Drama: African Religious Drama

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In traditional Africa, everyday life, blending profane and sacred activities, is permeated with music, dance, rhythmic movement, symbolic gestures, song, and verbal artistry. Body adornmentcostuming, painting, tattooing, decorating, and maskingis not only a mark of status, age, and sex differentiations but also serves as an element of beautification, play, imitation, impersonation, and visual communication of religious values.

Dramatic performances by soloists and groups of actors interacting with active spectators originate from the combination of these features in recurring formal settings. Simple routine activities as well as momentous eventsthe hoeing of a field, the telling of a tale, the recitation of an epic, the coming out ceremony of a newborn child, the celebration of a marriage, the initiation of young men and women, the enthronement of a chief, or the burial rites of a headmanare accompanied by dramatic performances, all with more or less explicit religious content. Groups of interacting participants (protagonists, preceptors, experts, attendants, musicians, singers, active audience), in specific settings and at prescribed moments, portray characters and enact events through the combined use of words, songs, gestures, rhythms, dances, mimicry, music, and artifacts. The narration of a tale, for example, becomes a performance event in which narrator and audience may enhance the presentation of a text through phonic, verbal, and mimetic features, including dialogue, choral singing, handclapping, gestures, and sometimes music and special costumes (Ben-Amos, 1977, pp. 1316; Finnegan, 1970, pp. 500502).

In the performance of an epic, Nyanga bards identify with the central hero by acting out select passages before an audience that responds with encouragements and sung refrains (Biebuyck and Mateene, 1969). Accompanied by song and music, Pygmy hunters among the Bembe perform spectacular solo and duo dances. Painted and dressed in animal hides and feather hats, the hunters imitate the behavior of certain animals and the techniques used to spear them in a display of skill and prowess that placates the deities presiding over the hunt. The Khomani of southern Africa stage plays in which men and boys act out, with appropriate sound effects, the hunting of a gemsbok or a fight between baboons and dogs, or plays in which women and girls imitate the movements and habits of turtles (Doke, 1936, pp. 465469). After harvest time among the Malinke and Bamana of West Africa, disguised men, accompanied by a female chorus, present nocturnal comical and satirical sketches that portray characters such as a thief, a braggart, or an adulterous woman. Each performance is a structured entity that starts with a ballet with male and female participants. A prologue, which is both sung and acted, follows, introducing the individual actors. Last are the actual plays in which the actors also engage in dialogue with the musicians (Labouret and Travélé, 1928). Countless other examples could be given of such performances where dramatic action offers an opportunity for entertainment, display of artistic skill, social prestige, and reward. Broad religious conceptions are implicit in the overall purposes of such performances, which show the close bond between animals and humans or the disastrous consequences of not living in conformity with standards set by the ancestors.

The elements of religious drama emerge more directly in activities linked with hunting, planting, harvesting, and other seasonal events. These performances not only ensure a successful hunt or abundant crops but also placate the supernatural beings that are responsible for order in nature, appease the spirits of the animals, attract and neutralize evil beings, purify humans of their sinful interference with natural forces, and protect against witchcraft.

In dances preceding an actual expedition, elephant hunters among the Baasa are painted and specially dressed to present the village audience with a sequence of realistic skits in which elephants are praised and appeased before being symbolically killed (to increase the chances for a safe and successful hunt). The movements of the elephant are vividly re-created by a disguised hunter who carries two small elephant tusks. At the same time, actors painted to portray marauding leopards symbolically evoke the dangers of the deep forest, while others brandish spears and display medicines to depict the power, tribulations, and joys of the specialist hunters. The song texts are specifically addressed to famed ancestors, divinities, and elephant spirits to protect and purify the hunters.

Divination and therapeutic sessions may be simple events in which a diviner or healer submits the patient to private consultation and treatment. If masks, figurines, and other sculptures are used, the sessions develop into a sequence of dramas in which mystic powers are captured, controlled, and released for the benefit of the patient.

Among the Kongo, when a person is diagnosed by a diviner to be suffering from a sickness or misfortune caused by nkosi, the patient must be treated by a ritual expert who holds complete control over this mysterious power. Nkosi is contained in a secret mixture of mineral, vegetal, and animal ingredients placed in the cavity of a wooden figurine and consecrated by the sacred words and deeds of a healer initiated to this power.

The treatment consists of an ordered sequence of dramatic events. The invited healer, accompanied by attendants playing small slit-drums, carries the figurine to the outskirts of the village. Dialogue and action including the patient's relatives follows. After receiving gifts, healers and assistants proceed to the patient's house. The figurine is placed on a mat while the patient, surrounded by many relatives, is seated outside. There follows a series of dramatic actions, accompanied by songs, imprecations, gestures, music, and rhythmic movements. The figurine is manipulated like a puppet while the power contained in it is exhorted, conjured, and appeased with words, gestures, and sacrificial blood; the patient and relatives are aspersed with lustral liquid; the patient is rubbed successively with white clay, oil, and the medicines contained in the figurine; and the rules and prohibitions linked with nkosi are interpreted (Van Wing, 1941, pp. 8990).

Funerary ceremonies are sometimes accompanied by a spectacular dramatic finale intended to honor the deceased and their families. An elaborate example is the Bobongo of the Ekonda of west-central Africa. Organized équipes of men or women rehearse for several weeks before presenting the theatrical spectacle three to fifteen months after the death of an important man. The performance includes a combination of special body ornamentation, dance, acrobatics, pantomime, song, panegyrics, tales, lessons in ethics, and invocations of nature spirits and dead quasi-divinized twins. It also involves the construction of special decors, platforms, fences, and litters in which solo dancers are brought to the village (Iyandza-Lopoloko, 1961; Vangroenweghe, 1977).

Dramatic forms of expression climax in those rituals and festivities in which masked, painted, and costumed actors, sometimes carrying artifacts (clubs, whips, scepters, staffs, swords, axes, rattles, phalli, figurines), engage in prescribed and staged performances. The intricate action involves a combination of sung and spoken texts, vocal signals, music, dance, gestures, and mimicry by specially disguised performers who interact with one another and with the participating audience. These maskers represent ancestors, divinities, nature spirits, monsters, and mythological or undefinable sui generis creatures. In many ethnic groups these total performances, incorporating elements of what is conventionally called drama, sacred opera, and ballet, form an intrinsic part of men's initiations (for example, puberty rites, induction into voluntary associations and cult groups, enthronement rites for chiefs and headmen, and initiation schools for ritual experts). The numerous activities of these initiationswhich may extend over a considerable period of time and may be staged in several prescribed settingsare interspersed with performances in which the actors embody supernatural beings and human prototypes.

Outstanding examples of traditional African dramatic art are found in the young men's Mukanda rites, held periodically by a large number of related ethnic groups in southern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northeastern Angola, and northern Zambia. Novices are circumcised at an early stage of the rites as part of the transition from boyhood to manhood, but the overall aims of the Mukanda institution are social, didactic, moral, and aesthetic. Living in prolonged seclusion, the young men are not only trained in vital economic activities but are thoroughly educated in values and beliefs. They spend a large part of their secluded life learning how to perform dances, music, and songs and how to manufacture costumes, masks, and other paraphernalia. Throughout the Mukanda, the elders and ritual experts who organize and direct the rites, and even the women and noninitiated males who are excluded from their secret activities, are involved in a series of celebrations in which choreographic and musical performances are as essential as the material and social aspects. Masked and costumed male performers, singly and in groups, participate in the secret and public events.

Among the Chokwe, who have the most highly developed mask institution, maskers appear in all major stages of the Mukanda rites and in the public festivities that follow. The masks, hierarchically organized, fall into distinctive semantic, morphological, and functional groups. They also differ in the materials used (some are sculptured in wood; others are constructed of fibers, beaten bark, and resin), in size and volume, in the ornamental designs, and in the related accessories, costumes, and paraphernalia. Each fully outfitted masker impersonates a unique character and refers symbolically to a range of religious, cosmological, moral, philosophical, and social concepts.

Masks may represent an ancestor of a chief or a lineage founder, a nature spirit, a mythological being, or some sui generis creature that exists only through the mask, as well as social and psychological types. All maskers are thought to be ikishi, beings who rise from the dead for the Mukanda through the intercession of ritual experts and devotees. For both insiders and outsiders, masks and maskers are always surrounded with an aura of sacredness, mystical power, danger, and mystery. The maskers have distinctive roles as impersonators of "others." Those that directly embody specific ancestors or nature spirits perform in situations of social control: they lend authority, dignity, integrity, and conformity to the proceedings; they protect against witchcraft or interference by noninitiates; they supervise and sanction the fermentation of corn, the brewing of the sacred corn beer, and the preparation of medicines; they sanction the secrecy and accuracy of the rites; they discipline and test moral and physical strength. Others that depict prototypical characters in the guise of legendary figures assume the roles of entertainers, comedians, and social critics to underscore basic social and moral values. All maskers stir strong emotions among novices and initiates as well as among noninitiates: they spread terror and anxiety; they create an atmosphere of severity and restraint; they engage in the burlesque, the libidinous, the sa-tirical.

The danced and masked dramas of the Mukanda rituals alternate between reality and fiction, tragedy and comedy, and combine the performing arts to convey deep religious, moral, philosophical, and sociopolitical messages. Moreover, in several ethnic groups, the closing of the Mukanda period is followed by dance tours. Organized by previous and recent novices and their tutors, these masked dances function as displays of individual artistic talent and skill and as sources of prestige and material reward. These dance tours have gradually become independent dramatic performances in which the secular element of entertainment and fun overshadows the lingering sacredness attributed to the masks (Bastin, 1982; Lima, 1967).

In numerous festivals imbued with religious meanings among West African peoples (e.g., the Yoruba, Igbo, Abua, Urhobo, and Ijo of Nigeria), the central actors are maskers, often recruited from the members of secret societies, cult groups, and certain age groups. The spectacles performed at designated times by Yoruba Gld maskers follow a precise plot pattern in danced sketches that include social comments, satires, caricatures of strangers, and scenes honoring important persons and depicting hunters and women at markets. Artistic competition and the search for prestige in such performances are keen (Drewal, 1975, pp. 142146). Their overall purposes, however, are the propitiation of witches through prayers, offerings of food, and sacrifices. Typical Yoruba masquerades linked with the Egungun cult start with a sequence of songs and invocations to divinities, ancestors, and elders along with acrobatics and dances; next are plays in which mythical themes are enacted together with satirical and burlesque sketches of characters; the performance ends with a procession to collect gifts (Drewal, 1975, pp. 4648). Among the northwestern Igbo of Nigeria, some of the maskers in plays produced by males of the same age group represent women. These plays are performed at feasts held soon after harvest or at celebrations for the earth spirit. The forms of the masks depict ideal feminine beauty and character; the male maskers imitate female dancing style and portray women at work or at leisure (Boston, 1960). In the Afikpo-Igbo Okumkpa play, which is part of a calendar of seasonal festivals, as many as one hundred maskers (always thought to be personifications of ancestral and nature spirits) present danced and sung satirical and topical scenes that are conceived as commentaries on the lives of real persons (Ottenberg, 1975, pp. 87127).

Dramatic impersonations of supernatural beings and mythological, legendary, and prototypical characters are accomplished not only through masks but also by simpler methods of mimicry, dance, word, object, and gesture. A case in point is the initiation of men and women into the hierarchically graded Bwami association of the Lega. Most phases of these initiations consist of structured dramatic sequences. Stereotypical characters are depicted in pantomimes by expert dancers and preceptors or are represented by natural objects and artifacts (including masks and figurines) that are displayed and manipulated in song and dance contexts. The characters are ancestors, legendary persons, illustrious initiates of the past, personified animals and objects, or social, physical, and psychological types. All of them positively or negatively illustrate the association's code of values.

In one episode, for example, an initiate represents Kyamunyungu za Baitindi ("big arrogant one of the passionate dice players"). The sickly old man, stumbling, irascible, and loaded with bags containing valuables, arrives uninvited in a village to play the dice game. In highly dramatic action that involves a cast of other initiates, the old man provokes the villagers by quarreling with the headman, interfering with the dice throwing, and challenging his opponents to a fight; unwilling to listen to advice, he is chased away. This scene refers to the novice who must passively listen to the advice of his tutors and show respect and restraint in all his actions.

The countless episodes in which ancestors (generalized or specifically named), stereotypical characters (e.g., Great Old One or Beautiful One), personified animals (e.g., pangolin or turtle), objects (e.g., a bark pounder or a shell), and activities (e.g., poison ordeal or divination) are enacted are always performed with dance, music, and song and with appropriate objects and paraphernalia. In many instances the dramatic effects are enhanced by light and dark contrasts (some of the action takes place at night, at dawn, or in a closed initiation house lighted with burning resin torches), special vocal features (dialogues, orations, praises, name shouting) and musical features (imitation of nature sounds; use of mirlitons, bull roarers, and other unusual and sacred musical instruments; message drumming), and by alternating solo dances and ballets by initiated men or women (Biebuyck, 1973).

Theater in the modern Western sense may be a fairly recent development in Africa, but from immemorial times drama has been an intrinsic part of narrative sessions, rituals, and other celebrations (Schipper-de Leeuw, 1977, pp. 738). Moreover, the dramatic enactment of characters and events may become the most important feature in initiations and cult activities and as a result may be established as a partly independent form. The dramatic performancesshort, self-contained sketches, longer, conceptually interrelated scenes, or elaborate playsare multifunctional. They are total aesthetic expressions in which the participants, using a multimedia system of communication, display individual and collective skills in the arts of dance, song, music, sculpture, design, and costume to emphasize beauty, pageantry, inventiveness, harmony, and perfection. They are sources of entertainment for the actors and for the audience, which often actively participates as part of a chorus or an orchestra or by responding with its own dance, song, hand clapping, and dramatic action. They provide means of gaining prestige and reward and of reaffirming status, rank, and authority not only of the participants but also of the ancestors and supernatural beings. They incorporate multifaceted messsages on religious, moral, social, and political themes. Finally, those performances in particular that involve maskers are thought to be sacred occasions during which divinities, ancestors, nature spirits, and mythical beings return to the human world to be honored and placated, to bring communal well-being, and to sanction the rules and practices of initiations and rituals.


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