The History of African Total Theatre

Introduction

African theatre has been described by Kennedy as that of “festivals and rituals share a common dramatic experience in a communal setting through group participation. They celebrate life and examine the survival scene. And in the midst of this communion of vibrations is the use of regalia, dramatic expression, and music and dance,” (1973, p 70).

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As such, it has been implied that there is no distinction between ritual and drama and that Kennedy (1973) added, “In essence, the African approach to life is similar from country to country, and consequently the African’s approach to drama is also similar. Coplan (1986), however, has a more recent but a more vivid observation that “The creative vitality and character of (South) African theatre owes more to tradition of folk performance than many contemporary political dramatists realize. Conceived as aesthetic values and process rather than as a static cultural forms, African performance tradition offer a wealth of expressive resources,” (p 151).

This paper will try to discuss the technique of merging African’s performance mode/total theatre aesthetic on western stage as much as possible using John Pepper Clark’s Ozidi Saga, Wale Ogunyemi’s Langbodo and Ahmed Yerima’s Yemoja.

Discussion

John Pepper Clark’s Ozidi Saga first performed in 1966 is a folklore epic performed as choreographed part of the oral history of the group Ijaw of the Niger River Delta. It was said to be traditionally performed as a periodic festival honouring the hero Ozidi dramatising key episodes in the myth danced in a nonlinear narrative. It shows a ritual official dressed in white that held objects originally identified with the hero to attract participation by acolytes and audience.

The plot of the story traces back to when Ozidi’s father murdered by treacherous colleagues. Ozidi sought vengeance in order for his father to join his ancestors considered as heaven. It became his goal is to call home his father from a limbo-like evil grove where souls of the murdered go.

Ozidi’s grandmother coaches him to many victories. He however went too far by killing his uncle and an innocent woman and her newborn son. At this instant, the Smallpox King came to take Ozidi as a punishment. Ozidi’s mother came to his rescue explaining that her son was afflicted by Yaws, a mild childhood disease. The Smallpox King became confused and retreated. In Ozidi’s recovery, he gave up his battle sword for good.

Wale Ogunyemi’s Langbodo was Nigeria’s entry in Festival of African Culture (FESTAC) in 1977 and said to have taken heavily from Fagunwa’s book Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole using traditional Yoruba themes of virtue, courage, and perseverance. It also focuses on the vices of cruelty and greed.

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Ahmed Yerima’s Yemoja uses African proverbs displaying the conventional structures and types. It employs proverbs with topic comment, fixed or non-fixed, poetic or non-poetic structures, and include all three types of proverbs from weather, flora or fauna, and cultural.

While great American playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) hoped previously to a day when audience participated fully in theatre like some kind of a church congregation. He wrote that, “As it is now, there is a too cold and cut division between the stage and the auditorium. The whole environment — stage and the auditorium, actors and spectators — should be emotionally charged. This can only happen when the audience actively participates in what is being said, seen, and done. But how? That is the problem. Still, there must be a way,” (Gelb and Gelb, 1964, p 602), Miller (1998) already observed that this was achieved in African ritual events where there is much audience participation.

Originally, Miller (1986) narrated, “this practice was disappearing, so the scholar J. P. Clark sought out the performers and audience members and helped to organize the performance. There was a large Ijo-speaking community in Ibidan, which is a few hundred miles from the Niger delta of Nigeria, the location in which the tradition arose. J. P. Clark asked Madam Yakubu of Inekorogha to gather the people and host the event. The storyteller was Okabou of Sama.”

Miller (1986) added that the purpose of the performance was to record the event on audiotape with the hope that the material eventually be played on the radio, transcribed and published as a book, and lastly, “be presented to the international academic community, including the ‘white man.’”

Dorson (1969, p 40) opined about epic storytelling’s form and content describing, “Epic is glorious, multifunctional, multigenre, day-and-night long.” Biebuyck and Mateene (1969) added, “It is music, rhythm, song, dance, movement, dramatic entertainment. It is feasting and gift-giving… It is group solidarity and mass participation,” (p 22). Clark himself wrote that the performance is done by “a special type of artist who is a composer-poet-performer all rolled into one person, working in the multiple mediums of words, music, dance, drama, and ritual,” (1977, p ix) so that each movement, gesture, dance, song, lyric, melody, and rhythm becomes associated with or used to represent the character and episode of the story (Clark, 1977).

In this manner, the storyteller organises and conducts the audience members’ as well as his own actions involving constant flux of performers and audience members forming and reforming into physical and aural patterns Miller, 1986). The group then acts in unity of which Miller further noted, “sometimes an individual acts in opposition to the group; sometimes the group is split in half. Oppositional, or complementary, aesthetic actions may be performed simultaneously or in alternation.”

The epic in terms on content tells the story of an individual that usually represents his or her own people. As maybe the case for Langbodo, Ozidi or Yemoja, the individual goes through processes of establishing social practices and institutions and may involve the tribe. Specifically for Ozidi, the overriding mission was to recover the soul of his father as well as his reputation as may be glimpsed in the following excerpt:

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The worthiness and sanctity of the hero’s mission…is self-evident in that he has to find ultimate rest for his father who was murdered by treacherous colleagues. Such a violent, unhappy death, the Ijo believe, deprives a dead man of the privilege of joining his ancestors. If he has heirs with any sense of honor, these certainly will ask the community for an inquest which usually takes the form of warlike preparations, followed by restitution and rites of purification. Only when these motions have been gone through…can the dead be deemed properly buried. This is Ozidi’s set mission, to call home his father from the evil grove where the miserable of his kind are dumped without ceremony after death. (Clark, 1977, p. xxxiii).

It was further suggested that the teller of an epic may identify closely with the epic hero as in Ozidi epic where the teller wears a white robe associated with Ozidi. When Ozidi regurgitates, or vomits, his sword and battle outfit out of his self before each battle, the teller also re-creates from within himself the entire story-world at will.

In the point where Ozidi leads his little army composed of his musician-assistants, grandmother, the animals and objects he regurgitates, the story-teller also leads his group of musician-assistants and audience members into a new battle. In the process of storytelling, he wins his battle by recalling and re-telling his peoples’ story. He also forges the audience into a united group and leads them in the traditional ways. This brings to life, re-birthing the storytelling style and the Ijo people.

In addition, the storytelling process has the narrator start in a narrative mode and presents the story in the past tense. However, the narrator then shifts into the dialogue mode, enacting the characters that bring the situation back into the present tense. There are instances that the teller actually refuse to engage the characters in excessive violence or negative experiences, but he knew that the character had to go through it to express itself, learn, and be purified. Usually, the members of the audience had their role by speaking out their opposing though such as in Ozidi’s where a listener comments, “What a wicked woman!”

As if ignored the listener then slips into the role of Ozidi and protest: “Mother, it burns badly!” A second listener once again steps and would intervene to the storyteller’s work of getting the hero into wickedness. He will shoulder the burden of facilitating the horrible behaviour as the grandmother and to convince Ozidi, “Hush, don’t ever say it burns.” This shows the deep cooperation between listeners who are willing to enact and support all points of view in order to help carry the story forward (Miller, 1986).

It was further argued that “People are motivated to interrupt and interject when they feel the situation is out of kilter, incomplete, not going the right way, or just not going. Sometimes one considers that one’s corrective action might be the last word; other times one is aware that one’s interjection will call for additional interjections to balance the situation out. In any case, when one feels the situation is awry or incomplete, something needs to be said and heard. The community needs to hear it,” (Miller, 1986). As indicated in Ozidi (Clark, 1977) “Our blurtings make a claim of sorts upon the attention of everyone in the social situation, a claim that our inner concerns should be theirs too.” (p 77).

Conclusion

In this modern period where lines and boundaries are erased between tribes and nations, peoples and cultures, a lot of adaptation and merging has happened not only in trade but also in the arts and entertainment.

As one try to understand traditional African theatre fully integrated in evolving African theatre, it is easy to note the intense relation of the performer and the audience as leader and constituent. The theatre draws upon the individual African tribal member — his or her experiences and struggles towards attaining a defined goal fully enacted by the storyteller that summons his audience as members or actual part players of the story itself.

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In addition to the intense relation between storyteller and audience, there also is the presence of hand signals, an extensive consultations of which Aborigine leaders employ in reaching ceremonial and community decisions, art presentations, a dance performance, and a planned music festival present in African theatre.

Through incorporation and adaptation of these elements present among African theatres, a technique of merging African’s performance mode or total theatre aesthetic on western stage may be achieved. Different styles and techniques may be used, as already present in most entertainment or artistic performances, African beat and movements have invaded a global audience. Western theatre itself may already have presented sufficient adaptations of techniques from the said authors and plays, or other African migrants and descendants’ plays. There is a continuing change in the arts and performances and in case merging between Western and African theatre has not yet been achieved, too soon, it will be.

Reference

Biebuyck, Daniel & Kahombo C. Mateene, ed. and trans., The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Congo Republic),(Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969), p. 22.

J. P. Clark, The Ozidi Saga (Ibadan: Ibadan U. Press, 1977), p. ix.

Coplan, David (1986). “Ideology and Tradition in South African Black Popular Theater.” The Journal of American Folklore. American Folklore Society.

Dorson, Richard ed., African Folklore (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), p. 41.

Arthur Gelb & Barbara Gelb, O’Neill (New York, Harper and Row, 1974), p. 602.

Miller, Eric (1998). Roleplaying in an African Storytelling Event. Web.

Kennedy, Scott (1973). In Search of African Theatre. New York: Scribner’s.

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