Friday, March 27, 2015

African dramaturgies

The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco: Gary Beadle as Jungle
Last week, I saw two Zimbabwean plays on consecutive nights.  They couldn't have been more different from each other.  I've been mulling over both the productions and the audience / critical response, and finding some very interesting questions about the whole nature of culture and dramaturgy being raised.

Tiata Fahodzi's production Boi Boi is Dead is a play by Zodwa Nyoni, a young black writer of Zimbabwean ancestry who lives in Britain.  The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco, which was at the Gate, is a piece I've known and admired for some time, written by a white Zimbabwean, Andrew Whaley.  Just to add to the complications, Andrew is now in exile from Zimbabwe, and lives in South Africa.  What was so fascinating and provocative about seeing the two pieces in juxtaposition was the realisation that the dramaturgical approach, the sense of culture, was rooted far less in the playwrights' distinct heritages, and far more in the immediacy of their experience.

Boi Boi is set in Zimbabwe, sure - and both the striking orange of the design and the carefully cultivated accents of the cast bear this out.  But in many ways, the piece is actually very Western in its approach.  This is a family drama, set in the aftermath of a charismatic father's funeral.  Relatives and lovers descend, and secrets are pulled out of the past with the atavistic energy of Ibsen.  The presence of Boi Boi as a trumpet-playing ghost is as much a theatrical reminder of this past (like the brother in Death of a Salesman) as an African ancestor-spirit.

Where such spirits seemed to me far more manifest was in Fiasco.  The title character, thrown into a police cell as if from nowhere, is apparently a veteran of Zimbabwe's independence wars, who has been in hiding, unaware that freedom has been achieved.  So he is a ghost too - but a living, present, embodied one - interacting with the other figures in the cell / the stage / the country.  And this 'spirit' evokes the past in a way that is much less naturalistic than in Boi Boi - so that the other characters, and the audience, come to re-experience the process of national self-creation.

This leads to all sorts of strange shifts in the play, which seems to move from the cell to guerrilla camps in Mozambique, villages, and the campaign trail.  Space and time are constantly transformed, evoking a powerful sense that the past is not past - that it exists in the now, shaping the contemporary experience.  On one level, this is the African cosmology evoked by Soyinka and by traditional healers - it is also very close to critical theory, and perhaps especially Marx.  And it is intensely theatrical, because it is about the embodiment of historical forces - spirits - in the immediate physical present.

Or so it seemed to me.  I was very surprised to see the Gate only about half full - so I looked up the reviews.  Almost all of them say that the play is not "clear", that it is "confused" or "messy".  Michael Billington, for example, craves "more information and rather less theatrical game-playing."  That does make you wonder why he goes to the theatre instead of reading historical accounts.  The game-playing, the playfulness of the play, is surely what makes the history being explored emotionally real - which is what theatre is there to do.  If you want facts, there are other places you can go.  What these critics are really saying is that the play failed to fit in with their own pre-conceived sense of what theatre ought to be - that it was not Western, rational, readily understood.  Whaley's is an African approach to theatre - and that is precisely what gives it such power.  Indeed, I would say that its power is even greater in a Western context, precisely because the form becomes as disturbing as the content.  It is (pace Brecht) a process of making strange.

Unfortunately, I saw the last performance.  Otherwise I would be campaigning to get the play an audience.  One that understands it emotionally, not one that seeks only the Western virtue of clarity.

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