New Francophone African and Caribbean Theatres

New Francophone African and Caribbean Theatres

by John Conteh-Morgan


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John Conteh-Morgan explores the multiple ways in which African and Caribbean theatres have combined aesthetic, ceremonial, experimental, and avant-garde practices in order to achieve sharp critiques of the nationalist and postnationalist state and to elucidate the concerns of the francophone world. More recent changes have introduced a transnational dimension, replacing concerns with national and ethnic solidarity in favor of irony and self-reflexivity. New Francophone African and Caribbean Theatres places these theatres at the heart of contemporary debates on global cultural and political practices and offers a more finely tuned understanding of performance in diverse diasporic networks.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253355133
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Series: African Expressive Cultures
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John Conteh-Morgan (1948–2008) was Professor in the Department of French and Italian at the Ohio State University. He is author of Theatre and Drama in Francophone Africa and editor (with Tejumola Olaniyan) of African Drama and Performance (IUP, 2004).

Dominic Thomas is Chair of the Department of French and Francophone Studies and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author of Nation-Building, Propaganda, and Literature in Francophone Africa (IUP, 2002) and Black France (IUP, 2006).

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New Francophone African and Caribbean Theatres

By John Conteh-Morgan, Dominic Thomas

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Estate of John Conteh-Morgan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35513-3


Cultural Trauma and Ritual Re-membering: Werewere Liking's Les mains veulent dire

The theatre of the Ivory Coast–based Cameroonian playwright Werewere Liking represents one of the most creative appropriations of indigenous performance traditions for the francophone African stage. This appropriation is not undertaken for antiquarian or aestheticist reasons, or even for reasons of nativist nostalgia, but rather for the urgent task of exploring and addressing the realities of contemporary Africa in the idiom of that continent's artistic and knowledge forms. To the extent that she turns to the indigenous cultures of Africa for both a diagnosis of, and a solution to, that continent's problems, her theatre can be seen as an example of cultural autonomy and emancipation, what Wole Soyinka has described as "the apprehension of a culture whose reference points are taken from within the culture itself" (1990, ix). Liking's Les mains veulent dire (1981) contains aspects of both the realities apprehended in her theatre and their mode of apprehension. To better understand these, information on the development of her theatrical career will be provided in addition to an analysis of this particular play in light of the indigenous social performance on which it is modeled. This discussion will be framed by conceptual notions of cultural trauma, amnesia, and anamnesis.

Liking's position as arguably the leading francophone dramatist of the past three decades and the emblematic figure of the performance-oriented theatre of the 1970s and 1980s derives from at least two facts. The first is the sheer volume and diversity of her production as well as her related and well-documented activities as theatre director, cultural activist, and entrepreneur (Miller 1996; Mielly 2002, 2003). The second is associated with the radically different function that she conceives and advocates for the theatre. Although she commenced her literary career in 1977 with poetry and has to date written five novels, it is as a theatre director and dramatist — with ten published plays and many unpublished ones — that she is best known (Conteh-Morgan and d'Almeida 2007).

Liking's dramatic career can be divided into two phases, which I will call the "holy" and the "profane." The former is characterized by works such as La puissance d'Um (1979a), Une nouvelle terre (1980), and Les mains veulent dire (1981), plays that are closely modeled on, and aspire to the condition of, various African sacred ceremonies, especially those of her Bassa people of Cameroon. But beyond a mere search for inspiration from these real-life experiences, she has provided, through transcription and translation, a literal stage transposition of some of them in works such as Le rituel de guérison de Mbeng (1979b) and Le rituel du "Mbak" de Nsondo Sagbegue (1979c). By the early 1990s, however, Liking had abandoned holy theatre and entered the second, or profane, period of her theatrical career. This saw her experimenting with secular performance practices: dramatized epic narratives like the mvet of the Beti people of Cameroon and Gabon and the Sunjata epic of the Mandingo in Un touareg s'est marié à une pygmée (1992b) and Waramba, opéra mandingue (1991b), respectively; puppetry in Dieu Chose (1985) and L'enfant Mbénè (1996a); and sung drama in Quelque Chose-Afrique (1996b). This period also witnessed the birth of a more socially activist Liking. No longer content with producing esoteric drama that she hoped would "initiate" her largely anonymous audience into a state of "higher consciousness," she now actively sought to intervene in the social arena:

I create my art according to needs, like the cobbler who carries out his work for immediate use In the beginning, I worked in experimental theater techniques with ritual, music Today no one knows where to classify me in terms of an aesthetic. But it's according to the needs of the young people with whom I work. My theater is therefore a vital one; it functions according to the needs of the day. (in Mielly 2003, 54)

Liking's activism has taken two forms. The first is as a théâtre opérationnel, a more socially interventionist theatre, as in works such as La veuve diyilèm (1994b), Singué Mura (1990), Quelque Chose-Afrique (1996b), and Héros d'eau (1994a), in which topical issues like indigenous values and development, civil wars, and gender relations are explored. The second is her Villa Ki-Yi project — a countercultural (performing) arts center/artists' commune that she founded in Abidjan in 1985. Referring to this space as "countercultural" seems justified because it was initially conceived as a venue for the cultural and theatrical performances of the Ki-Yi Mbock troupe and as an exhibition space for her collection of African arts and crafts. But it rapidly expanded its mission to take on a more social welfare character, catering to the needs of poor or delinquent youth, some of whom were offered residencies to learn skills in the performing arts, costume designing, sculpting, and music making, with a view to improving their chances for gainful (self-)employment. In its emphasis on the crucial importance to creativity and self-sustaining development of an appreciation of the value of indigenous cultural and artistic resources, Villa Ki-Yi is indeed the social embodiment of Liking's theatrical vision. Of course, a social consciousness has never been absent from Liking's works. What changed, however, in the 1990s was that consciousness's mode of dramatic expression. It became more direct, in contrast to its earlier embedded representation in the symbolic language of myth and ritual. From a theatrical point of view, the drama of this phase was also notable for its greater use of the techniques of improvisation and collective creation, its systematic creation of texts that were not exclusively spoken, and its embrace of modern audiovisual technology and instruments (not just indigenous ones) like videos, film clips, electric guitars, and saxophones. Not insignificantly, and with consequences that will be analyzed later, this drama also became the drama of global audiences thanks to its presentation within the circuits of international world theatre festivals like the Festival International des Francophonies held annually in Limoges, France.

I hope to be clear that the phases in Liking's career referred to above should be seen more in terms of methodological adjustment and continuity rather than rupture. For if she abandoned holy drama, this was not because of a disavowal of its aims and principles, but rather because of her realization of the ineffectiveness of its methods and her conviction that its vision could be operationalized differently. Some of the earliest signs of its ineffectiveness were expressed by the actors themselves, who felt they were unable to cultivate the state of ecstasy necessary for a successful performance. For example, they insisted on impersonating characters rather than on confronting the self within, as she would have wished, believing that performing was a game played for the pleasure of others and, perhaps, for small material rewards instead of an exercise in self-transformation. In short, they were acting and not worshipping. But it was precisely the spiritually transformative quality which Liking sought for her early drama that also accounted, somewhat paradoxically, for that drama's striking originality and avant-garde status in the 1970s and 1980s.

Unlike plays by dramatists of the nationalist and early postcolonial periods, Liking's early drama does not focus on the depiction of an offstage social or political struggle set in an observable and concrete world of anticolonial or postcolonial reality. It is rather the exploration and bringing to light, for actors and audiences alike, of a space of inner truth and spiritual import that exists at a level of knowing that is deeper than that of the rational mind. Liking's search for tools to access this subconscious realm explains her rejection of the realist, French-inspired francophone theatre of her period and her fascination with religious rituals and their nonrational methods: trance, fantasy, and symbolism. One such ritual that serves as a model for Les mains veulent dire is the djingo of the Bassa people of Cameroon.

The djingo is a healing or, in Victor Turner's classification of a similar ceremony among the Ndembu people of Zambia, an "afflictive" ritual (1968, 13). Organized in times of individual sickness or misfortune, its purpose is to diagnose and reveal to the patient, his kin group, and his local community the causes of the affliction and to propose appropriate remedial action (herbal and/or religious) through the ritual officiant. unlike the predominantly organic explanatory model of sickness of modern Western medicine, the "traditional" Bassa proceeds on the premise that even the most somatic of sicknesses is only the disguised presentation of unresolved conflicts or traumatic events that occurred in the past and remain unavailable to individual or group consciousness (transgression of a taboo, for example). Illness to the traditional Bassa, in other words, manifests itself as coded behavior, "an interrogation ... a language" (Liking, Hourantier, and Scherer 1979, 15), whose semantics await deciphering and understanding, while the patient is conceived as a site of physical and psychological pathologies whose origins and force field are located beyond him, in his wider society: "family and close friends are often the actors in a drama that has chosen one of their own to express itself" (Hourantier and Scherer, 15). This view of individual illness as social accounts for the psychodramatic character of a healing ceremony like the djingo and its focus on group — as distinct from individual — therapy even when it is the individual who is manifestly ill. "Afflictive ritual," Turner observed, "is pre-eminently concerned with the health of the corporate body, with securing balance and harmony between its parts, which are groups ... rather than individuals" (1968, 270). This approach also explains the ceremony's emphasis on public disclosure, for unless the group gains awareness of the social roots of the abnormal conduct exhibited by one of its own and purges itself of them through an act of ritual catharsis, its stricken member and thus itself will forever remain afflicted:

Every "disharmonious" or "destructive" act requires active mediation for the restoration of the disrupted harmony. To this effect, ritual encourages analysis and reasoning on the part of all the participants. Through techniques of induction the ritual leader enables each participant to proceed backward to the origins of the problem. (Hourantier 1984, 60)

It is this therapeutic function of the djingo and other rites in its mold that Liking seeks to capture and that she advocates for francophone theatre in a more general sense.

I will use the word "anamnesis" to place Liking's theatre practice within the broader framework of Mircea Eliade's discussion of mythologies and of memory and forgetting in Myth and Reality. Just as Liking, working from Bassa origin myths, constructs in Elle sera de jaspe et de corail (47–53) a period ab origine when humanity — rescued from a devastating flood by the gods — lived wisely and creatively in their company, so Freud too (in Eliade's reading of his work; 1963, 76–78, 88–89) hypostasizes a mythical period of bliss situated in early childhood. Eliade writes: "For psychoanalysis, for example, the truly primordial is ... earliest childhood. The child lives in a mythical, paradisal time. Psychoanalysis developed techniques capable of showing us the 'beginnings' of our personal history" (1963, 77). But in both cases, primordial bliss does not endure since a "fall" soon intervenes. In Freud's case, that fall is attributable either to an external traumatic event, such as "the primal scene" or childhood sexual molestation, or to an internal problem, such as a failed process of psychosexual development. The negative affect associated with this event is removed from consciousness through different coping mechanisms that include repression and amnesia. For Liking, on the other hand, the fall has nothing to do with a sexual event, but rather everything to do with cultural trauma.

Elaborated by analogy with psychological trauma, cultural trauma is not easily conceptualized. An idea of the difficulties involved in that task can be gained from the essays devoted to the subject in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (Alexander et al. 2004). Neil Smelser, for example, in his essay "Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma," advances the startling argument that, however catastrophic, "no discrete historical event or situation automatically or necessarily qualifies in itself as a cultural trauma" (2004, 35), because such an event's theoretical status as trauma would depend on a number of factors, including the health or "sociocultural context of the affected society at the time of the historical event" (36), the nature of the affect provoked in the population (36), and the imprint on the collective consciousness. "Cultural traumas," Smelser concludes, "are for the most part historically made, not born" (2004, 37; emphasis added). Michael Salzman and Michael Halloran adopt a diametrically opposed position in their essay "Cultural Trauma and Recovery" (1994, 231–46), since for them any singular event can in itself be traumatic irrespective of context. The theoretical status of an event as trauma resides, of course, outside the scope of this book, and whatever the differences among them, trauma theorists seem to agree on a minimal definition of the phenomenon. In the case of Salzman and Halloran, it is "a state of emotional anxiety suffered by an individual or group of individuals who have experienced severe compromise to their system of cultural meaning. Specifically [it] has severely undermined the capacity of the cultural worldview to meet the need for a world of existential meaning and value" (1994, 242). For Smelser, it can be located in

an invasive and overwhelming event that is believed to undermine or overwhelm one or several ingredients of a culture or a culture as a whole. The Protestant Reformation qualifies as a cultural trauma because of the fundamental threat it posed to the integrity of the Catholic worldview. The imposition of Western values on colonial societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides additional examples. (2004, 38)

Smelser's invocation of colonial "imposition" is particularly relevant, since this is a recurring theme in Liking's work. In her psychological reading of it, the colonial encounter constitutes a kind of primal scene for the peoples of Africa, the site of an originary wound equivalent to the castration of a father figure, the etiology of the social neurosis afflicting many of their societies. Liking's rendering of this scene in the language of myth in Elle sera de jaspe et de corailis worth quoting at some length, as she writes about humanity rescued from the flood in her inimitable, punctuationless style:

Ils partageaient l'ardeur le souvenir de l'ancêtre sage la renaissance riche en créativité la foi de la reconstruction ardue à partir de soi-même ... C'était leur idéal. Mais un jour vint l'envahisseur sur des chevaux et des oiseaux d'acier ... Il les vainquit et acheta leur âme. L'ancêtre et l'image de la renaissance disparurent un jour remplacé par l'image sur le suaire ... Et ceci a eu des repercussions jusque dans les têtes et les coeurs jusque dans les rêves et dans les gênes ... L'imagination s'est atrophiée et le goût de la perfection semble désormais inconnu. (1983, 48–51; emphasis added)


Excerpted from New Francophone African and Caribbean Theatres by John Conteh-Morgan, Dominic Thomas. Copyright © 2010 Estate of John Conteh-Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface by John Conteh-Morgan and Dominic Thomas

Introduction: Instrumentalizing Performance and the Francophone Postcolonial Performative
1. Cultural Trauma and Ritual Re-membering: Werewere Liking's Les mains veulent dire
2. The Dramatist as Epic Performer: Eugène Dervain's Saran, ou La reine scélérate
3. The Power and the Pleasures of Dramatized Narrative: Bernard Zadi Zaourou's La guerre des femmes
4. Theatre as Writing and Voice: Patrick Chamoiseau's Manman Dlo contre la fée Carabosse
5. Tradition Instrumentalized: Elie Stephenson's O Mayouri
6. Militariat Grotesqueries and Tragic Lament: Tchicaya U Tam'si's Le destin glorieux du Maréchal Nnikon Nniku, prince qu'on sort and Le bal de Ndinga
7. From the Grotesque to the Fantastic: Sony Labou Tansi's Qui a mangé Madame d'Avoine Bergotha?
8. Exile and the Failure of the Nation; or, Diasporic Subjectivity from Below: Simone Schwarz-Bart's Ton beau capitaine
Conclusion: Francophone Theatres in the Age of Globalization


What People are Saying About This

Binghamton University - Carrol Coates

"Here John Conteh-Morgan presents a global strategy—to avoid automatic 'derivational' criticism and to read African theatre in its own right. His discussions of individual plays and playwrights are informative and worthwhile."

New York University - Judith G. Miller

"John Conteh-Morgan was the preeminent scholar of African theatre in French in the United States. This book establishes the bar (and a high one) for future scholarship on the subject."

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