Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

De-Centering Theatrical Heritage: Forum Theater in Contemporary Senegal

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

De-Centering Theatrical Heritage: Forum Theater in Contemporary Senegal

Article excerpt

Introduction

Senegalese popular theater is often criticized, dismissed even, as amateurish due in part to its characteristic exclusion of literary writing practices. Shows of this kind are rarely written down, let alone published, and there is no direct authorial relationship between an individual and the final content of what is presented before an audience. (1) An additional critique of popular theater in Africa in general has highlighted the fine line it treads between serving anti-authoritarian populist objectives and installing another mechanism of top-down moralizing characteristic of state-centered discourse. Indeed, the popular works in Senegal, as elsewhere, often veer toward the authoritarian end of this line, finding it difficult to refuse the not-so-disinterested aid proffered by political leaders and foreign NGOs. Yet forms of popular theater continue to thrive throughout the country, especially if one compares them to the small creative output of institutions such as the country's two large national theaters, both of which struggle to attract enough theater-goers to justify a full-blown theatrical production. Surely, imperfect though it may be in carrying out its promise of social transformation as inspired by the work of progressive thinkers such as Paulo Freire, by virtue of its imprint on the creative landscape and collective imaginary popular theater must be included in any discussion of contemporary arts in Senegal and their potential to promote a so-called nouveau type de Senegalais. (2)

The term "popular theater" in fact proves too broad in the Senegalese context, where "popular" has often come to indicate any theatrical work created outside the country's state-run theatrical structures. (3) For the sake of clarity, I would like to focus on the specific case of Senegal's primary forum theater company, also described as a leader in the realm of "popular" theater, Kaddu Yaraax, whose name means "word," or "voice" of Yaraax, the neighborhood from which these performers hail, located in Dakar's Baie de Hann and inhabited by a poor community of fishermen. I will suggest that such so-called popular companies should not be assessed solely by how they may or may not advance literary practices in theater, or through a discussion of how effectively they execute attempts to form an anti-authoritarian theater for the oppressed. Beyond these otherwise important concerns, it is essential to also consider troupes' modes of innovation and transmission within a theatrical heritage that ranges from pre-colonial times to the present. My argument is intended to address simultaneously calls for a more text-based approach to popular theater, as well as past writing on the practice of theater for development in Africa. (4) The latter have often focused on the failure of popular theater forms to abide by Paulo Freire's conceptual framework without instating the very kind of authoritarian discourse the Brazilian philosopher and educator wished to circumvent. However, aside from trying to remain faithful to theorists such as Freire and, from a theatrical perspective, Brazilian artist and political dissident Augusto Boal, in its work, Kaddu Yaraax is also situating itself as an innovator within a broader theatrical landscape, and is wresting the transmission of Senegalese theatrical heritage from the control of top-heavy, state-centered institutions. (5) A fuller appreciation of this heritage component in the work of independent theatrical groups will highlight the symbolic importance of adapting a performative architecture inspired by contemporary notions of pre-colonial African performance, especially as this flexibility in performative architecture is so lacking within the confines of national theatrical structures.

Theater Within the "Pole Officiel"

If seen solely from the vantage point of the country's state-funded theatrical institutions, contemporary Senegalese theater would appear to be at a rather disquieting standstill. …

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