The Enfants Terribles of contemporary Francophone African Theatre

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Contemporary African authors now reject concepts like ‘Africanness’ and authenticity as they forge new emerging identities.

« I trail along behind a lost tribe, like a savanna animal haunted by the rhythm of a different herd. »
J.B. Tati-Loutard

Sony Labou Tansi was undoubtedly one of the first Sub-Saharan, Francophone African playwrights to destroy the idolized notion of an exotic African specificity that was once considered aesthetically indispensable for any African artist worth their grain of salt. Over the last few decades, a number of Francophone playwrights have repeatedly challenged the notion of ‘Africanness’, producing works that no longer meet ethnographic, or reassuringly identifiable climatic criteria.
The Togolese novelist and playwright Kossi Efoui proffers a word of warning for anyone who might feel indignant about the disappearance of what they think Africanness should be: « A writer’s work cannot be restricted to the folkloric image one has of their origins« .1 The idol is little more than an stuffed mummy, and the theatre needs to cut loose the bandages that were used to dress the wounds of the colonial era, preserving remnants of a bygone past. Kossi Efoui is not afraid of being iconoclastic when he states: « It’s time people stop questioning the authenticity of a work that does not manifest a so-called African sensibility, in which, on the contrary, the author’s « singularly Europeanizing penchants » can supposedly be identified. »2
This is surely all the more true considering that the African artist who chooses theatre as a mode of expression has already opted for an imported art form that did not originally exist in Africa. Theatre, as it is understood in its Western form derived from Ancient Greek theatre, did not exist in precolonial Africa. The traditional forms of dramatic expression that were akin to theatre were rapidly devitalized by the colonial authorities and relegated to the strictly ethnographic domain. It was the William Ponty school that « introduced » African intellectuals to Molière in the Thirties, forging their minds to fit a classical mould. Africans were forced to adopt the Western theatre arts, just as they were forced to adopt the colonizer’s language. In the same way that they appropriated French, African artists also appropriated theatrical expression, breathing into it their own vision of the world and society, adapting it to suit their own habits and customs, gradually inflecting dramatic writing far away from Western criteria, and soon luring it into unknown territories far from the classical continent. So much so even, that today’s African playwrights have introduced dramatic approaches that challenge contemporary writing.
One must not confuse this ‘Africanness’ with the exotically tinged African specificity that conforms to Western sensibilities! ‘Africanness’ must not be reduced to the « package of cliches and post cards« 3 the Congolese playwright Léandre-Alain Baker refers to, and which spectators are sometimes amazed not to find in African theatre today!
The return to traditions, the quest to recover a lost identity, the return to one’s roots, are simply decoys that better disguise the historic rupture which, robbed of its past, Africa must assume. Slavery and colonization have definitively driven black populations into exile.
Contact with the Western world has definitively altered the identity of a multifarious people who, since the Whites reduced them to a racial entity codified by the cliche of the ‘negro’, have suddenly been forced to see themselves as a single, indivisible entity. African people have been robbed of their history, and thrust into somebody else’s history as an anecdotal aside, as well as being depossessed of their land. The African continent does not exist in Western minds before the great explorers of the 19th century, and even then only as exiled, disseminated far from the native land by the slave trade, or dissected by the colonial authorities and independence. Its history, its identity, cannot be reconstructed as its civilization was oral, built on a conception of the past that finds no echo in the order of the world orchestrated by the West. Africa and its ancestors are no more than a mythical reconstitution, just as African artists are forced into intercultural exile, their identities as related to Paris or New York as they are to the village. In America, in the Caribbean, in Africa itself, the black artist is an exile as the land of the ancestors is a ghost land that belongs to a past that no longer has any history. Their identity has been snatched away like Eurydice was from Orpheus: they are forced to undertake an impossible quest. It is precisely because African artists cannot fall back on History, and because they are irremediably bound to the unsettling quest for the self, that they must, as Kossi Efoui puts it, « refuse all forms of reductive confinement in order to assume the share of permanent unease that constitutes the primordial particularity of writing. »4
It is perhaps here that we should seek the ‘Africanness’ that unites Africa’s populations and those of the diaspora. It is not in the affirmation of an identity limited and fixed by the nostalgic taxidermists of African culture, but in the quest for identity itself, a foreward-looking quest that will invent the Africa of the future. Most African playwrights’ theatrical experimentation over the last decade has gone in this direction: « an unblinkered and painful descent into hell, ready to assume present and future disillusions« 5, according to Kossi Efoui; or « a heretical undertaking » that consists of « ‘affronting’ the Other and the risks that alterity implies, of broadening the scope of one’s own authenticity in order to make it less reductive, less castrating« 6 in the words of the Ivoirian playwright Koffi Kwahulé; a « dialogue of antagonisms for a new fraternity« , an « examination of a receding universe overtaken by time and velocity« , for Koulsy Lamko, the Chadian author resident in Burkina Faso; or « a relentless questioning« 7 as the Congolese Caya Makhélé defines his own writing.
This is a theatre that defies all « cultural fundamentalism », as Koffi Kwahulé puts it, a theatre that does not define itself in terms of what it « should have been », but « in terms of what it has to offer a humanity inundated with images of Dallas, Rambo, Maradona, Micheal Jackson, unemployment, missiles, flying to the moon, the collapse of the Wall, of the liberated Mandela… ».8 Africa’s playwrights are in favour of « a danger aesthetic in response to the inquisitive power of norms which sanction and censure the creative imagination »9. They defend freedom itself, the freedom to stay in touch with the world, like Léandre-Alain Baker who identifies with J.B Tati-Loutard’s poem, « I trail along behind a lost tribe, like a savanna animal haunted by the rhythm of a different herd. »10, the freedom to claim a necessarily plural identity in the making: « I consider myself as belonging to the whole world, not just to my tribe, or to my country. And I want my art to be universal »11 Koulsy Lamko declares.
The quest for identity has therefore frequently been at the heart of African theatre over the last decade, and is perhaps even its very subject. As a site for representation, the theatre is undoubtedly a privileged forum in which to question the self. The search for identity takes different forms depending on the author, but is sufficiently recurrent to provoke a real questioning. Let’s take several examples. In Koulsy Lamko’s play Tout bas… si bas12, the identity quest takes on an allegorical form as an old woman scrutinizes the water in her calabash each morning. Makiadi, the protagonist in Caya Makhélé’s La Fable du cloître des cimetières13, vainly looks for his image in a smashed mirror that only offers a truncated reflection. In Kossi Efoui’s Récupérations14, television cameras project – or rather take over – the images. In Koffi Kwahulé’s Cette vieille magie noire15, the stage is transformed into a boxing ring, drawing the spectator into a spiralling abysm that is all the more complex as all the spectator sees on stage is ultimately only archive material presented by a reporter.
Here the quest is above all a mirror, a view of the self. Indeed, each of these plays question appearance. The old woman in Tout bas… si bas does not recognize her face in the calabash. In Caya Makhélé’s play, Makiadi leads a down-and-out existence to survive, and only undertakes to find Motéma, the death that calls to him from the beyond and claims to love him, because he paradoxically hopes that Motéma’s love will allow him to exist, giving meaning to his life. In order to accomplish his journey, he explores several appearances which, in the eyes of the other characters, are systematically confused with his identity. The characters in Récuperations, on the other hand, act out their own roles, trying to survive on a television set where a more-real-than-real slum has been reconstructed for the purposes of a programme. In Cette vielle magie noire, Shorty thinks he can find his real self via the theatre. This undefeated, infallible boxer is not himself, but rather a character invented by Shadow, the hero’s shade, manager and director all in one.
Even though each play involves the quest for the self, this quest has a very different meaning from play to play. In Caya Makhélé’s work, the identity quest is above all an initiatory quest, Makidadi’s meetings and the worlds he explores constituting a series of trials that prepare him for taking over from the guardian of the morgue. In Tout bas… si bas, on the other hand, the identity quest takes on the form of a messianic expectation, of a revelation; it represents an internal quest that delves down into the entrails, the entrails that will bring forth the future. In Cette vieille magie noire, the quest is more like a challenge, a Don Juanesque challenge par exellence. It is always the identity of Black people, Black people in the world, that is in question, however. Shorty needs to be confronted with his limits as a human in order to have the impression that he exists. Shorty is the emblematic, deified and invincible black star that « little children » dream of, but who alone cannot undo the contempt generally shown for Black people. In the ring he kills the White man, but the death of the White man does not put an end to the antagonism that History has installed between the two peoples, and the white boxer leaves a trace – his young wife is pregnant – whilst Shorty is inexorably condemned to an incestuous and sterile love for his sister. The Black people’s lost identity is situated in Shorty’s attempted return to humanity. But the theatre is a new decoy in his quest for his self. He thinks he has found himself via the theatre, but always finds the same pact again, leaving a fixed ring to find the artifices of the stage again. In the end, he will have to affront more contempt – the accusations of doping – to reconquer his place as a human. Shorty ends up in an asylum, leaving behind the image of a psychotic and necessarily schizophrenic people, a people that has no other common history than colonization and slavery, that is precisely the history of the depossession of the self. The identities that black people have constructed for themselves are only decoys: the illusions and artificiality of the star system, the violence and death of boxing caught up in the same spiral. Everything seems to indicate that these people are destined to madness, the madness of a person robbed of the self, whose soul has been stolen.
Whilst the quest ends in disillusion in Koffi Kwahulé’s work, it is voluntarily derisory in Kossi Efoui’s play, negotiated by the pop psychoanalysis of the caméra-vérité which gradually records the confidences and confessions of people who scrape a living recycling waste in the slum rubbish tips, and whose lives are in turn recycled by the television, thus completing the vast consumer food chain.
Each of these theatrical works is centred on a quest, but the quest is never completed. The very object that crystalizes it for the duration of the play always turns out to be a fake. Motéma never existed. In Tout bas… si bas, the baby with the inscriptions on its arm, the saviour that the old woman is meant to have given birth to, who is sought after by all, turns out to be the young girl’s own invention. The tragic irony of Récupérations is that, whilst the inhabitants of « next door to God’s place » participate in the television show, their neighbourhood is being razed to the ground. And did the Faustian pact that bound Shorty to Shadow ever exist, or was it just simply theatre?
None of these plays allow for idealization, nor do they create a refuge in which the African critical conscience, or the good conscience of the West, can lie at rest. There is no ideal love, no Africa died and resurrected, Motéma is no more than one dried up mummy amongst many others and she never loved Makiadi. There are no picturesque and endearing slums. On the contrary, Kossi Efoui denounces the media’s compassionate complacency in the face of hardship, which is why the reality is razed leaving only the stage set, which is emblematic of the obscenity of media consumerism. There is no ancestor, beholder of wisdom: the old woman in Tout bas… si bas is sterile. In the image of an ancestral Africa, she is incapable of engendering a society and values that can adapt to today’s world. A descendant of blacksmiths, a descendant of diviners, she was industrious, but the modern world does not recognize her knowledge. She scans the horizon each morning, but can not manage to engender again, nor to die. She is symptomatic of a ritual Africa that is caught in its own inertia and sterility. She is crippled by rheumatism, symbolic of the sclerosis of an Africa attached to an obsolete past and values. There are no mythical heros either: Shorty goes mad.
One might be tempted to say that contemporary African theater is a theatre of disenchantment, of disillusion, but the theatre is also a site where freedom can be learnt, the site of the liberating sacrifice, the site of necessary emancipation. It is on this alter that the new generation of African playwrights have chosen to immolate the ideals, the myths, and the dreams of the past in order to analyze them better, and to read in their depths the possible avenues for Africa’s future. Instead of masking Africa’s contradictions, they have chosen to unveil and transform them into light in the meanders of a language where the real colours are undoubtedly situated. In 1992, Jacques Schérer already commented as he looked into the thanatologic obsession in the new writings: « African theatre is brutal on the whole« .16 No. It is undoubtedly more a theatre of cruelty than ever before, as it has the vitality and the violence of a matricidal renaissance. « The enfant terrible kills its mother. Africa has no choice but to be reborn as an enfant terrible. » (Koulsy Lamko).17

1- Kossi Efoui,  » Post-scriptum « , Récupérations, Lansman, Carnières 1992, p 44.
2- Ibid
3-  » Entretien avec Léandre-Alain Baker  » in Texte et dramaturgies du monde 93, Lansman, Carnières 1993, p 40
4- Kossi Efoui, op. cit.,p.45
5- Ibid
6- Koffi Kwahulé,  » Le danger de l’integrisme culturel  » Fraternité matin, 29 Juillet 1993.
7- Caya Makhélé,  » Exorde elliptique « , La fâble du cloître des cimetières, L’Harmatan, Paris 1995
8- Koffi Kwahulé, op. cit.
9- Koffi Efoui, op. cit.,p.45
10- « Entretien avec Léandre-Alain Baker », op. cit., p.40
11- Koulsy Lamko, rêveries d’un homme de théâtre africain, in Théâtre d’Afrique noire, Alternatives théâtrales, n°48, Juillet 1995.
12- Koulsy Lamko, Tout bas…si, bas…, Lansman, Carnières, 1995.
13- Caya Makhélé, La fâble du cloître des cimetières, L’Harmatan, Paris 1995
14- Kossi Efoui, Récupérations, Lansman, Carnières 1992
15- Koffi Kwahulé, Cette vieille magie noire, éditions Lansman, Carnières 1993
16- Jacques Scherer, Le théâtre en Afrique noire francophone, PUF, Paris1992, p.96.
17-  » Entretien avec Koulsy Lamko  » Textes et dramaturgies du monde 93, op. cit., p.29
///Article N° : 5277


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