The World is a Stage

In the first of a three-part essay about making theater in Ethiopia last year, UTD professor Thomas Riccio introduces us to a misunderstood continent.

published Sunday, April 25, 2010

In the fall of 2009, Lul Theatre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, invited University of Texas at Dallas professor Thomas Riccio to conduct theater workshops and create a performance with local performers. Riccio, who has written and directed in Dallas, also works internationally, with experience as an artist and researcher with the Eskimo in Alaska, as well as with indigenous groups in central Siberia, Korea, China, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Russia.

"We all know of the global culture that is emerging around us," Riccio says. "Its evolution is moving fast and can be disorienting to all of us, and destructive to smaller traditions, which hold part of the earth’s knowledge through their performance expression. Our emerging global culture needs to flow both ways, and my work attempts to a bridge between cultures, traditions and people. We are all in this together.”

"There should be no boundaries for imagination or spirit, and how and where we create theater," he adds.

Below is the first of Riccio's three-part series about his recent work in Ethiopia.


Part I: Knowing Africa

Africa lives as a complexity in the imagination. This is as it should be, because this is what it is, a complexity overflowing with contradictions, full of hope, despair, heart, violence, potential and destitution. Africa’s geographical, climatic, historical, ethnic, political, linguistic and cultural textures are rich, varied and extreme. Africa defies easy categorization or simplification. In a globalizing, technologically hyper-meditated world, Africa remains an unruly, exploited and incorrigible bystander still struggling with the basic necessities of food, water, housing, government, security and fundamental human rights.

For the developed world, Africa is a mess of countries, ethnicities, histories and problems. The nations and people of Africa blur together. Thematically, Africa is generalized in the media and is all about abject poverty, starvation, massacres, disease, terrorist strongholds and corruption. Or, obversely, Africa is exoticised, brought to you by the Discovery Channel or by National Geographic’s latest Safari. It is a place for Christian missionaries, international relief efforts and the International Monetary Fund. And, occasionally it is made alive by Obama’s father, Angelina Jolie or Madonna’s adoptions, or Bono, Oprah or Bill Gates' latest crusade against hunger, malaria or some such.

Since 1992 I have worked in Africa on a variety of occasions—conducting research, workshops and creating performance in several settings and countries. I am a Western-trained theater artist who happened into working in Africa. As a consequence, my life has been deepened, my spirit lifted and my work enriched by these experiences. In many ways Africa has become my second home. There is something ineffable about Africa that deeply delights and comforts me. It is some alchemy of climate, geography, cultures and people, but I don’t know for sure. Despite all the poverty, struggles, and cruelty and uncertainty, Africa for me has the biggest and warmest hearts, the most generous smiles, and fullest feelings of living.

I don’t pretend to know Africa in its totality; it is too vast, varied and complex, no one can know it, and this is as it should be. But I know Africa through its theater and performance, its rituals and ceremonies, its healers and actors. As in any culture, this is the essence of life and how a time, place and people speak.

As an American in Africa I am keenly aware that I live in a shinning city on a hill, a place of abundance and privilege. Knowing Africa has taken me out of myself. Africa is a place of blunt honesty, reminding those who work there who they are, what they have, what they know and what they have forgotten. Nothing reveals my deepest sense of humanity like Africa. Nothing can express my humanity like theater.

This is the first of a three-part essay written as a glimpse into modern Africa. It is also look into another part of theater, one seldom seen or little understood. Theater is a small family. By seeing how our brothers and sisters live, work and survive, we see ourselves with greater clarity. The first part is brief overview of African theater, its characteristics and context. The second is about my work in Ethiopia during the Fall of 2009, and the workshop process. The third will cover the performance development process and the performance itself.

Theater in Africa: does such a thing exist? It does, but not as it is understood in traditional Western terms. Most sub-Saharan nations have national theaters that are the remnants of theaters started by former colonizers—mainly the French and British. These theaters were started as cultural centers offering Western theatrical plays and musicals that served ex-patriots longing to stay connected to their culture. After the independence movements that swept Africa (1958-1980), many of the national theaters were re-focused to serve nationalist agendas and to support the creation of a cultural identity for the fledgling nations. The theater houses, designed for Western plays and their modes of producing, remained. African playwrights, many educated in Europe, wrote plays modeled on Western dramaturgy. Theater is an expression and affirmation in form and function of the Western worldview. And so it was used as a colonizing tool.

As national universities evolved, so did theater departments, similarly inspired by, and dedicated to, Western styles of acting, directing and production. It was only a matter of time before a disconnect between the expression and the context became apparent. The very real and immediate problems facing sub-Saharan Africa—things like illiteracy, hygiene, contraception, corruption, AIDS and deforestation, to name a few—could not be addressed easily, thoroughly and practically by the format of Western dramaturgy. There were few theaters, and those that existed in the capitals were viewed as serving a Western-educated African elite. Such theater was and remains expensive and inaccessible, if not alien, to the vast majority of the population.

But performance—ritual, ceremony and social gatherings—was not alien to Africa. Each tribal and ethnic group has a highly developed performance tradition and language, many of which include dance, musical, mask, mythology and storytelling. With the massive migrations from rural to urban areas, which were necessitated by economics or politics, many of these cultural traditions thinned and fragmented. Many of the original, ritual and community contexts and meanings faded. The performance of ritual was practical and necessary and well as an entertainment. Ritual was performance—be it for seasonal or life event rite—that enabled participation with a group’s community of place. This community of place included human, animals, plants, climate, ancestors, and spirits. Humans, being the most enabled are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the community of place. This maintenance, a balancing of community participants, is most vividly expressed in ritual performance.

To perform was to create a circle that included the full community—its function was to reiterate and reaffirm as to assure continuity of the group. Its function was immediate, sensorial, participatory and practical. Implicit was the understanding that the community was responsible for itself and had the power to remedy and rebalance itself. All problems were an issue of unbalance—with self, socially, medically, spiritually and environmentally. Performance is, in this context, a practical technology, enabling rebalancing as to bring order to a community of place.

And yes, the theater of the Western tradition has similar objectives—it seeks to reiterate and reaffirm community values and to remediate community issues. Plays from Hamlet to Death of a Salesman to the recent Kitchen Dog Theater offering, boom, all implicitly reaffirm our communal concerns, values, thought processes and world order as it deals with social, political, cultural and interpersonal issues. The primary and essential difference is the scope of its inclusion and participation. Western dramaturgy is all about human context and does not include the participation of animals (except for children’s theater or as objects), climate or environment (except for subject or as antagonist), ancestors or spirits (except for horror, suspense or religious contexts).

But back to Africa. In the 1970s, in response to overwhelming social, medical, educational and environmental issues, there evolved the Community Theater or Theater for Development movement. Following socialist-inspired political reforms sweeping sub-Sahara (the exceptions being apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia), the Theatre for Development movement took many forms. Regardless of the form, at the core was theater as a medium of meaningful and practical social action.

Combining traditional and ritual performance expressions, popular entertainment and an agenda for social change, theater was brought to formerly under or never served populations. In poor rural and urban areas alike, groups of performers would present issue-oriented theater often to illiterate or semi-literate audience. For many audiences it was educational, entertainment and community building. And it must be remembered that many rural villages in Africa have limited or are without electricity, clean water supply or fuel for heating or cooking. Deforestation, soil erosion and desertification are very real issues for the sub-continent. In our interconnected world, their issues are increasingly our issues.

In many instances Theatre for Development groups would take up residency in a village for a week or two, living with and presenting a variety of issue and educational specific performance such as malaria and TB prevention, female genital mutilation (FGM) and soil erosion. Inspired by the work of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, these performers would interview the locals and conduct exercises with the community members. Part theater, part social therapy and part activism, the group would work with the community to craft an improvisionally evolved and message-driven theater work specific to the needs and concerns of the particular village. Often these theater groups would include an actor-nurse who would, while in residence, examine and inoculate locals. Some groups in Kenya also brought in educators, teaching a diversity of skills and even how to start and operate a business.

With the fall of the Soviet Union funding for such programs—which received support from both the USSR and the United States—dried up. Africa was the site of a political proxy war for influence between the super powers to assert their sphere of influence. With the cold war over the UN and a variety of international Non Governmental Agencies (NGOs) stepped in to fill the void, often bringing their own social agendas—some appropriate to the setting, some not. African governments overwhelmed, in varying degrees by debt, the need to provide basic services; and due to corruption, provide little or no funding for such groups today. Some national theaters struggle on as dilapidated vestiges providing mediocre replications or Africanized adaptations of Western entertainments for the urban middle class and/or are venues of political patronage.

Many African nations censor, either explicitly or tacitly, scripts and performances fearing the activism of thought and knowing a powerful spirit can be stirred by the immediacy of theatrical expression. Over the years I have talked to many African theater artists who have been threatened, beaten or jailed for saying and doing what they feel they must do.

Like theater artists in Dallas, many cobble together a livelihood as and how they can, increasingly moving between media. Radio drama is a prominent venue of dramatic expression and income in Africa. Television is relatively new, crude and government controlled, but melodramas keep actors, writers and directors employed. And there is a burgeoning film and music video industry, mainly producing quick, locally themed fare.

Many theater groups have two lives, one commercial the other social or serious. A group I worked with in Tanzania creates memorial plays for a price. Presented at a funeral of a prominent person, their plays dramatize the life, family and great deeds of the dead. Other groups in Zambia, Malawi, Burkina Faso and Tanzania create and perform “Traditional African” shows at the Hilton, Sheraton or other venues, specifically for tourists.

A few groups have become so successful that they have been able to purchase bars , where they provide nightly song, story and dance entertainment. In the daytime, these same groups are hired by international organizations to dramatize various social issues in urban and rural areas.

Sub-Saharan Africa has thousands of tribal and ethnic groups, which vie for power and are the major cause of a nation’s inability to unify and move forward. The historical and long simmering inter-tribal conflicts in Rwanda boiled over in the mid-1990s leaving, by many estimates, a million dead. Throw in diamonds, oil, money, corruption and the increasing specter of Islamic fundamentalism, and you have a volatile mix. Many parts of Africa are awash with weapons—I have been offered the purchase of AK47s, ammunition and handguns on streets and in buses on several occasions.

In Kenya, Puppet Theater has evolved as a viable antidote to inter-tribal and ethnic tensions. If I was of one ethnic group and you of another, and I was presenting an AIDS awareness performance that espoused the use of condoms, it would be quickly interpreted as an affront to the latter group’s manhood and a way to control procreation. A reason enough to fight. But with the use of Western-styled puppets, which are seen as neutral and non-ethnic, delicate social issues can be presented without incident. In an odd way, an oversized puppet becomes a moderator rising above the personal, political and ethnic to convey issues that concern all. In this way theater does what it does best: it enlarges the conversation, taking both actors and audience outside of themselves, to see with clarity who and where they are, and what issues confront them.

Next: Workshop Africa.

Thomas Riccio is a Professor of Performance and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, and a Lead Engineer for Hanson Robotics. Thanks For Reading

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The World is a Stage
In the first of a three-part essay about making theater in Ethiopia last year, UTD professor Thomas Riccio introduces us to a misunderstood continent.
by Thomas Riccio

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