WHILE French-language theater in Senegal has its roots in an explicitly colonial project, the noted student productions at the Ecole Normale Superieure William Ponty in the early twentieth century, Senegalese theater since has worked with and against that tradition of co-opted folklore to refigure the relationship between colonized cultures and the language of oppression. Abdou Anta Ka's 1958 play La Fille des Dieux premiered in the waning days of French colonial control in Senegal and was reprised several years later at the independent nation's newly created national theater. This essay explores the possibility of hearing a range of political voices and thus a range of resistant politics--colonial, postcolonial, and feminist--in the context of this play's early productions.
In the 1920's the French colonial administration created an ecole superieure to train an African educational elite to teach in the colonies' lycees. Teachers at William Ponty quickly encouraged their pupils to draw from their own traditions to create performances in French. These productions, including drumming and dance, essentially packaged indigenous culture for consumption by European or European-educated audiences. Ancient folklore and tradition were condescendingly staged as charmingly "primitive" entertainment, in service to the colonial project of assimilating native language and culture. And yet, this exploitative project created a vital culture for French-language theatre in Senegal before and after independence. That theatrical culture was able to move beyond the spectacles of the early days of William Ponty to create provocative theater that has continued to take many different forms.
La Fille des Dieux's story of a brother and sister exiled from their tribe for sorcery reproduces the insider-outsider hierarchy of colonialism and resistance, and the young girl's possible assumption of the role of queen and savior of the tribe that cast her out frames the question of postcolonial identity. But, while the notion of woman as emblematic subaltern makes possible a staging of power struggles that might not be easy to present were it in a more obviously political form, such metaphorical use of women on the stage may also elide women's experience in favor of political manifesto. In reading this play as both metaphor for colonial politics and commentary on women's culturally specific roles, I am interested in the extent to which the political context might displace gender issues as one instance of oppression is privileged over another.
Ka's La Fille des Dieux is a play that tells a deceptively simple story, a story that may seem familiar even to an audience that doesn't know much about the indigenous culture of the country from which it comes. The play has the familiar feel of folklore; it combines village life, stock characters, mysticism, and the link between humans and personified elements of nature in a way that corresponds to a Western audience's expectations of "African" culture as a monolithic myth-based tradition. Madhi and Awa are brother and sister. Cast out by the village that murdered their parents as sorcerers, the two live at its margins, attempting to beg food to live on from passers-by. Realizing their situation in the village will never change, they retreat into the forest to live in isolation. Years pass between the first and second acts. Madhi has become a nocturnal hunter, disappearing into the bush each night. When he is home, he and his sister entertain each other in their self-imposed exile with stories of nature's origins, but a clear sexual tension underlies the relationship that has developed between the adolescent siblings who have no one but each other for company. When a hunter appears one evening when Madhi is gone, Awa learns that the wise men of her former village, including the hunter's father, are seeking a lost girl who is destined to save the village from its current crisis. The play must conclude, of course, with Awa's choice between the brother who has been her constant companion and her rich destiny in a community that originally shunned her. …