- The Athenian Sun in an African Sky
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Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr. identifies a trend in African theatre practice of the 20th century: the appropriation and adaptation of Greek tragedy. Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, Efua Sutherland, Athol Fugard, Tug Yourgrau, Guy Butler, and others have recently had a propensity for Greek tragedy. Beginning with a short history of classical Africa and classical Greece, Wetmore outlines "the cultural similarities between ancient Athens and colonial Africa that predispose Greek theatre as a model for adaptation by African playwrights" (3). His two main arguments are: (1) "African" cultures share with ancient Greek culture an investment in myth, orature, tragedy, ritual animal sacrifice, and a veneration for the dead. These similarities engender an environment that facilitates the successful adaptation of Greek classics by Africans into their respective cultures. The resultant adaptations fit the "codes" of their respective "African" cultures. (2) Certain African practitioners adapt Greek tragedies for specific (sometimes political) ends, such as Yourgrau's The Song of Jacob Zulu, Fugard's Orestes, and the reworkings of Antigone by Femi Osofisan, Fugard, Sylvain Bemba, and Sutherland. All of these adaptations "transculturate" ancient Greek texts by borrowing their dramaturgy and content. Wetmore's unifying thesis is that postcolonial Africa's interaction with the Western world has reached the "post-Afrocentric era," which is characterized by "an exchange of culture between cultural equals" (37).
Wetmore shockingly invokes a "traditional" African theatre, "traditional" African religions, and "traditional" African people—as opposed to "modern" African people, one guesses. He refers to tradition and modernity as two opposing poles that are simple stops on the teleological ride of African history from pre-colonial wilderness to colonial domination to the postcolonial present. Yet he also notes that most of the plays he considers "are rooted firmly in the urban cultures of modern Africa" (100) while simultaneously referring to their "traditional" qualities as the indicator of their similarity to ancient Greek culture.
Ethnographic methodology is glaringly missing from a project that lacks the fieldwork to move the arguments beyond journalistic reporting. Wetmore prefers [End Page 177] textual sources such as ethnographies and his own readings of the plays in question augmented with interviews with playwrights to actual performances he has observed. Outside of the testimony of the playwrights, there is little evidence offered to demonstrate that Greek plays resonate with African traditions.
Wetmore's conclusion that culture is now flowing equally is not convincing as he does not consider the structures of global capital nor the legacy of colonialism and its effect on intercultural theatre. To conclude that exchange is "culturally equal" by giving the example that people in Africa "wear Italian suits, or drink Coke or Pepsi, or enjoy Chinese food or pizza" (216) insults the complexities of our current postcolonial world.
Neilesh Bose is a doctoral student in the History Department of Tufts University.