Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review of Jane Plastow’s African Theatre and Politics: The Evolution of theatre in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – a comparative study


Samuel Ravengai – 2013

To date, nine books have been written on Zimbabwean theatre or some aspects of it. Four of them were written before independence: Charles Taylor (1968), George Maxwell Jackson (1974), George Kahari (1975) and Robert Cary (1975) while the last five books: Ranga Zinyemba (1986), Jane Plastow (1996), Robert Kavanagh (1997), Dale Byam (1999) and Martin Rohmer (1999) were written after independence. To my knowledge, two journal articles on Zimbabwean theatre were written before independence by Daniel Pearce (1977) and Christopher Wortham (1969). In this review, I want to focus on Jane Plastow’s African Theatre and Politics (1996), but focusing on her coverage of Zimbabwean theatre.

In this book Plastow chronicles productions of theatre from pre-colonial times to about 1992. This is an enormous task which while rich in history runs the risk of giving skeletal analysis of plays. Her analysis is not focused on a few selected plays for purposes of achieving depth, but on every play she could lay her hands on. The result is that she gives an excellent historical account, sometimes substantiated with dates of performance and theatre companies that performed such plays.

The focus of the book is the seminal relationship between theatre, society and politics. The development of theatre and drama is seen against the background of centuries of cultural evolution and interaction, from pre-colonial times, through phases of African and European imperialism, to the liberation struggles and newly won independence of the present.

All books on Zimbabwean theatre and performance, with the exception of Kahari (1975), written before independence, employ colonialist criticism. Colonialist criticism refers to a critical fashion by mostly Euro-Americans and their African protégés where western illusionistic theatre is used as the standard of evaluating African theatre. It is racially inflected and displays supremacist arrogance. Colonialist criticism views African theatre from an evolutionary perspective where it is developing towards a state of perfection – western dramatic theatre. Plastow is one of the first white scholars on Zimbabwean theatre and performance to abandon this critical form and to employ the socio-historical approach. This is commendable and will influence many generations to come. Plastow delves into the cultural history of Zimbabwe and links it to cultural production especially in the field of theatre. The book avoids the overly formalist approach of Ranga Zinyemba in his, Zimbabwean Drama (1986). While its strengths are many, it has a few grey areas that future theatre analysts and historians may need to address.

 A fair analysis of a book can be achieved by critiquing it against its set objectives.  Jane Plastow pursues four objectives. First, she seeks to study Zimbabwean theatre and performance by avoiding overwhelmingly literature-based analysis as other studies have tended to do. She does not entirely succeed on this objective as she was unable to watch any performance to allow any meaningful performance based analysis to take place.

Second, Plastow celebrates the introduction of European cultural forms as the most significant intervention in the development of contemporary performance art in Africa. She, therefore, sets out to research on the process of western cultural invasion and to explore the way in which links between indigenous performance forms and western drama had subsequently developed. She succeeds on a thematic level, but avoids other areas of performance.

She deploys a socio-historical approach which borders on the dominant thesis paradigm. The assumption of this approach is that structure has the capacity to shape and modify agents within its sphere and it denies the power of the agents to refuse structuring. The notion of resistance, ambivalence, ambiguity in the mechanics of performance is therefore left unexplored.

Third, realizing that after independence, the Zimbabwean government publicly declared the importance of culture to socialist and nationalist development, Plastow intends to examine how this rhetoric is transposed into the reality of plays and performances. This endeavour succeeds on a thematic level, but as before ignores the performative aspects.

Fourth, Plastow castigates foreign academics for studying African texts in isolation from the cultures in question and sets out as one her objectives to study both the texts and the cultural contexts. Here she succeeds and her work has to be credited for introducing the socio-historical approach to theatre and performance analysis in Zimbabwe.

Following the dominant thesis paradigm Plastow enumerates pre-colonial forms of drama depending on the findings of Thompson Tsodzo (1988) and then demonstrates how these were in turn suppressed and annihilated by both the state and the church which was, according to Plastow, an adjunct of the state. Depending on the Marxist writings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1981), Plastow portrays western imperialism as a ‘cultural bomb’ whose effect was to annihilate African languages, cultural environment, heritage, unity, capacities and potentialities. This suggests a dominant thesis paradigm which negates the resistance of the colonised. We know that Rhodesian discourse was only able to close out of the site of white people a black discourse, which however continued on the rural areas and African townships. This dominant thesis paradigm is similar to that of Flora Veit-Wild (1993) in Zimbabwean literature in English and Emmanuel Chiwome (2002) in Shona literature. When talking about Zimbabwean theatre between 1965 and 1980, Plastow observes that most published plays imitated the western dramatic canon. She argues that music and dance by blacks was heavily censored by the colonial state. Thus western culture and imperialism are portrayed as the chief makers and shapers of African theatre. Indeed, the colonial state exerted heavy censorship on all cultural production and also promoted western illusionistic theatre as the theatre, but the story does not end there. Where there is oppression and suppression there is struggle and resistance in the equation. Cultural imperialism was not absolute; it was resisted in various forms at various times. While Plastow recognises the role of liberation war theatre how this resistance was played artistically in Zimbabwean theatre is not adequately theorised in the book.

Plastow also applies the dominant thesis paradigm to the new theatre that emerged in post-independence Zimbabwe. A new discourse underpinned by traditionalism and socialist (Marxist) rhetoric emerged. Although Plastow realises that this new discourse was moderated by contradictory policies such as a capitalist economy and a reconciliation discourse, she does not investigate how these contradictions impacted on theatre production. What we tend to get is the success of socialist theatre through the efforts of the Ministry of culture, ZIMFEP, ZACT and other arms of the state. But we also know that some groups from Bulawayo numbering about thirty formed an alternative association (Bulawayo Association of Drama Groups) which was affiliated to the National Theatre Organisation, a ZACT rival. These did not practise socialist theatre.

While a number educated Africans had indeed lost their African culture during the colonial period, lower class Africans and peasants continued practising their ancestral heritage (see Tabona Shoko). Plastow takes the nationalist discourse, which encouraged Africans to recuperate their culture, as evidence of the erosion of African culture. This erosion of African culture could only have been true to urban black middle class people (the African elites) who had a penchant for western culture (see Ravengai 2010). The lower class Africans always transported their cultural dances to the city which they performed at beer halls and tea parties, sometimes in a bastardised form (see Ravengai 2010). For the rural folk, they were only too pleased to openly dance at night pungwes (during the liberation struggle), a tradition that they had continued within their private homesteads when doing ceremonies, rituals, storytelling, rites and so on. It is not entirely correct therefore to suggest that indigenous culture was manufactured in the liberation camps in Mozambique and reintroduced in the rural areas back in Zimbabwe. It is the peasant guerrillas who carried culture with them to Mozambique and appropriated it for the struggle. Most, if not all, of the songs were already known to the peasants through tradition and Christian churches and they were only too happy to carry on with their indigenous practices, perhaps even happier because the young combatants were in the lead in perpetuating their performative culture.

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