Thursday 24 March 2011


PARIS - March 24, 2011

African drama was in the spotlight on World Theatre Day, celebrated on March 23 with an evening of thought-provoking performances at UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency based in Paris.

The African playwrights who participated said that they wanted to use drama to promote development and peace, and they appealed to world leaders to consider the possibilities of theatre in raising awareness among ordinary people.

"While nations spend colossal sums of money on peace-keeping missions in violent conflict areas of the world, little attention is given to theatre as a one-on-one alternative for conflict transformation and management," said Jessica Kaahwa, the Ugandan playwright known for using theatre to foster community development.

Kaahwa was the honoree of the event, and she presented the world premiere of  Putting Words Between The Eyes, a 20-minute, one-act play that she created especially for World Theatre Day.

Thembi Mtshali-Jones
Set in the fictional republic of Sarkina, which has just gone through a protracted violent conflict, the play looks at how people try to rebuild shattered lives.

It also shows well-meaning ambassadors trying to overcome their despair in the face of failed peace resolutions, as both civilians and peacekeepers get caught in the "dilemma of hope and distrust", according to Kaahwa.

The play evoked the current conflicts in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, with its sense of desolation and the sound effects that included the screaming of warplanes and the firing of guns.

"Theatre subtly permeates the human soul gripped by fear and suspicion, by altering the image of self - and opening a world of alternatives for the individual and hence the community," Kaahwa said in her keynote message.

In Uganda, Kaahwa has used drama to raise awareness of human rights as well as gender rights, according to Tobias Biancone, secretary general of the International Theatre Institute, a non-governmental organization associated with UNESCO that organizes World Theatre Day.

"We respect those who use theatre to improve nations, cherish those who bring theatre to neglected members of the community: the young, the old and the poor," Biancone said. "We hold in high esteem those who use theatre to bring peace to conflict zones; we value politicians and policy makers who understand the value of theatre and fight with us for funding and for education in the performing  arts."

Uganda's deputy head of mission, Philip Odida, said that the focus on Africa for World Theatre Day revealed that the continent's creative arts were rich and flourishing and undergoing renewed growth as a result of new information technologies.

The playwrights and performers showed that theatre "goes beyond entertainment, and also serves as an important means of instruction, information and education," Odida said.

Many attending the event seemed to agree as they commended the performances of actors such as Thembi Mtshali-Jones who used humour, dance and song to convey the painful experiences of a child growing up under apartheid in South Africa.

The 15-minute extract of her one-woman play, A Woman in Waiting, was one of the best features of the evening. International in scope, it also addressed the problems of domestic workers who leave their children behind to be raised by grandparents - sending home shoes and clothes that no longer fit.

"The play was powerful and extraordinary because through the performance she managed to get us back to South Africa and to her childhood where the laws were such that domestic workers had to be separated from their children, seeing them only once a year," said Vanessa Mkhize-Albertini, a Paris-based South African activist.

"The child had to wait for the mother to return to get her, and even when she finally got to live in the city with her parents, she still had to wait for the mother to come home from working," Mkhize-Albertini added. "That's the reason for the title."

In an interview, Mtshali-Jones said that she especially wanted to reach out to young people with her autobiographical play.

"It's important for those who didn't live through apartheid to know this story," she told us.  "Some people say let's forget about it now and move on. But you have to know where you've been to get to where you're going."

Mtshali-Jones' own story could serve as an inspiration to others. She worked as a domestic servant and used to sing for her employers' dinner guests before she auditioned for a play and got an acting role. That first production was seen by white audiences only because of the racial laws.

The play was a success, however, and Mtshali-Jones was able to act in others, going on tour to countries such as Nigeria and England, which opened her eyes to a different world.

"In Nigeria, I saw a black country being governed by black people and that experience changed me forever," she said.

She eventually was able to study in the United States, where she met the legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. She worked with Makeba for a number of years and returned to her homeland in 1985. Since then, her acting and playwriting has been not only to tell stories, but to raise awareness, she said.

Isaac Kemo (photo by Alecia McKenzie)
Like Mtshali, but in a different vein, an actor and writer from the Central African Republic, Modeste Nzapassara, used humour to convey a serious topic on World Theatre Day. He had the audience laughing out loud with his portrayal of the immigrant experience in France.

In an excerpt from Black Bazaar, based on the novel by Alain Mabanckou, he showed how ignorance about immigrants' origins can lead to some absurd encounters, as when people in the host country confuse the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the Republic of the Congo and lecture immigrants on what needs to be done "over there".

One bit of disturbing news at the UNESCO event was that a percussionist troupe invited from Sudan was absent because they were unable to get visas to enter France. Luckily for the audience, however, the talented Ivorian saxophonist Isaac Kemo was able to step in with his backing band of drummers and provide uplifting music for the evening. - A.M.