purpose than to entertain. Some dances were ersatz adaptations, fusions, or remixes of the most accessible traditional dances into a new form. Unlike the self-conscious Parapanda, the Mandela Theatre presentation was rough-and-ready and in stark contrast to the posh event attended mostly by the embassy staff, international foundations, and business crowds and their families. [End Page 128]

The bodies of the performers moved with the drum rhythms of Africa as the audience sat in neat rows as passive observers, served wine and beer by well-groomed African waiters. Sitting there I could not help but wonder how such a context and presentation evolved. I have seen hundreds of performance presentations throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but none compared to what I saw and felt that day. Intrigued by the combinations, interplay, and adapted manifestations of performance styles and forms I was also unsettled by what was driving the event, namely commerce. If performance is a reflection of a culture's self-identity then what I saw was a nervous face revealing the confluence of politics, tribalism, socialism, and a market economy.

These performances were a coded map revealing the journey of Tanzania from its tribal origins through colonial adaptations to Marxist socialism to capitalism, and on to the periphery of an emerging global culture. The unique, highly compressed, often forced, and dynamic transformation of Tanzanian performance was effected variously by nationalism, government-initiated programs, funding, tourism, and the increased, pervasive influence of Western [End Page 129] culture. Tanzanian performance responded to these interactions, searching for its own perspective. Drawing from its frayed memory, its adaptations reflected a search for a center, a form, an identity, a purpose, and most importantly, for relevance.

A study of Tanzanian performance and its journey is instructive not only in terms of understanding Tanzania, but also as a way to reflect upon many, if not all, world performance traditions that have gone through similar transformations. Every performance tradition...


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