Theater and Dance

views updated

Theater and Dance


Festivals. African festivals integrate instrumental music, song, dance, mime, costuming, fine arts, and narrative performances. Preparations for a festival employ the talents of skilled artists and craftspeople. Carvers, smiths, weavers, cultural historians, poets, musicians, and dancers carefully plan annual celebrations and ritual performances. Most festivals occur over several days and offer an array of sacred and secular events at several venues. Festivals often attract people who have married outside their community, providing an occasion for families to reunite and for the ruler and his extensive organization to reconnect with his constituency. In a ritual context, festivals are a time of communal and individual healing, spiritual renewal, thanksgiving, and societal cleansing. Archaeological evidence, as well as the

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

chronicles of the earliest Arab and European travelers, document that West African societies have engaged in these forms of spectacle for hundreds of years. Although scholars cannot locate the origins of West African ethnic festivals in specific periods, it is often possible to date the historic events they celebrate. Because the ritual and secular performances described by anthropologists and missionaries between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries allude to narratives that recount origins, migrations, conquests, defeats, and social reconstructions that occurred before 1590, it is considered likely that modern festival performances follow traditions established in ancient times.

The Osun Festival. The Osun Festival, which occurs annually in July and August in Osogbo, Nigeria, celebrates the founder of Osogbo, who was one of the wives of Shango, the fourth king of Old Oyo, who reigned around the fifteenth century. Both these historical personages became part of the Yoruba pantheon, Osun as a fertility goddess and Shango as the god of thunder and lightning. Osogbo grew into a bustling city that has served for many years as a link among the major Yoruba centers of spiritual and commercial activities, such as Ile-Ife, Ibadan, Ijebu, and Ilorin. The festival celebrates Osun as a woman of keen business acumen, a dyer, and an owner of brass, parrot feathers, and beads. As a sacred icon, Osun represents the quintessential portal of human existence through which life is given. She possesses a cool female principle whose nature balances the fiery male principle of Shango. A major purpose of the annual festival is to galvanize the community around its historic and cultural achievements, to inform the young about their heritage and the meaning of life, and to celebrate their rich traditions. Festivals such as these include re-enactments of important historic events, recitations of traditional poetry and epics, and the chanting of the oral praise poems known in Yoruba as orile oriki, which remind the ruling families and their subjects of their individual and collective responsibilities.

Dance-Drama. Described by early Arab and European travelers and traders, dance-drama has been an important and highly respected performance art form throughout Western Africa for many centuries. Dance-drama celebrates the ability of the dancer’s body to “speak” to the audience and to engage in “dialogue” with musicians. Dancers, master drummers and other musicians, and singers communicated cultural histories and other social narratives through the integration of body movement, costume, instrumentation, song, and mime. In some instances dance-drama presentations also include the artistic efforts of community carvers, weavers, and drum makers. The carved-wood Chi Wara headpieces made by the Bambara, the jembe drums of the Wolof, or the egungun masks of the Yoruba dramatically enhance the aesthetics of performance in a manner that emphasizes the movement and kinetic energy of the human form.

Ancient Roots. By studying ancient artifacts, archaeologists and historians have discerned that dance-drama dates to the earliest years of settlement and cultural diffusion in the West African region. Images and icons of dancers and musicians are found in ancient wall paintings and carvings. Depictions of masquerading dancers are particularly prevalent. Rock paintings found in the middle Sahara and areas toward the Sahel and savanna regions illustrate that wearing masks and dancing are truly ancient performance arts. In these paintings, dancers portraying hunters are predominant, leading to the conclusion that subjects of these early dance-dramas were the exploits of hunter-heroes.

The Chi Wara. Performed at planting and harvest seasons, the Chi Wara dance-drama of the Bambara is an important example of a performance art associated with agriculture. According to Herbert Cole, the dancers perform “in the fields during hoeing contests and in the village square.” Carved male and female Chi Wara (antelope) figures are worn atop the heads of the male dancers, who are completely covered with raffia. They dance in pairs representing male and female, the ultimate balance of the reproductive power of the universe, and reinforcing the Bambara worldview that bespeaks the mutuality of male-female fertility and survival in both earthly and spiritual realms. Bent forward throughout their performance, the dancers must exhibit agility and fitness as well as mastery of choreography to meet aesthetic and spiritual expectations of their audience. In fact, the spiritual and secular dimensions of Chi Wara dance-drama are equally significant. According to Cole, “Chi Wara headpieces link humans with the earth, sun, and water; reflect the union and cooperation of male and female; stimulate the growth of grain; and exemplify the virtues of primordial farming success and its repetition today.”


E. V. Asihene, Apoo Festival (Tema, Ghana: Ghana Publishing, 1980).

Diedre L. Badejo, Osun Seegesi: The Elegant Deity of Wealth, Power, and Femininity (Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1996).

Peter Badejo, “The Bori Spirit Possession Dance,” thesis, UCLA, 1980.

Eckhard Breitinger, ed., Theater and Performance in Africa: Intercultural Perspectives (Bayreuth: Bayreuth University, 1994).

Herbert M. Cole, I Am Not Myself: theArt of African Masquerade, Monograph Series, no. 26 (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, 1985).

Nehemia Levtzion, “The Early State of the Western Sudan to 1500,” in History of West Africa, 2 volumes, edited by J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder (London: Longman, 1971, 1974), I: 120-157.

Isidore Okpewho, ed., The Oral Performance in Africa (Ibadan, Nigeria: Spectrum Books, 1990).

John Pemberton III and Funso S. Afolayan, Yoruba Sacred Kingship: “A Power like that of the Gods” (Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).