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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 511-513
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The Generation of Plays:
Yorùbá Popular Life in Theater
Ghana's Concert Party Theatre
The Generation of Plays: Yorùbá Popular Life in Theater. By Karin Barber. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000; pp. 501. $59.95 cloth.
Ghana's Concert Party Theatre. By Catherine M. Cole. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001; pp. 211. $52.95 cloth, $21.95 paper.
Karin Barber and Catherine M. Cole explore two of the most famous traditions of West African theatre: Yorùbá popular theatre and the Ghanaian concert party. Through a combination of careful ethnographic research and detailed analysis, both scholars have produced invaluable contributions to African theatre scholarship that do justice to the complexity of these traditions.
Karin Barber's The Generation of Plays, meticulously researched through several periods of fieldwork begun in 1981, is clearly a labor of love. Among the plethora of Yorùbá theatre companies that existed from the 1940s to the 1980s, Barber focuses upon the Oyin Adéjobí Theatre company, with which she regularly performed as part of her [End Page 511] research. This focus creates a unifying thread for the thirteen chapters, through which the reader becomes immersed in the quotidian workings of the company, the personalities of its members, and the intricacies of its creative process. All of these angles are thoroughly explored in keeping with Barber's framework of "generative materialism" (7), in which she works from the ground up and traces the multiple factors that give rise to a play. This framework brings together biography, artistic considerations of genre, audience reception, and the impact of television and film into a multi-narrative that refuses to privilege any singular influence. Barber smoothly integrates Nigerian historical context into this discussion and thus reaches out to an audience that might include non-specialists.
As she describes these influences from chapters two through eight, she touches upon the complex issues that arise in the process of creating and "filling out" a play, such as the difficulties in applying the Western concept of improvisation to the "continual small-scale increments and adaptations . . . which occurred in every performance" (179). In the last five chapters, in which she addresses specific ideological strands in the company's work, her analytical rigor increases to full throttle. She examines the representation of women, concepts of enlightenment and modernity, Yorùbá identity, and African realism as expressed through the company's staging practices and texts. From a theatre scholar's perspective, an especially useful discussion is Barber's careful differentiation of Yorùbá realism from European models. She points out that Yorùbá audiences value these plays as examples of moral lessons rather than as psychological explorations of the character's inner self, and that the characters function as flesh-and-blood examples from whom the audience can draw lessons as they see fit: "'Moralizing,' so tedious to present-day Western ears, is meat and drink to the public spokespeople of the Yorùbá-speaking world . . ." (418). These analyses culminate in a conclusion where she champions a methodology that emphasizes empirical research while remaining open to the spontaneity of performance, during which artistic intentions can be exceeded and overturned.
In presenting a staggering amount of detail, Barber has also created a cohesive work. This cohesion is attained partly through her focus on a single company; however, she also returns to threads introduced in earlier chapters and expands upon them in light of additional information. For example, she creates a layered understanding of how the company's history informs its production choices by linking the company's origins in Christian education and its subsequent professionalization to changing Nigerian concepts of modernity and enlightenment. Occasional chapters lack focus and a sustained analysis, but the book is littered with gems of insight that make the journey extremely rewarding. The author's excavation of improvisation, modernity, and realism are examples of such jewels that stood out to this reader.
The strength of this work is partly due to Barber's intimate familiarity with...