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West African Drama in English John Povey We have long known, from the reports of anthropologists, that a kind of dramatic tradition exists in Africa. From their observations we have learned of the mime and dramatic portrayal that is an inher­ ent part of traditional religious and social activity in Africa. At such ceremonies the symbolic ritual includes incidents mimed in dance form to the accompaniment of drums. The public nature of these semidramatic performances might invite an interesting comparison with our speculation that Attic drama also originated in such highly formal enactments of ritual. The fact that our knowledge of these demon­ strations has been filtered through the researches of anthropologists has given an interpretation of these ceremonies heavily slanted to­ wards the assumption that they have primarily a sociological function. They may have a broader public significance. Professor Herbert Shore of the University of Denver has spent the last two years in the field in Tanzania and his researches give evidence that the traditional village presentations of dance may be much more “ dramatic” than has been recognized to date. He suggests that many such ceremonies are planned around a more deliberate and involved sequence of dramatic events than those merely formalized dance move­ ments recognized by anthropologists. Such performances appear to have as much an aesthetic intention as a functionally ritual one. We await further confirming evidence from Professor Shore’s work. He has already observed that the masks used by Africans during these performances are much closer in construction and intention to the personae of Greek actors than to the voodoo witch doctor parapher­ nalia of popular western imagination. This discovery could be of immense significance for our understanding of the roots of African drama. Although such researches offer a fascinating new element to our general knowledge, we have to recognize that such indigenous and traditional drama has influenced most contemporary African drama­ tists only minimally. It may be that such tradition has a more direct impact on the recent drama in the vernacular than upon those plays written in European languages. We know there is a wide range of vernacular theatrical entertainment in various African countries under­ taken by local stage groups, but it is difficult for most of us to enjoy the experience of such performances. Not only is our response inhibited 110 by the difficulty in comprehending the language, but the companies themselves are restricted. They have to work within the narrow areas prescribed by the language that they employ, and they are usually organized in an ephemeral and rather haphazard way. Companies divide into separate groups of entertainers and then are reestablished for a season or a single local tour. In spite of the difficulties, the extent of such theatrical activity may be quite extensive. Two very different areas of vernacular drama have recently been well received in Nigeria. These groups have attracted attention by their popularity which has permitted continuity and longevity to their efforts. Duro Ladipo is one important Nigerian dramatist who chooses to work in his native Yoruba tongue. His work has been translated and is available in this country. 1 Ladipo draws very heavily upon tradi­ tional themes and retells well-known Yoruba myth-histories. He calls his works “folk operas” rather than plays. They are structured in a series of epic scenes with rather tenuous plot. Their effectiveness on the stage derives from the way in which their production brings to­ gether drumming, dancing, and singing. Ladipo’s best play, Oba Koso, was produced in the original by a Yoruba cast at the 1964 Arts Festival in Berlin. The enthusiastic applause it received was in recognition of its exotic nature, its energy and originality. Few could have felt that its exciting drum and dance routines could encompass the more sophisticated and complex series of incidents that are the material for the contemporary theater. Perhaps Wole Soyinka,2 Nigeria’s most renowned dramatist, in his A Dance of the Forest shows how such forms may be effectively merged with a modern presentation. He makes a dance ritual the culmination of the complex sequence of events in his play. This ori­ ginal device suggests how the African element can be...


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pp. 110-121
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