Theatre of a Story, Laughter and Death

by Agata Drwiega

The review of African guest performances displayed during the ASSITEJ World Congress 2017 is a reprint from Teatre Lalek, a periodical published by the Polish Centre of UNIMA. The article is on the web complemented with a series of 'inspiring' stills taken from a set of videos which were added to the ASSITEJ International Archives in Frankfurt (Main), Germany.

The 19th World Congress of ASSITEJ organization with accompanying Cradle of Creativity International Festival of Theatre for Children and Youth took place between 16th and 27th May in Cape Town (it is the first time in 50-years-history of the association when an African country was the host of the event). In 1965, during Statutory Conference of the newly founded organization, it was decided that the following congresses will be accompanied by presentations of performances and diverse theme meetings connected with the development of TYA that is Theatre for Young Audiences (1). At present, a two-week cycle of events has become an indispensable element of members of ASSITEJ meetings. This year it included: performances (63 titles), workshops, discussion panels, theme symposia (so-called Focus Days), whole-day theme blocks, which took place in Cape Town and were conducted in equivalents of culture centres (so-called Cultural Hubs), two-day scientific conference organized by ITYARN (International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network), artist-producer fair (Producer’s Bazaar) and, which is of equal importance, diverse integration events.

Rich and Diverse

In Poland TYA is stereotypically associated with puppet performances, although people acquainted with the subject of matter know well that a puppet treated as a means of expression is not and never was a tool reserved only to communicate with the youngest spectators. While participating in the event in Cape Town, once more I begun to understand that the phenomenon we call theatre for children and youth is uniquely rich and diverse. It includes not only puppet performances or drama performances directed at pre-school and primary school children, but also those reserved to teenagers, and even day-nursery children. Each of those age groups, due to specific perception possibilities and life experience, demands individual theatre language, which is searched not only by actors, puppeteers and theatre directors, but also by dancers, choreographers, musicians and storytellers. TYA covers also all kinds of theatre activities in the world that are conducted with children and youth in culture centres, educational centres, community centres and theatres. In Poland, there exists clear distinction between theatre for young audience created by professionalists and amateur activity conducted with children and youth, in which the process of creation is more important than the final effect (for example amateur activities are not presented on festivals next to professional performances). However, this division is not so clearly visible in other countries and the proportions between individual TYA fields form differently. The organizers took into consideration all those dependencies by formulating a complex program of theatrical presentations, conferences, seminars, etc. Thanks to it, the specialists from specific fields had the possibility to meet their colleagues from the furthest corners of the world, which constitutes an indisputable worth of all events that accompanied the Congress.

It was of prominent importance for the organizers of the event (ASSITEJ SA with Yvette Hardie, the president lady of the world ASSITEJ ahead) to present achievements of African artists paying special attention to those coming from South Africa. As a result of such approach, there were mainly performances from Africa to be found in the program and the ones being the result of cooperation of the artists from different continents. The image of African TYA includes at least few fascinating phenomena, worth describing.

Music, Singing and Dance

First of all, it is the theatre full of music, singing and dance. Black actors play not only classical instruments, but they are also able to extract sounds from surrounding objects – from water cans, cartoon boxes, tins and pieces of metal, etc. They play it with extraordinary easiness, with singing touching upon the deepest regions of spectators’ souls. It may seem banal, but music, dance and singing seem to be as organic activities for the African people as breathing. And at the same time, they constitute an important element of their national heritage.

It is fantastically visible in My Culture, My Strength, My Identity performance (dir. Chipo Precious Basopo) from Zimbabwe – an over an hour dancing show. In one of the scenes, the grandparents of the main character – Ruvarashe – present the dance traditionally performed in the girl’s home village to her friends from the city school. Then they ask the children to present "fashionable big-city dances" to them. It is characteristic that the differences between tradition and modernity were shown through movement, without the use of technological, urban or social elements. The performance about the girl teaching her peers that chasing modernity leads to the loss of own identity ingrained in traditional values would not necessary be to the liking of western theatre pedagogues, but what constitutes the power of the performance is the energy flowing from the stage. Young participants, children and teenagers from one of the Chipawo’s programs (international public benefit organization), dance and sing in the performance. And as far as their acting skills can be classified as amateur, many professionalists could be jealous of their dancing and musical abilities. Many traditional dances, songs and rhymes in dialogue appear in the performance, which were highly appreciated by the audience. It was clearly visible in their reactions. Adult (!) spectators did not only respond loudly and sang with the actors, but also joined their dance. Cape Town is the city attracting emigrants from the whole continent, and meeting the Zimbabweans in this particular performance was an extraordinary experience.

Wall or Circle

The way, in which African audience participates in theatrical performances could be a great subject of a different article. We are not surprised that children are able to stand out of their seats while reacting emotionally to the happenings from the stage or that they are able to interact with actors without hesitation – this is why we love young spectators. But to see adults reacting in a similar way (and often with greater expression than the youngsters) can surprise. The spectators, irrespective of age, experience very intensively the plot on the stage: they prompt the actors; smack with discontent; burst into laughter while clapping their thighs; comment on the action loudly; wring their hands over the tragic fate of the character or cry. Such naturalness of dialogue taking place between the stage and the audience was explained by Cheela Himutwe Chilala, who wrote: "Traditional African performance does not usually have 'the fourth wall': there is no categorical division into performer and audience. Everything happens in 'the circle'" (2). Such structure is associated with the oral tradition, in which presentations of storytellers and singers allow spontaneous participation of spectators or even invite to it.


Storytelling, reviving now in Poland, but being observed mainly in non-theatrical places, is an important element forming African theatre, and spectators’ behaviour seems to be one of the effects of such situation. It is visible in the structure of the performances, which includes interaction with the audience and appearance of the character of the storyteller. The character playing the role of the narrator, being at the same time a link between the stage world and the real world, appeared in the majority of African presentations. A Dutch-South African co-production Red Earth Revisited (dir. Onny Huisink) refers to this tradition of storytelling not only with the use of form but also the content. The core of the performance is based on the history included in a well-known song – the basic medium of the oral culture heritage. It tells the story of the Nongqawuse – female prophet – remembered as the one, who led to destruction of Xhosa people (one of many tribes inhabiting the area of modern South Africa). We observe the plot, which leads to this destruction through the story told by a stork.

The action takes place between 1856 and 1857, when the area of Cape of Good Hope was occupied by the British Empire. The Europeans destroyed local culture and traditions, they brought many unknown diseases with them, but most of all, they took away human dignity from the inhabitants. One day, a teenage Nongqawuse meets the spirits of ancestors by the river. They promise her to chase away the aggressors, but they want a burnt sacrifice consisting of all cows, bulls and calves, which Xhosa people had in return. Although the cattle was the sign of wealth and status of Xhosa people as well as the main source of their income and food, only few did not respect the order. Unfortunately, the spirits of ancestors did not fulfill the promise, the result of which was death of around three fourth of Xhosa population. Nongqawuse was punished by the British government and put into prison, and South Africans have sung the song blaming her for the tragedy up to this day.

Tradition and Colonialism

The performance resembles the ritual of calling up spirits. There is a lot of rhythmical music and movement, puppets also appear. Most of them are stiff figures presenting people and animals, but the forms presenting main characters are easily animated. Their angular shapes, wooden heads, clear eyes painted with colour and long, flowy materials can be associated with fair puppets – turons. Animants are as important as people here, and the sole characters appearing as drama actors are the stork and the spirits of ancestors – belonging to the different time order. Thanks to the narrator, we remember that the story is an enclosed chapter of the past. Although one is not able to change the course of events, the ones who know the song are able to understand it in a new way thanks to “bird’s perspective”.

The authors of the performance stood up for Nongqawuse, treating her as a personification of innocence shattered by European colonists. Naïve and strong belief, attachment to tradition and absolute respect towards the will of the ancestors work accordingly to the value system, which was not understood and respected by the aggressors. The main character of the performance is a young woman who is certain of the rightness of her believes and she remains faithful to them. Because of it, the refrain which is repeated from the beginning of the performance and calling her a murderess ("she killed our nation") sounds different in the last scene: "she tried to save our nation".

Mothers and Daughters

The woman – strong but at the same time submissive and resigning to men’s will – is another motif returning in African productions. A distinct example confirming this thesis is the main character of Karoo Moose (dir. Lara Foot, South Africa). The action of the performance takes place in a poor village somewhere in the depths of severe Karru region, where Thozama lives – a teenage girl, whose virginity was promised in exchange for the debts of her father. A metaphoric scene of group rape, in which the girl – covered with a net – receives subsequent hits of a ball kicked by aroused men, shows explicitly the status of woman in a patriarchal society. Injured and disgraced teenager can only count on sympathy of her mother – there are hundreds of similar girls around. The victim gives birth to a girl and knows already that her child’s fate will also be similar. Inability to change this situation is symbolized by a moose walking through the village (it is presented by one of the men, holding two spreading branches of a tree, carried vertically). Thozama, though seeming to be submissive and accepting her fate, is at the same time proud and haughty. She looks at her torturers with resentment making an impression of someone who will not be broken by anybody. The girl has enough strength to fight with the animal and to kill it (dynamic scene, well worked out as far choreography and music are concerned), and finally to leave the village. It is only a shame that she needs “a prince” to finalize it – a boy who takes her away with a car to another, better world. The woman’s fate, irrespective of her internal courage and strength, remains dependent to decisions made by men.

Thozama is a character so cruelly experienced by life that one can easily forget how young she is. It seems that the characters of children leading tragic lives in this part of the world are not a rarity. The characters of Mbuzeni (dir. Koleka Putuma, South Africa) are four few-years-old orphans living in the slums. The girls spend whole days in the cemetery, where they carefreely play in conducting funerary ceremonies. As a result of the plays, one of the girls comes down with a fatal illness with nightmares as its symptoms. The remaining girls wake her up from tormenting dreams, patiently and with understanding. And when one day they find her dead body, they organize a funeral for her. They carry her comb in funerary procession and sing a cappella a moving song. They dig her in the ground and in the end they farewell her with a characteristic gesture of friendship reserved only for their group. The hair adornment symbolizes the body of the deceased, and she herself accompanies the girls at the background covered with long cloak with a hood. Modest scenography (consisting of few wooden pallets and a fence in the background) as well as the actors’ behaviour, who succeeded in creating convincing, non-infantile characters of children, are submitted to the convention of 'make-believe' play. The girls sneak through under the invisible cemetery wall, throw with invisible stones at the imagined cat and then they dig it in non-existent ground; in the evening they argue a little, but not truthfully, because in the morning they go playing together again. Only death seems to be palpable here – only the comb remains after the dead girl, and an empty place is filled with mysterious, hooded character.


The performance, in which I participated, evoked spectators’ intensive emotions. The performance was not translated from the original isiXhosa language (which is one of more than a dozen of official languages in South Africa), which caused that spectators’ reactions were often the only hints allowing to orientate in the plot happening on stage. Thanks to it, participating in this particular performance remains one of the most precious theatrical experiences that I took with me from Cape Town.

The described performances are addresses to children from 10 years old till teenagers, but I met also younger spectators as well as adult ones seating in the audience. Although the presentations holding those 13-15 age frames in Poland would be classified as theatre for youths, it is not so obvious here. The spectators’ age seemed not to influence the level of focus and concentration of the receivers, though it determined how and when they reacted. Children characters finding themselves in a difficult life situation seem to be universal enough that it is easy to engage in their mishaps irrespective of age. It also may be of importance that the artists creating the performance refer to what is common to all spectators – from the presented life realities, through stressing attachment to traditional values until the use of music, dance and singing. It should be paid attention to the construction of performances, where tragic events intertwine dynamically with comic ones, and the narrator becomes the link between the stage and the audience. All those elements create the image of theatre expressing its voice in the matter of children, but being directed at everybody trying to grasp the attention of anyone willing to be carried by the staged story.

(1)  N. Eek, Discovering a New Audience For Theatre. The History of ASSITEJ, vol. I, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico 2008, p. 47.
(2) Ch. H. Chilala, Miejsce publiczności: przestrzeń i dialog (The Audience: Space and Dialogue), in: Facing the Audience. Widzenie widza, 'The Annual Magazine of ASSITEJ' 2014, pp. 25-26.