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Two (African) Ways of Theatre in Education

... and the (neo)colonial habitus of a European donor

The Assitej Minifest – part of the Harare International Festival of the Arts 2015 – has presented two productions highlighting the “Rights of the Child” at Reps Theatre Upstairs. Although the venue, the day and the topic are the same, the aesthetics differ a lot and indicate the artistic variety of African Theatre in Education.

The South African production Ilifa (The Inheritance) stages the journey of the boy Themba extremely artistically designed. On his way looking for the Mzansi Tree – a South African tree highly charged spiritually and magically – the boy has been caught by a couple, who are keeping child prisoners to work for them. The storyline combines both African traditional tales and recent politics (child labour is still common in South Africa), also visible in the mise-en-scène, linking playing the ngoma (drums) to cause tension with clownish overacting in varying moods. Especially the wicked couple appears as a laughing stock. In doing so, the audience may laugh more about them than being afraid. Certainly, at the end the winners are the children who deliver themselves out of their captivity.

Also the Zimbabwean play highlights the rights of the child and presents current societal challenges. However, the aesthetics differ a lot from the former. My Right Is My Weapon addresses child abuse claimed by a traditional healer, whom the family father contacted to help him come out of his non-win situation. Similar to the couple in Ilifa the healer was overacted and presented in a very stereotyping way that seems to be problematic in post-colonial patterns but also mirrors the discussions of younger generations in Zimbabwe, who want to distance themselves from spiritual traditions. As opposed to this, the plot is acted in a very realistic way. The play starts with the display of a regular morning routine at school in Zimbabwe. The pupils and the teacher sing the National Anthem, they act as if in real life. Also the ngoma is hidden behind the stage, not to disturb the realistic aesthetic. Even the abuse of the child is being staged in a realistic manner: The father opens his barn door, the girl is crying and weeping (...).

I cannot discuss here, whether this realistic acting makes sense on pedagogical terms. However, this dramaturgy is only one part of the play.

The director combined the theatrical plot with a lot of dances and songs, most of them very common in Zimbabwe. This technique looks back to a long tradition and offers a different aesthetical level and realm of experience, where the audience also plays an active part, because they are invited to sing and dance as well. Not only the storyline is acted in a realist mode, also the spectator becomes part of the “real” dances and songs. The line between reality and fiction seems to dissolve. Nevertheless, it is not possible to simply dismiss that the dances initiate a sphere the dialogues can not create, but on the other hand, the truth – what happened to the girl – is unearthed in her dialogue with the teacher.

In addition, My Right Is My Weapon underlines the “reality” of the plot, because due to the censorship and the political control of the public sphere by the government people are only “whispering” in recent Zimbabwe. The fear to speak loudly is especially relevant to children. Using theatrical techniques to unearth a truth against this backdrop seems to be a remarkable act.

Both theatre plays not only highlight the variety of artistic and aesthetic techniques used in African Theatre in Education, they also point to the current trend of African theatre makers to use and combine different artistic traditions without differentiating them as pre-, post- and colonial. Moreover, they argue, all of them are part of their history; so they overcome colonial hierarchies.

However, there is no truth to the claim that (neo)colonialism is not powerful today. Not in the mise-en-scène, but in the structures around the play it became more visible. Before I entered the show, the director of Swedish Assitej, who funded the Minifest, came to the front of house manager, asking them to reserve the last two rows (the best places) for the Assitej members, most of them from Europe without a ticket. I countered, that this is unfair to the Zimbabwean audience and me, who paid for their tickets. He did not understand my problem. (Neo)colonialism is still there.


(June 2015)