African perspectives in poetic drama

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On the occasions that I have worked on African derived poetic drama productions outside of the UK and the countries that the playwrights originally come from (usually Nigeria), I have found myself having to explain quite a few conventions of the genre to theatre practitioners.

For instance, one theatre producer didn’t understand why the dialogue between characters in a play would be in English, but the sung material would be in an African language. In another case, a young actor didn’t understand why characters would speak at length to others, using proverbs. He saw this as a weakness in the writing, because he was unfamiliar with the cultural practice in many Sub Saharan African cultures, where displaying an awareness of proverbs is regarded as a sign of gravitas and wisdom. From this young performer’s point of view, using proverbs to make salient points was holding up the flow of the narrative sequence of events.

There are cultural differences between the theatre traditions of Nigeria and Britain, but on the whole, British theatre practitioners seem to be more comfortable with the Nigerian genre, possibly because the African playwrights were in some ways products of the British education system and the conventions of Elizabethan drama by the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe and others are not that different.

The idea of painting pictures with spoken words on stage is as valid as any other cultural pursuit. This is probably the primary act at the heart of poetic drama. It is also one of the reasons that actors such as John Gielgud will be remembered and revered in some circles.

The African poetic drama canon has quite a few classics and there are British actors of African and Caribbean heritage who are more than capable of establishing a new tradition of excellence in performing these works. Are there any producers, directors or other theatre making visionaries out there who would want to take on the challenge of making this happen?

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