African drama

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Plays

After Independence

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Guy and Kathleen grow their crops, raise their daughter, and pay their taxes. But Africa is changing, country by country. White farmers in Zimbabwe must now answer for history’s crimes. When Charles arrives with a smile and a purchase order, there’s more than just land at stake. With violence threatening to erupt, he will do whatever it takes to restore their farm to the ‘native’ population.

As truths are revealed and moralities questioned, are things ever more than simply black and white?

Inspired by real events in Zimbabwe, May Sumbwanyambe’s debut play is an unflinching examination of land ownership, dispossession and justice in a post-colonial world.

Winner of the 2016 Alfred Fagon Audience Award, After Independence received its world premiere at the Arcola Theatre, London, on 4 May 2016, in a production by Papatango Theatre Company.

Belong

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Election lost, speeches made and controversy stirred – Kayode’s hiding. He’s not even answering the door to the cleaner and Rita is not going to start getting out the Hoover in her designer heels. Escaping the political heat in London he flees to Nigeria – a British MP and a self-made man. Once there, he gets caught up in a whole new power game. Bola Agbaje’s satirical play questions our notion of home.

Belong was originally produced by the Royal Court and Tiata Fahodzi at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court in April 2012 before transferring to Theatre Local, Peckham.

Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In Black Diamond (2007), J. Nicole Brooks interrogates contemporary connections and discontinuities between the Africans in Liberia and African Americans in the United States. Set in 1999, the play opens in the middle of the second Liberian civil war, which eventually resulted in the overthrow of brutal despot Charles Taylor and his arrest as a war criminal. At issue in this drama is the question of what should be the responsibility of the United States to this war-torn African state racked by genocidal atrocities and human rights violations.

After all, Liberia has a unique bond to the United States, beginning in 1827 when former black slaves from the United States attempted to settle Liberia. At the centre of her drama, Brooks places an African American journalist sent by the BBC to cover the war story. As Americans and the world turn a seemingly deaf ear toward the suffering in Liberia, this journalist faces his own life-altering questions as to his duty to his profession and his obligation as a black man to this intra-racial conflict.

Fast-paced and episodic in structure, Black Diamond’s eclectic form also rubs up against convention, assaulting the audience’s senses as moments of flashback clash against burlesque enactments, docudrama narrativization, and rap music interludes. The play’s structure informs its content. The contrasts and incongruities in style underscore the contradictory cultural politics at play within this catastrophic African struggle. By depicting rebel soldiers that associate their own brutality and swagger with the urban cool of African American hip hop, Brooks’ play showcases the complications and ambiguities of black cultural traffic, the flow and, importantly, the friction of black imagery.

With its structural hybridity and diverse representations of blackness, Black Diamond enacts the post-black.

God’s Property

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Arinze Kene's play God's Property is about racial tensions in 1980s London, and was first performed at Soho Theatre, London, on 26th February 2013.

The play is set in 1982, in the kitchen of a small council house in Deptford, South London. The city is gripped by spiralling unemployment and inner city riots. Chima (late twenties) and Onochie (mid teens) are two mixed-race brothers, sons of an Irish mother and a Nigerian father. Returning home after a long spell in prison, Chima is horrified to find that Onochie has become a skinhead who no longer thinks of himself as black. Chima has been blamed for the death of a white girl and the hostile world outside won't rest until it delivers its rough justice. But will Onochie side with the community he's tried so hard to belong to, or stand by the brother he barely knows?

The Soho Theatre production was directed by Michael Buffong and designed by Ellen Cairns. It was performed by Kingsley Ben-Adir as Chima, Bradley Gardner as Liam, Ash Hunter as Onochie, and Ria Zmitrowicz as Holly.

Gone Too Far!

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Nigeria, England, America, Jamaica; are you proud of where you’re from? Dark skinned, light skinned, afro, weaves, who are your true brothers and sisters?

When two brothers from different continents go down the street to buy a pint of milk, they lift the lid on a disunited nation where everyone wants to be an individual but no one wants to stand out from the crowd.

Bola Agbaje’s comic, astute play about identity, history and culture depicts a world where respect is always demanded but rarely freely given.

Gone Too Far! premiered at the Royal Court Theatre as part of its Young Writers Festival on 2 February 2007.

In the Continuum

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In the Continuum (2005), by Nikkole Salter and Danai Gurira, provides a minimalist, yet profound exploration of the interconnectedness between the United States and Africa. The play stages the lives of two women who, although continents apart, with one in Zimbabwe and the other in Los Angeles, share the same life-altering event: their respective male partners have infected them with HIV.

Through intersecting scenes, In the Continuum depicts the particular sociocultural and gender dynamics that these women must endure as they confront the new knowledge of their infections. Even as these women live in distinct sociopolitical and economic environments, they are both ‘in the continuum', attempting to survive and make sense of a world in which everything, and yet nothing, has changed.

In innovative and haunting ways, Salter and Gurira show how disease and prejudice know no geographical, class, ethnic, or personal boundaries.

In the Continuum received its World Premiere in September 2005 at Primary Stages in New York City.

Off the Endz

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

David, Kojo and Sharon grew up on a London estate. Now in their mid-20s, they’re eyeing another kind of life. But how do you choose the right path when temptation lies around every corner? If your emotional or financial debt is sky high, how do you buy your way out?

Bola Agbaje's smart, savvy second play for the Royal Court asks whether being out of the system might be just as good as being in it. Her characters struggle to ignore the pull of lawless gain and in their newly-respectable, adult lives, find it hard to move away from a background which both haunts them and entices them back. Agbaje's characteristically energetic, vibrant dialogue captures the dynamic rhythm of spoken language and she portrays an under-represented slice of society with skill and compassion.

Off the Endz premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 11 February 2010.

The Playground

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

Based on a short story Out of Bounds, The Playground tells the story of Rosa, a young girl, who is sent by her mother to be the first black child in an all-white school where many parents remained hostile to Nelson Mandela's new integration laws. As Rosa's world collides with that of Hennie (the white boy whom Rosa's mother has looked after since he was a baby) both are forced to overcome their fears and show the courage to face each other.

The Robben Island Shakespeare

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

During the Apartheid years in South Africa, a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare was smuggled around the prison on Robben Island. The book’s significance resides in the fact that the book's owner, Sonny Venkatratham, passed it to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells, including Nelson Mandela, asking them to mark their favourite passages with a signature and date. Informally known as "the Robben Island Bible", numerous prisoners selected the speeches that meant the most to them and their experience as political prisoners.

In 2008 and 2010, playwright and scholar Matthew Hahn conducted interviews with eight former political prisoners in South Africa. Offering a vivid and startling account of the experience of these political prisoners during Apartheid, this extraordinary verbatim play weaves Shakespeare's words together with first-hand accounts from these men. They offer their reflections on their time as Liberation activists and, twenty years later, on the costs, consequences and whether or not it was all worth it.

The play is published alongside a preface by Sonny Venkatrathnam and an introduction by South African actor, director , playwright and cultural activist John Kani.

Spice ’n Stuff

Aurora Metro Books
Type: Text

Spice ’n Stuff takes the depiction of women as mothers, wives, employees, employers and friends further by engaging the central character, Rita, in all of these roles. Rita is a shop owner who faces economic and personal challenges in having a spice shop in a street formerly known as Grey Street, which is located in Durban’s central business district. This historical street was where Indian traders were allowed to operate their businesses during the days of Apartheid. Over the years it evolved and included other communities. Rita’s life epitomises that of living in uncertainty. It is usually during such conditions that the external threats to survival and the internal turmoil of personal indiscretions form the catalyst to redefining one’s identity. It is a moving tribute to the multi-layered dimensions of womanhood and suggests that the writer has a keen understanding of gendered identities.

In Africa theatre matters. African theatre is entertainment, but it can also be aesthetically, politically, socially and spiritually committed, and often it is all these things simultaneously. Moreover, much modern African theatre refuses to be compartmentalised into a particular form of presentation. Instead it draws on indigenous performance traditions including dance, music, storytelling and mime, and combines them with ideas of drama drawn from experiences of Western colonialism, to create theatre forms which are syncretic and inclusive in both form and content. At its best African theatre is a total experience of mind, body and soul which engages with, and feeds off, a highly responsive, involved and vocal audience.

Modern African theatre coincides with the post-colonial period which began in 1957 when Ghana became independent of British rule. Pre-colonial African theatre forms still require much research. They were usually dance, music and poetry-based and served a wide range of functions including the teaching of social roles and behaviour, explaining the history of ethnic groups, social criticism, celebration and the fulfilment of religious rituals. Colonialism brought varying degrees of suppression of indigenous performance forms. These were less onerous in areas such as West Africa which were considered unhealthy for Western settlers and were therefore governed under a system of indirect rule; and far more repressive in parts of southern and eastern Africa, where settler states were established and efforts were made to eradicate traditional performance modes, which were often seen as antipathetic to European Christian and cultural values, as well as potentially dangerous foci for the incitement of rebellion. In many cases European forms of drama were introduced by missionaries, initially to transmit biblical messages, and later, in mission schools, in an attempt to teach metropolitan languages and inculcate European cultural values. This theatre was seldom meant for mass consumption: instead it was a means of separating off African elites and Christian converts from the mass of traditional peoples.

During the colonial period Africans were usually only allowed to publish or perform drama under the patronage and censorship of their white rulers. Early plays often have biblical themes, reflecting missionary influence; they also tend to be more or less naturalistic, since this was the form favoured by the colonisers. Above all involvement in political debate was strictly censored in almost all cases under colonial rule, so these plays are largely anodyne and imitative.

All this began to change rapidly during the 1960s as many African nations claimed their independence. West Africa was the first region to come to literary prominence with many novelists and playwrights emerging on the international scene. There are a number of reasons for this regional prominence. Throughout the colonial experience local cultures in British West Africa remained vibrant. This gave a strong sense of identity and confidence to a number of writers, several of whom saw the literary reclamation of their history and culture as an urgent task. Also there were a number of élite schools and colleges established in the region, especially in Nigeria and Ghana and these nurtured many new writers who had access to and interest in both indigenous and Western cultural forms.

Then, there is the question of language. In British West Africa writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo and Wole Soyinka had all been well educated in English. They came from multi-lingual nations whose indigenous cultures had little or no written literary tradition – albeit very strong oral cultures. Their decision, and indeed that of many subsequent West African writers, has been to take English and remould it to express local rhythms and usages, but still to write in an international language. This choice to write in English has made a number of West African writers far more internationally recognised than their peers who, equally renowned within their own countries, have chosen to write in domestic languages.

As with many aspects of African cultures, while it is important to resist an easy homogenistic view, it does make sense to talk about regional trends. Prominent West African writers may have chosen to write in English, but in East and southern Africa different decisions were made. In southern Africa, in order to promote divide-and-rule policies, many literature bureaux set up by the British encouraged and in some cases forced blacks to write in local languages so that their impact would be marginalised. Moreover, literacy in English and/or Afrikaans was essential if one were to have any chance of participating in modern urban society. Consequently, now in those countries there are thriving literatures in both indigenous and metropolitan languages. More recently, many playwrights have chosen to write in hybrid languages which reflect people’s day-to-day experience and maximise accessibility. In Zimbabwe there are playwrights who claim to write in ‘Ndenglish’, a deliberate mixing of Ndebele and English, and in [some] southern African plays... we see a basic English script which utilises many indigenous language terms as well as a street language which draws on multiple tongues.

Finally, in East Africa there are trans-ethnic national languages such as Kiswahili which have been promoted as a regional alternative to the need to write in English; while in countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, which have ancient scripts of their own, writing has always been predominantly in local languages. Hence the relative paucity of East African theatre which has become known outside the region...

This assessment needs to be placed in context. Published theatre in Africa represents the tip of an iceberg of theatrical productions, the vast majority of which are never scripted and certainly never published. It is also necessary to remember the Francophone and Lusophone areas of the continent where patterns of theatrical writing have been influenced by the different agendas of French and Portuguese colonialism.

Returning to West Africa, in Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan we have... two of Nigeria’s most famous playwrights. These two have long had an interesting dialectical relationship, in which the younger Osofisan challenges Soyinka’s use of myth as a validation of Yoruba society. Instead Osofisan chooses to use mythology in a much more critical manner which demands that society constantly questions and re-examines the philosophical premises which underlie traditional stories and beliefs. In both cases, however, we cannot but be aware that we are encountering a society which is steeped in rich and expressive indigenous culture which reaches back – not uninterrupted, but still vibrant – into the past as it also looks to the future. . .

Female playwrights are still a relative rarity in Africa for a number of reasons. In many places it is considered disreputable for women to become involved in commercial performances and it is often difficult for women to combine domestic life with the demands of the theatre. These have been factors restricting women’s development as playwrights in many societies across the world. Perhaps one of the most potent forces holding back African women playwrights has been the relative lack of educational opportunities for women, particularly during the colonial era.

Ama Ata Aidoo is a triumphant example of a writer who overcame a plethora of social handicaps to produce plays. She is a leading light amongst the small band of African women playwrights which includes her compatriot Efua Sutherland, the Nigerians, Zulu Sofola and Tess Onwueme, Gcina Mhlope from South Africa and Penina Mlama and Amadina Lihamba from Tanzania. She is also recognisable West African in her world view. The pantheon on gods, spirits, the unborn and the ancestors who are constantly encountered in much West African writing give the cultural productions of this region a density, richness, and indeed difficulty for the uninitiated which is unparalleled in other parts of the continent.

When we move to southern Africa we see the results of a very different historical experience. Here for a hundred years – and for parts of South Africa for three hundred years – white settlers seized African land, forced Africans into ignominious wage slavery, derided and sought to repress African cultures and belief systems, and finally imposed the horrors of apartheid on the people. Protest against this process has never been absent but, as in many other parts of the colonised world, momentum grew after the second world war – which exposed many blacks to differing patterns of race relations – and increased as other parts of Africa gained their independence. In Zimbabwe and South Africa... protest theatre became a force in the 1970s. In Zimbabwe theatre was used by the guerrilla fighters as a tool for politicisation, while in South Africa plays were mounted predominantly in the black urban townships.

Working against a background of poverty and struggle, this theatre developed its own style of presentation which relies heavily on the plasticity of the performed. Sophisticated staging, costume and props were not available and actors often had to be prepared to decamp quickly if security forces moved in to stop performances. Therefore the primary tool is the actor himself who must create his whole world through mime, sound and a bare minimum of symbolic properties. Reflecting the urgency of the actors’ messages and the energy of urban life, many such plays are composed in epic mode, with short scenes building up a collage picture of society.

from Martin Banham, Jane Plastow, intro. and eds, Contemporary African Plays (London, 1999).