MASA 99:

A theatre that reaches out to its audience

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With twelve officially invited companies, and a plethora of troupes who paid their own way to come to perform all over the various districts of Abidjan in the « fringe » festival, the MASA 99 placed particular emphasis on contemporary theatrical expression. This theatre event was a real fair, with shows one after the other, left, right and centre, at a breakneck pace. And yet there were no casualties on either the part of the audiences or the creators. The Abidjan public was present – at both the French Cultural Centre for the official selection, and, above all, in the neigbourhoods. Despite the extremity of the conditions with which the companies had to contend, and the absence of technical equipment, African theatre proved its vitality.
All kinds of shows could be seen on the makeshift stages rapidly erected in every corner of the town, giving spectators the chance to shop around in the abundant and varied dramatic selection which ranged from creations based on texts by contemporary African authors, such as Sony Labou Tansi, Kossi Efoui, Tiburce Koffi, Koulsy Lamko, Nocky Djedanoum, or Koffi Kwahulé, to ethnographic reconstructions, such as the sacred ritual of the Pkèllè hunting population from the forest region of Guinea, presented by the Löi-Nii company (and whose place in a performing arts market, and, above all, classification as theatre can legitimately be questioned…). Not to be forgotten either, were the puppets for both youngsters and adults, including the giant dolls of the Articuleurs du Village Ki-Yi, or the huge green frogs of the Tunisian company Six Cinq Un, and also the numerous « mono-theatre » shows (as the Ivoirians call these one-man shows today), such as Sony Labou Tansi’s Lèse-majesté performed by Eric Mampouya from Congo, Félix Kama’s Mikul Mi Nnem ou rêves couleur cactus performed by the Cameroonian David Noundji, who played the African Diogenes, or Koffi Kwahulé’s Les Déconnards, in which the Ivoirian Sidiki Bakaba plays a solitary student who tries to master absence in vain.
Festival-goers, theatre lovers, journalists and distributors didn’t have a minute to waste, and barely knew which way to turn, as they rushed across the town to get, in extremis, to the shows, from Cocody to Port-Bouët, from the Hotel Ivoire to the French Cultural Centre, from the village Ki-Yi to the Abobo Cultural, via the podiums and stages set up in the Plateau floral park, transformed into a village for the occasion, or on the square of the downtown Blokos district.
Although certain creations could not exactly be described as fresh, and had a slight air of having being dished up a second time, others, contrastingly, managed to rise to the occasion, bringing a breath of fresh air. The MASA (the Performing Arts Market), a whirlwind of a fair, with a January sales atmosphere – although the shows were far from being flogged off – perfectly played its role as a showcase, allowing new talent – actors, theatre directors, playwrights – to step into the limelight.
Congratulations go to the seven young Senegalese actors directed by Philippe Laurent: « Les 7 Koûss ». The actors’ highly original show based on private moments of Dakar life, and comprising short snippets of street life on the avenue Ponty enthralled the Abidjan public. This young troupe managed to get itself noticed by the professionals, and should at present be tackling a text by William Sassine under the direction of the Belgium director Jean-Claude Idée, who is hoping to present Les Indépendantristes with them at the next Limoges festival.
Three young Congolese actors – Roch Amedet Banzouzi, Eli Lemboussou Founda, and Jean-Pierre Makosso – of the Punta-Negra Company also distinguished themselves in the fringe festival with a musical entitled Qu’est-ce qui ne tourne pas en rond?, which, whilst it had somewhat of a workshop air, was funny and invigorating.
The event also saw the consecration of the Beninese director Alougbine Dine for La Ligne‘s perfect career since 1997, a free-riding comedy created with the Atelier Nomade (Gabon), based on a play by Israël Horovitz, which has lost none of its punch.
The Sphinx Company, who performed Le Paradis infernal, also offered high-quality stage direction, plus a strong and insolent text by Tiburce Koffi, and a young, spirited director, Binda N’Gazolo. The result was a fiery show which attacks people’s credulity and uncompromisingly denounces the manipulations of the ruling classes.
The Atelier théatral de Lomé’s presentation of the Togolese playwright Kossi Efou’s La Récupération also moved the public. However, there were some disappointments too. The whining lyricism of Nocky Djedanoum’s L’Aubade des coqs, with its cotton mummies and slavery chains, presented by the Chad’s Logone Chari Theatre, and directed by Vincent Mamba Chaka, scarcely made it past the footlights. The two Were-Were Liking texts performed on the opening day were not convincing. It was a strange turn around for La queue du Diable, a parody of a witch hunt, directed by Bomou Mamadou with the Ki-Yi Mbock, which has already been much performed, and which one would have expected to run more smoothly, but whose aesthetic coherence we searched for in vain. Une nouvelle terre, another play by Were-Were Liking staged by the Atelier de Théâtre de Centrafrique, and directed by Perkyss Mbaynoudjim, seemed a bit dated, bogged down in pathos, and, above all, lacking in any real stage ingenuity other than Emmanuel Youmélé’s costumes.
On the other hand, Koffi Kwahulé’s Les Déconnards was unanimously plebiscited by the African public. Sidiki Bakaba, who had just finished successfully performing the play in several Ivoirian towns, was much-awaited in Abidjan. The play features an African student alone in his Parisian attic flat, as he thinks about his country: a series of funny and pathetic stories, tales of « blunderings » that tenderly and amusingly depict an Africa which has been had by History. The Ivoirian public came en masse, and Sidiki Bakaba’s exceptional performance transported the theatre who rewarded him with a standing ovation…
In spite of the organizational problems the companies attending the fringe festival had to face, and the paucity of the technical material offered to them, it is important to stress the success of certain performances, such as that of the company of Quebecker, French and Malian artists, who performed the great Samory Touré epic based on Massa Makan Diabaté’s Une hyène à jeun in the open-air in Blokos, in a style reminiscent of the Middle Age mystery plays. The whole of Blokos, both young and old, was mobilized by the event every night, as they were transported into another era by Hamadoum Kassogué, who played Samory. Mid-way between dance and theatre, the show by the Cameroonian company DIBS (« Days in Black Satin »), and its incongruous images, didn’t leave the audiences who came to eat in the the « Masa Village » restaurants, installed for the occasion in the shade of the Abidjan floral park, indifferent either.
Thanks also go to the Village Ki-Yi for its youth selection (The KYVE 99) and the density of its programme, which vastly enriched and diversified the festival. The Village hosted numerous shows, including, notably, the Ymako Téatri which performed Fama by Koffi Kwahulé, based on the romanesque universe of Ahmadou Kourouma, and which was created in Abidjan last September, then presented at the Limoges Festival des Francophonies.
The MASA would no longer be the same without its fringe festival, which brings a touch of modernity and tonicity, for, it has to be said that these companies who are not selected, but who brave hell and high water to come to present their shows and to meet the distributors, are most courageous.
A new and quite radical aesthetic trend could be seen to emerge in this year’s theatre selection, which can be described as a Grotovski-type purification. All the pointers seem to indicate that African theatrical creation has reached a sufficient degree of maturity to rid itself of all its frills and artifices. Whether it be the « 7 Koûss », La Ligne directed by Alougbine Dine, Déconnards by Koffi Kwahulé, Une hyène à jeun staged by Patrick Janvier and Marcela Pizzario, Paradis Infernal directed by Binda N’Gazolo, the shows that effectively captured people’s attention were those practically without sets, shows which foregrounded the text and the actor, shows which managed to overcome the technical constraints by recentering creativity on the human potential, and by tapping into the energy of the public. It must also be added that these creations have freed themselves from the Western gaze, and that they reach out to the African public.

Despite the hardly conducive « fringe » setting and the neon lighting, Alougbine Dine’s stage direction, the Ndoktel Company actors’s high quality performance (Chad), and the force of the text by Koulsy Lamko, made their rendition of A Vendredi 20 heures a real pleasure.///Article N° : 5349

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