Africa, Development & Aid, Europe, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines

Theatre For Development and Peace

A. D. McKenzie

PARIS, Mar 24 2011 (IPS) - Some African playwrights say they want to use drama to promote development and peace, and they appealed to world leaders to listen on World Theatre Day, celebrated Wednesday.

“While nations spend colossal sums of money on peace-keeping missions in violent conflict areas of the world, little attention is given to theatre as a one-on-one alternative for conflict transformation and management,” said Jessica Kaahwa, the Ugandan playwright known for using theatre to foster community development.

Kaahwa presented the world premiere of ‘Putting Words Between The Eyes’, a 20-minute, one-act play that she created especially for World Theatre Day, celebrated in Paris at the headquarters of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency.

Set in the fictional republic of Sarkina, which has just gone through a protracted violent conflict, the play looks at how people try to rebuild shattered lives.

It also shows well-meaning ambassadors trying to overcome their despair in the face of failed peace resolutions, as both civilians and peacekeepers get caught in the “dilemma of hope and distrust”, according to Kaahwa.

Perhaps intentionally, the play evoked the current conflicts in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, with a sense of desolation and sound effects that included the screaming of warplanes and the firing of guns.

“Theatre subtly permeates the human soul gripped by fear and suspicion, by altering the image of self — and opening a world of alternatives for the individual and hence the community,” Kaahwa said in her keynote message.

“Theatre can give meaning to daily realities while forestalling an uncertain future. It can engage in the politics of peoples’ situations in simple straightforward ways,” she added.

In Uganda, Kaahwa has used drama to raise awareness of human rights as well as gender rights, according to Tobias Biancone, secretary general of the International Theatre Institute, a non-governmental organisation associated with UNESCO that organises the World Theatre Day.

He said that theatre was effective and “will never die” because it was done “live by humans in front of other humans”. In Africa, as in other regions, this directness meant that theatre could be used to promote development.

Uganda’s deputy head of mission, Philip Odida, said that the World Theatre Day focus on Africa showed that the continent’s creative arts were “rich and flourishing” and undergoing renewed growth as a result of new information technologies for recording, editing, storing and distribution of sound and images.

The playwrights and performers showed that theatre “goes beyond entertainment, and also serves as an important means of instruction, information and education,” Odida said.

Many attending the day’s events seemed to agree as they commended the performances of actors such as Thembi Mtshali-Jones who used humour, dance and song to convey the painful experiences of a child growing up under apartheid in South Africa.

The 15-minute extract of her one-woman play, ‘A Woman in Waiting’, was also international in scope, as it highlighted the problems of domestic workers who leave their children behind to be raised by grandparents, sending home shoes and clothes that no longer fit.

“The play was powerful and extraordinary because through the performance she managed to get us back to South Africa and to her childhood where the laws were such that domestic workers had to be separated from their children, seeing them only once a year,” said Vanessa Mkhize-Albertini, a Paris-based South African activist.

“The child had to wait for the mother to return home, and even when she finally got to live in the city with her parents, she still had to wait for the mother to come home from working,” Mkhize-Albertini told IPS. “That’s the reason for the title.”

In a different vein, an actor and writer from the Central African Republic, Modeste Nzapassara, had the audience laughing out loud with his portrayal of the immigrant experience in France.

In an excerpt from ‘Black Bazaar’, based on the novel by Alain Mabanckou, he showed how ignorance about immigrants’ origins can lead to some absurd encounters, as when people in the host country confuse the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the Republic of the Congo and lecture immigrants on what needs to be done “over there”.

One downside to the UNESCO World Theatre Day event, however, was that a percussionist troupe invited from the Sudan was absent because they were unable to get visas to enter France.

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