In several West African cultures, there is a tradition of paying homage to ancestors in Masquerading Festivals. The Masquerades appear as representatives of ancestral spirits, bringing messages from the Spirit Plane to each community on the Earth Plane. The festive season is used as an opportunity for the community to take stock about its values and the way things have gone in the preceding year. The Yoruba belief system preserves a place for the Egungun Masquerade in the pantheon of deities who are all answerable to Olodumare, the Supreme God.
The tradition is maintained through the passing on of the skills of song, dance, costume design and knowledge of the historical and sacred texts of the people – which is shared between the instrumentalists and the performers who appear as the Masquerades. Specific families take on the responsibility for keeping the customs alive.
It is regarded as a taboo to unmask an Egungun Masquerade, unless if it is done behind the scenes in preparation, or at the end of the festivities. If anyone does such a thing in public, Yoruba people believe that ill fortune will be unleashed on to the community where it has happened. I believe this idea has been explored in various permutations on stage in the past, by esteemed practitioners such as Wole Soyinka and Peter Badejo.
What is the source of energy that connects the person on the Earth Plane with the character that appears as the Masquerade? I have discussed the pros and cons of this matter with theatre practitioners from other cultures (such as China, for example) and there is a similar sense of sacred energy which shouldn’t be trifled with, when a performer dons a mask to be part of a presentation.
And how relevant is this unspoken pact, if one thinks about the psychological masks that many of us wear when we face the world?