- African Women Playwrights
Kathy Perkins, who has edited several volumes of African and African American plays, adds another with African Women Playwrights, the first anthology exclusively dedicated to plays by African women in English. The nine plays collected here are by women [End Page 689] from Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and the United States (the anthology includes In the Continuum, co-written by Danai Gurira from Zimbabwe and Nikkole Salter from the United States). Africa is, of course, a heterogeneous continent composed of multiple cultures, languages, and performance styles. Despite this diversity, the playwrights included in this anthology express a shared passion for equality and concern for their communities. Their topics include HIV/AIDS, female circumcision, land rights, ethnic differences, gender inequality in higher education, racial identity and colorism, and teenage prostitution. Perkins's book is a much-needed contribution to the growing field of African theatre studies.
Building on her previous anthology Black South African Women: An Anthology of Plays (1999), Perkins's latest collection is derived from twelve years of work on African women writers. In order to preserve and help readers better understand the playwright's voice, each play is prefaced with excerpts from personal interviews between Perkins and the playwright. These interviews shed light on the material conditions of theatre buildings (or the lack of them), the stereotypes ascribed to women associated with theatre (often perceived as immoral, promiscuous, and unfit for marriage), and the women-centered writing groups that foster connections around writing, publishing, and performing.
Since Perkins began this project in 1995, African women writers have received increasing exposure, "largely through their own efforts" (4). "Whether attending African arts festivals (particularly the annual Grahamstown Festival in South Africa, one of the largest arts festivals in the world), book fairs, and readings, or participating in theatrical productions, African female playwrights have gained increased visibility, particularly on college campuses" (4). Progress for these women has been slow, however, lagging in comparison to their male counterparts. In their interviews with Perkins, the playwrights offer several explanations for this gap: Africa's strong oral cultural traditions, gender inequality in education, and publishers' lack of interest in creative writing: "[p]ublications by African women are rarely fictional and almost never plays" (3). Thus, while Perkins classifies the women in her anthology as playwrights, she notes that most of them refer to themselves simply as writers. Tsitsi Dangarembga views herself as a "producer of narratives" (103), and Andiah Kisia (Chika Okigbo) considers herself a novelist, "even though [she] ha[s] not finished any yet" (152). Five of the women have written novels, six of them write poetry, two are film-makers, and two identify as spoken-word artists (6). In 2002, when Zimbabwe's International Book Fair announced "Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century," eighteen were by women, three of whom are included in this collection, but no plays by African women made the list.
The book's exclusive focus on Anglophone countries (with the exception of Cameroonian writer Nathalie Etoké, who translated her five-page monologue, "Better Days Come in Bitter Ways," into English for the collection) highlights the work still to be done on other parts of Africa. Women's fiction is not uncommon in many Francophone countries, although plays by women are still a rarity. Attention to the Francophone experience (where literacy rates are generally higher than in Anglophone countries like Uganda and Nigeria) would enrich understanding of Africa's heterogeneity, as is clear from the interview with Etoké.
The book has a few shortcomings. Oddly, Perkins provides only fragments of longer interviews in her introductions to each play, piquing curiosity rather than satisfying interests that readers may have in a given playwright and the condition of theatre in her country. I wanted to read the complete interviews and to know how one playwright might have answered a particular question asked of another. This frustration could have been remedied if Perkins had repeated her editorial approach from Black South African Women, in which...