A history of East African theatre

There are currently no histories of the theatres of any African region, although we know that theatre has often been important across Africa in articulating cultures, combating oppressive governments, and experimenting with a range of performance forms, from indigenous dance, music and story-telling through to experiments with expressionism and productions influenced by such as Shakespeare, Brecht and Grotowski. This project will look at theatre across the East African region, including the nations of Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. It will cover a time period from the early days of colonialism in the late nineteenth century, through to the present day.

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Children at Bogu School in Eritrea using theatre to discuss water issues. The children have made themselves into an image of a boy collecting water from a pump.

The project will seek to uncover trans-national patterns in theatre development. So, in the once British colonies of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, high schools were encouraged to take part in national drama festivals, and these have continued to be major national nurseries of dramatic talent into the present day. Or to take the example of the previously politically linked nations of Eritrea and Ethiopia, a tradition of variety shows emerged from the 1940s, where performances lasting around four hours appealed to popular audiences with acrobats, international and indigenous dance and music, comedians and short plays. The tradition has died in contemporary Eritrea but continues in Ethiopia’s state run theatre houses. More recently, in the past 20–30 years, the phenomenon of Theatre for Development, largely funded by international aid organisations to raise awareness of issues such as HIV/Aids, sanitation, or the need for girls to go to school; has swept across the whole region, and has become the major funding source for many theatre artists.

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Mitiyana Women's Theatre Company, Uganda.

My study will look at playwrights, theatre companies, productions, actors and audiences, but it is primarily focused on understanding the major influences that have shaped East African theatre culturally, politically and ethnically, which often transcend national borders. Lack of resources somewhat ironically means that African scholars often find it difficult to travel internationally within the continent, so most theatre scholarship has remained centred on one country at a time. I have been lucky enough to work in the majority of the countries in the region over the past thirty years and will be building on this experience of practice, teaching and research, to seek to build a picture of the trends – and exceptions – which have shaped the theatre of East Africa.

Professor Jane Plastow
University of Leeds