Ethiopian Theatre at a Glimpse
By Aron Yeshitila
Since the introduction of modern theatre in Ethiopia in the 20th century by French-educated Bejrond Teklehawariat Teklemariam, dramatic genre and form shifts have largely been influenced by either religion, politics, or economic condition.
Most of the plays presented during the reign of Empeor Haile Selasie, whether they deal with the issue of family, society or history tend to be moralistic and preach good manner. This has largely to do with the early teachers of modern school and practitioners of theatre like Yoftahe Nigussie, Melaku Begosew and Eyoel Yohannes bieng people with traditional church education background. The influence of church and royal court still haunts the acting style in “realistic” plays of modern stage. What is performed by actors especially in historical, tragedy or any serious drama is an acting dominated by exaggerated articulation and gestures like that of court.
During the last decade of Haile Selassie regime, from the mid 1960’s to the overthrow in 1974, writers like Tsegaye Gebremedhin and Mengistu Lemma were able to present plays with strong social and political criticisms.
Following the overthrow of Haile Selasie in 1974, the newly established Ministry of Culture made sure that socialist agitprop dramas got the most of professional or amateur stages. Derg used the theatre to introduce the ideology of socialism, raise money and fight its enemies.
In the play called Tehadiso, an actor used to actually expose members of the rebellious Ethiopia People Revolutionary Party (EPRP) from the audience. Amid the performance, an actor from the stage would call names from list he holds and actors seated among the audience starts to come out confessing their crime against the revolution by helping EPRP in some way. The stage performer then persuades the audience to expose themselves before he calls their names. People from audience used to come out falling for the trick and used to be led to the backstage where they would be interrogated by security persons. At the tour to Gondar, people who revealed themselves in the middle of the play were led to their execution.
The agitprop drama later gave its way to commercially oriented high dosage of romance and tragedy plays failed to show creativity or challenge.
This was period of the time in which the dramatic form and audience of the main four theatre houses were established, defining the scene for the rest of Ethiopian theatre history.
After the fall of socialist Derg in July 1991, the theater scene has increasingly grown to be commercially driven. Theatre has long become part of urban culture that enjoys a great number of audiences. The 1,500 seat National Theater can host a full house audience for the year round every Sunday for a popular play. Hagerfikir Theatre, AA City Hall and Ras Theatre each have more than hundred employees working in theater, music and administration departments while the National Theatre employs 217 people. The government takes the income of the theatres and allocates their yearly budget.
Plays are produced in two ways at these major stages. First, since theatres have regained their administrational autonomy, the theatres select and buy plays they want to produce. Secondly profit making private companies rent the theatre halls to present their play on specific day in a week. Either theatre house or privately produced, a play runs every week as long as it is profitable. Plays are produced on assumption that the audience would like them and would bring income for the producer. Nobody dares to produce something new beside the customarily practiced realistic form of presentation that comes in genres of comedy, melodramatic, tragedy, historical or musical.
The contemporary Ethiopian drama mainly tries to project the everyday happenings of life. Typical Ethiopian drama gives priority to spoken performance which leaves nothing to be expressed physically or visually. Even the dance performances seen in several musical plays had little relevance with the stories and they hardly depict complex psychological or dramatic situation. They mostly symbolize apparent state of emotion like joy or sadness with if not mere performance of music.
Stage scene is set with highly elaborate props; characters or events are dressed up with all stereotype inputs of costume, lighting and sound. Tragedy is portrayed in dark shades and horrifying sound while comedy is mostly slapstick and with platitude comic characters coming from specific social group like the maid, the guard, the spoiled girl, the old person.
Disgusted with the routinely produced forms, some theatre professionals have tried to introduce different genres and forms of presentation. However all of them never won acceptance among audience.
Manyazewal Endeshaw had presented an adaptation of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter’s the Birthday Party with Theatre Arts department Students while he was lecturer in 1998. The plays were transmitted in the national television and later the audience’s response was presented. Most of the audience had considered the plays as mockery against the audience.
Currently comedy plays dominate the programs of the main stages. Five out of six plays being performed weekly at the national theatre are comedies. Among these Babylon Besalon (Babylon in Salon) and Leireft Yemeta fakir (Love on Vacation) are plays that are brought back to stage after their last show before six years inspired by the popular need for comedy.
Theater productions are mostly presented with the official national language Amharic. Only four Oromiffa and One Guragign productions were scene on the main stages during the past eighteen years.
Theatre Arts Department of Addis Ababa University might be the only place that diverse ethno cultural performances could be seen. Every year students research a specific traditional rite or ceremony of specific ethnic group among 80 ethnic groups of Ethiopia. During rehearsal students develop the scenario and later present it before the audience of university community.
The beginning of 21st century has seen plays like Wubetin Felega by Getnet Eneyew, Dana Mezmur Fente and Fakir Yeterabe by Wudneh Kiflie which had depth in their content bringing up social and psychological issues like unemployment, poverty, identity crisis and individuality in the main four stages of Addis Ababa. Yet from the form of performance and overall presentation they fall under the same category of realistic melodrama and comedy productions. Another genre worth mentioning of recent years could be historical plays presented at the big theatres. King Armah written by Melkamu Zerihun and directed by Manyazewal Endeshaw is a play based in middle age period history when Muslim family fleeing from the incursion of the Gulf of Aden by Persian kingdom. The play relates romance of the Christian Axumite prince and the daughter of Muslim family symbolizing the life of harmony among Muslim and Christian population of Ethiopia. Taitu, written by Getenet Enyew and presented at the Addis Ababa City Hall and Hindekie a new play that is going to resume performance at National Theatre are plays based on Female Historical heroes of Ethiopia.
Tsegaye Gebremedhin and Ayalneh Mulat are veteran professionals that could be mentioned in presenting plays with strong social and political significance interims of content. They have also come up with different and innovative forms of presentation than the popular realistic form.
Tsegaye Gebremedhin who had presented plays with strong social and political criticisms like Enat Alem Tenu (Tsegaye’s version of Mother Courage), Yekermo Sew (Man of Old Days) Ha Hu Besidist Wer (Abc In Six Months), came to pioneer in the new period with Ha Hu Weyim Pe Pu (ABC or XYZ).
The later Pe- Pu was a kind of continuation of Ha Hu Be Sidist Wore that was presented immediately after the fall of Haile Selassie I. The play actually had more political significance than its artistic value. The protagonist of Pe Pu is the son of the soldier from the earlier play who fought with the incumbent EPRDF. The play spoofs at the EPRDF in an Ethiopian traditional figurative Qene (a statement that has an obvious and underlying meaning simultaneously). Tsegaye is an uncontested icon of Ethiopian modern poetry and among the leading figures in the history of Ethiopian theatre. Even though the play became popular among the audience it didn’t win appreciation from critics for its simple satire and irony directed at EPRDF. The usually full house audience at the National theatre used to applaud for every condemnation directed to EPRDF. Likewise the play was promoted by the ruling party EPRDF to be put at National Theatre against the will of director of the Theatre in order to substantiate the freedom of speech they claimed to provide to have provided.
The real challenge for the government and quite a contrast from the point of content and form for mainstream theatre scene came from another Russian educated veteran director Ayalneh Mulat. His portray of a protagonist Female characters that play a multi dimensional role as a gracious and compassionate natural motherhood at same time a symbolism of an impoverished country run by corruption is so distinct. The plays are episodic sometimes telling different stories but alluding to a governing subject matter. Its directing influence much owing to Brechtian techniques of alienation becomes more noticeable as the chants and the slides mostly describing the excruciating reality of long lingering poverty and injustice of the mass starts to demonstrate.
Ayalneh Mulat was evicted from Addis Ababa University (AAU) in 1994 with other 43 university lecturers by the EPRDF government for their association with the Derg regime and “Antidemocratic Personality”. Besides his lecturer position at the department of theatre arts he was head of The Cultural Centre of AAU. The 14 quires of the university, who were rehearsing his play Deha Adeg (Raised Poor) as amateur actors at the cultural centre, were also fired along with Ayalneh. Deha Adeg then was presented at the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Addis Ababa for several months and toured to London and Edinburgh. Deha adeg is a story about a girl who was born and raised inside jail. She remains nameless, identified as the girl in the whole play. The fact that the entire dialogue being presented in poem, has enhanced the play’s alienating feature, directing the audience to concentrate more on the fact of life depicted. The play begins after the girl is released from the jail. The girl undergoes through difficult situations trying to get money to bail her mother out of jail. The girl kills the priest of the jail after she learned that the priest is actually her father. Unable to raise the money, she comes back to jail demanding to unite with her mother in jail; she says her freedom is meaningless while her mother is still in jail. The play concludes with the chorus song of inmates.
Ayalneh later presented two more plays Dereje (Male Name) and Adey Abeba (Bidens Pilosa) at Russian Centre and went on repertoire to Europe and Latin America. In 1998 Ayalneh established Kendil Bete Tewnet (Kendil Theatre) inside the Russian centre as the first post socialist independent theatre in Ethiopia. Ayalneh has written and directed 19 plays out of which 11 of them were presented at Kendil Theatre. The later productions of Kendil Theatre were banned from advertisement on the lone Ethiopian Television and two Radio Stations controlled by government. Ayalneh’s plays Begame Mekret (Lost at Childhood) was not staged for a year because of advertisement.
In recent Ethiopian landscape Ayalneh Mulat and his 300 seat Kendil theatre stand for a symbol of resistance of Ethiopian theatre against the absolutism of the government. The government preferred to ignore rather than to destroy them because they neither develop nor influence other artists. Many theatre professionals are not even comfortable to discuss about Ayalneh with strangers. Kendil theatre depends on its highly segmented group of audience because its production doesn’t provide an entertainment for usual theatre goers. There is a presumption that other forms of theatre couldn’t develop simply because the wide audience didn’t have experience beside the illusionistic realistic dramas. The mainstream theatre audience also seems either frustrated with the current political and socioeconomic situation of the country so it only needs to escape with entertainment in theatre than being challenged with alienations or new ideas. This viewpoint is further strengthened with the disappearance of even realistic tragedy plays and increasing need for comedy. Since government appoints managers of the main theatres, it is evident government checks that plays that sound critical to the establishment don’t reach main stages. All factors put together, theatre in Ethiopia remains under the strong influence of commerce and politics making it the least destination people would visit to learn the latest ideas.
[Aron Yeshitila is a graduate of Theatre Arts department of AAU. Aron has written Stage Plays, Screenplays and Comic Books. He is the screenwriter and producer of the acclaimed Amharic movie Mizewochu. Aron Yeshitila has won the Award for the Best Screenwriter at the 3rd Ethiopian International Film Festival 2008]