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African Drama & Theatre 101: Pre-colonial Performances in Africa


This series on African Drama & Theatre 101 offers an in-depth analysis of African drama and theatre during the colonial period in Africa. Through a combination of historical analysis, script analysis, and production reviews, the articles in this series will examine how colonialism influenced the development of theatre and drama in Africa. It explores, amongst other things, existing performance patterns of traditional African theatre in pre-colonial Africa; colonial influences on traditional forms of African theatre as well as new forms of theatre aesthetics during this period. In tracing the role and influence of colonial powers in shaping African theatre, emphasis will be placed on the policies, institutions, organisations and experts that have helped bring European theatre conventions and theatrical traditions to the African stage. In addition, the series examines how African playwrights and actors have absorbed, adapted and responded to these influences, and highlights dominant styles, themes and characteristics, particularly in relation to African cultural identity, social justice and anti-colonial resistance. This series will be invaluable for students interested in African history, literature, theatre and culture as it offers a unique perspective on how theatre was used as a tool of resistance during colonialism and how it relates to the contemporary African theatre.

African Drama & Theatre 101 series will be divided into six chapters:

1. African Drama & Theatre 101: Pre-colonial Performances in Africa

2. African Drama & Theatre 101: Colonial Influences on the Development of African Drama and Theatre

3. African Drama & Theatre 101: Voices of the People - Prominent African Dramatists in the Colonial Era

4. African Drama & Theatre 101: Drama, Theatre and Decolonial Agencies in Africa

5. African Drama & Theatre 101: Language and Resistance in Colonial-Era African Drama and Theatre

6. African Drama & Theatre 101: Legacies of Colonial-Era African Drama and Theatre - A Discourse

African Drama & Theatre 101: Pre-colonial Performances in Africa

Early conceptions of culture placed a great deal of emphasis on the study of "national character" – the delineation of unique characteristics of people from different nations (Hong, 2009). Wholly focused on the differences or similarities between national and racial groups, these studies tended to describe rather than explain, and treated cultures as monolithic entities that are static (Hong, 2009). Building on this understanding of culture, most early works on African cultures equated them with exoticism and primitivity, stressing what Sow, Balogun, Aguessey and Diagne (1979, pp. 11-12) considered to be "outdated religious practices, initiation symbols, ill/assorted and functional cult objects, folk tales and proverbs, superstition and magic". While these studies, in their "unanimity", helped identify common traits amongst the numerous cultures that call the continent home, their assumptions laid the groundwork for conjectures that have taken root and are difficult to dislodge, even though new studies have emerged that not only contradicted these early works but also questioned their methods.

In The Power of African Cultures, the Nigerian historian Toyin Falola (2003) explains that culture is central to the existence of Africans by laying emphasis on its multidimensionality. According to Falola (2003, p. 1), African cultures function as "a compass through which phenomena are explained and justified from the organisation of private domains to complicated political institutions and systems". In Falola's broad conceptualisation, African cultures are rooted in their practical appreciation, understanding and application of

values, beliefs, texts about beliefs and ideas, multiple daily practices, aesthetic forms, systems of communication (e.g., language), institutions of society, a variety of experiences that capture Africans’ way of life, a metaphor to express political ideas and the basis of an ideology to bring about both political and economic changes (Falola, 2003, p. 1).

Since culture is synonymous with social heritage – all knowledge and skills associated with survival and reproduction or deemed essential for life – an effective study of African cultures involves engagement with the historical paths, experiences and consciousness that underpin development and progress within the continent and in the diaspora.

A critical aspect of African cultures are traditional African religions. They are the basis of African culture, heritage and creative/artistic expression (Mbiti, 1975). Although unique to different ethnic or cultural groups, traditional African religions often reflect people's identities and determine how they relate to others and the world at large (Olupona, 2014). In addition, they dictate and influence the ethical practices, taboos, and knowledge of each group. John Mbiti, in his Introduction to African Religion (1975, pp. 10-11), catalogued five parts of traditional African religions, comprising beliefs, practices, ceremonies and festivals, religious objects and places, values ​​and morals, and religious officials or leaders. Ceremonies, rituals and festivals have been described as "visible demonstrations" or applications of beliefs and values ​​in traditional African religions. Organised to give cumulative grandeur to both personal and communal rituals, festivals and ceremonies are religious vehicles not only to implement or "live out" the values ​​and beliefs of society but also to transmit them to younger generations. As nuclei of religious practice, indigenous African ceremonies often involve dance, song, drumming, music, recitation, worship, incantations, masquerades, storytelling, feasting, offerings and sacrifices, prayers, blessings and general rejoicing (Mbiti, 1975). They function cumulatively as platforms for community renewal, spiritual awakening, entertainment and creative/artistic expressions (Kwabena, 1991). It is, therefore, not surprising that rituals, ceremonies and festivals are considered to be Africa's greatest artistic institutions and the roots of African drama and theatre (Olaniyan, 2012).

Figure 1: A group of African traditional musicians (IFC, 1977).

Drawing on historical and decolonial sources, this article traces pre-colonial drama and theatre in Africa to a series of celebrations embedded in traditional African religions, particularly festivals, myths, rituals, masquerades and storytelling. However, before venturing into an in-depth analytical examination of African drama and theatre, a brief consideration of the differences inherent in Western understanding of the concept of drama, theatre and performance practices in pre-colonial Africa shall be undertaken since that difference has been the focus of debates about the existence (or absence) of drama and theatre in pre-colonial Africa.

The Concept of Theatre: An Alternative Perspective

The concept of drama and theatre evokes many ideas and interpretations. Coming from a Western positivist tradition largely based on the logic of categorisation, there is a difference between text and performance, literacy and orality, theatre and ritual, entertainment and utilitarianism. The term "drama" describes exaggerated situations or events that create interesting and intense intrigue or conflict (Merriam-Webster, 2023). According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, drama is a poetic composition whose "objects of imitation are men in action" (Poetics, II). Martin Esslin (1976), in his Anatomy of Drama, highlighted the following distinguishing features of drama as a literary genre: a) drama can be seen as a manifestation of the play instinct, as seen in children who like to play mother and father; b) drama is something one goes to see, which is organised as something to be seen; c) it is an enacted event, an art form based on mimetic action; d) it is the most realistic form in which art can recreate human situations and human relationships.

Theatre, on the other hand, describes an architectural structure built for staging dramatic and other types of performances. Over the years, the understanding of the term has evolved from a specific building or setting "for seeing" to an "area" (without an architectural building) for the staging of plays and dramatic performances or, in other words, a "scene of important events" (Betiang, 2001). As can be seen from the dictionary definitions, the word "theatre" means different things to many people. For example, to a doctor, a theatre is a place where operations are performed; to a soldier, theatre is a place where war takes place; for students, a theatre is a place where lectures are held; for playwrights, however, a theatre is a place where a dramatic performance takes place. As such, this understanding of the term shapes or shows the function of theatre as a place of dissection, as a centre of conflict between ideologies and influences, as a place of learning, and as a place of cultural entertainment in society (Ayakoroma, 2012).

Theatre draws on all other arts: literature (acting or screenplays), painting, architecture, sculpture and sometimes dance (in its performance), language and music (Brockett & Hildy, 2014). The presence of the audience is an integral part of understanding theatre because it lends credence and richness to the practice, since a performance without an audience that "sees" or shares the experience that the event and venue offer is nothing more than a rehearsal (Balme, 2008). Unlike drama, which is mainly a composite performance presented in the theatre before an audience, the theatre is the sum total of events, the spontaneous or ephemeral impressions and stimuli gained from the happenings between the actors on stage, the audience (audience-audience reaction) and between the actors and the audience (actor-audience) within the same space.

Figure 2: A typical pre-colonial (indigenous) African performance space with spectators sitting or standing around the performer (Finnegan, 1970).

Pre-colonial African drama and theatre embodied indigenous African culture, religion and society, blending sacred and profane activities into everyday life that laced dance, music, rhythmic movements with symbolic gestures, songs and verbal artistry (Diakhate & Eyoh, 2017). Body adornments, including but not limited to costuming, painting, tattooing, decorating and masking, were crucial elements in pre-colonial cultural activities such as wrestling, boxing, hunting, masking, dancing, singing and acrobatic displays. Diakhate and Eyoh (2017, p. 2) captured the nature of pre-colonial African drama and theatre succinctly when they asserted that Africans "did not name their theatre, rather they lived it [...], the African has always lived in close accord with theatre and the theatrical; the performative, to use a contemporary term, is an integral part of his or her identity". This corroborates theatre historian Osita Okagbue's earlier affirmation in African Theatre and Performances that "most African cultures and languages do not have specific words for theatre and drama but terms that broadly encompass a host of performance activities", ranging from ritual to sporting activities. By emphasising the "concept of performance" over "drama", pre-colonial African theatre extended cultural entertainment beyond "showing" and "seeing" to provide "an auditory feast of the ears where people already in bed or inside their homes could listen to the music, songs and dialogue of performers (such as the Akata and Ayaka of the Ibibios and Igbos respectively) as they walk through the village/towns in the middle-of-the-night performances that were not meant to be seen" (Okagbue, 2007, pp. 1-2). These traditional auditory performances could be compared to modern radio plays, even though their circulation required the performers moving from one street to another.

Pre-colonial African theatre existed at the intersection of three fundamental elements – performers, space and spectator. However, what is considered as space in pre-colonial theatre is loosely defined. Rather than a specifically built-space, traditional African drama and theatre could be performed "anywhere" – a village or town square or any other open space, including public roads and family compounds. Thus, African theatre performance happens "whenever the spectator encounters and engages with the performer, and the two automatically define, and continuously redefine, the enveloping space of their meeting throughout the duration of performance" (Okagbue, 2007, p. 2). Also, their roles as performer and spectator go through a similar process of renegotiations and re-definitions as the performance progresses. This "fluidity of the space" is responsible for the constantly shifting positions of and alternating roles between spectators and performers that most outstandingly distinguishes pre-colonial drama and theatre from Western conceptions until recently. Other distinguishing elements of pre-colonial African theatre include its functionality and voluntariness (Okagbue, 2007). Activities related to pre-colonial African performances are done or used to mark "special occasions" or "significant moments" in individuals' lives or in the life of the community.

To properly anchor the matrix of cultural entertainment within pre-colonial African drama and theatre, it must be examined outside the narrow confines of Western/Aristotelian concepts of "drama and theatre" that framed the foregoing debates. American professor Richard Schechner, in his Performance Theory (1977), has conceptualised an alternative perspective to the discourse of drama and theatre – one that offers a more inclusive framework for the evaluation of indigenous performance forms globally, including but not limited to African drama and theatre (see Figure 3). He suggests a "model of concentric overlapping circles" where performance stands as the outmost, largest and least strictly defined form of cultural event and drama as the smallest, innermost and most specifically defined one. Theatre lies in the middle, sharing a part of the loose definition and inclusiveness of performance as well as the strict definition and exclusiveness of drama (Schechner, 1977, p. 71). A fourth dimension of Schechner's model is "script", but this shall not figure much in the discourse, as pre-colonial African performances were not script-based. In the explication of Schechner's model, the following can be observed: a) both drama and theatre are types of performance; b) drama is a kind of theatre; c) not all theatres or performances are drama; d) while theatre and performance are about doing, drama and script refer to the idea or record of the doing or what is done, and as such are more concerned with the written (see also Okagbue, 2007, p. 6). Thus, drama is the domain of the author, composer, scenarist or shaman; theatre is the domain of the performers; and performance is the domain of the audience (Schechner, 1977, p. 71). Furthermore, Schechner (1977, p. 73) illustrates the differences between drama-script and theatre-performance using what he calls the "oppositional dyad model". The theoretical argument in this model shows that, within cultures, the extent to which the drama-script dyad is emphasised is inversely proportional to the extent to which theatre-performance is de-emphasised, and vice versa. Hence, while a majority of world cultures emphasise the theatre-performance dyad, Western dramatic traditions privilege the written text almost totally, excluding theatre-performance (see Figure 4).

Figure 3: Schechner's performance model (Schechner, 1977).

Pre-colonial African Performances: A Survey

If theatre mirrors human existence and is linked to specific traditions, forms and modes of artistic expression within the specific culture, then it is in rituals, oral traditions/storytelling, masquerades, festivals and folk celebrations that examples of pre-colonial African performances are embedded (Schipper, 1984). In view of the diverse and multifaceted forms and functions of these artistic expressions, the performances considered in this survey shall be examined under two broad categories – sacred or devotional and secular or recreational performances – even though there are no clear boundaries between these categories due to the existence of what Conteh-Morgan (2004, p. 88) describes as a "variety of overlapping genres" that include masquerade theatre, spoken drama, dance, puppet theatre, dramatised narratives, recitations and civic or sacred rituals. While no genre within either category is inherently and rigidly recreational or sacred, Conteh-Morgan (2004) asserts that the difference lies in their respective functions. According to him,

the purpose of recreational genres is to entertain and sometimes to instruct, while that of devotional ones is action-oriented. Their objective is instrumental – to heal afflicted bodies or souls or to act on the natural and social worlds. Translating the worthy deceased into ancestors, neophytes into initiates or ensuring a plentiful harvest are among the many transformations that these forms are supposed to accomplish (Conteh-Morgan, 2004, p. 89).

However, the determining factor for these functions is the context of performance rather than some innate "properties of form" (Conteh-Morgan, 2004, p. 89). Thus, selected examples of pre-colonial African performances will be highlighted in the next part of this article.

Figure 4: Schechner's Drama-Script/Theatre-Performance dyad (Schechner, 1977).

Oral Tradition/Storytelling

One of the most popular secular performances in pre-colonial Africa is the oral tradition. As defined by Akporobaro (2006, p. 34), oral traditions are "all verbal creations written or spoken which are artistically projected, the collection of all oral compositions, recitations and performances of high artistic merit which are products of the creative use of the imagination by artists of the spoken work in pre-literate communities". In other words, oral traditions are composed mentally by "illiterate" raconteurs, stored in the memory and then spoken, recited, chanted or sung on specific occasions (Odeh, 2021). As "verbal communicative forms" that exist in "simple, sophisticated and complete form", the gamut of oral tradition in Africa is broad, comprising genres such as storytelling, folktales, myths, epics, songs, chants, incantations, riddles, lullabies, proverbs, elegies, history, animal stories, popular comedies and farces, etc.

Corroborating Akporobaro (2006), Schipper (1984, p. 123) highlighted the link between oral tradition and performance, noting that "there is a strong parallel between oral literature, theatre, dance and music, which all depend on repeated performances for their continued existence". According to Schipper (1984, pp. 125-126), oral literature always contains elements of drama at the same time – the storytelling performance is a total happening, a total art form – where the narrator is often a poet, a singer, a musician and an actor. In the performance of oral tradition, the narrator recreates stories from the traditional texts in his/her own improvisational way, using his/her knowledge, mastery and command of the traditional literature. The narrator could choose to sing the complete text or parts of it to accompany his/her own musical instrument or to a whole orchestra of percussion instruments, drums, xylophones and even a whole group of singers and/or dancers. The bard is also an actor because s/he interprets different roles with his/her voice and mimicry. The narrator's performance is a total theatre in the sense that it involves the active participation of the audience and also because dancing, music, singing, which are communal media of interaction, are sometimes concentrated in dialogue between two groups or a single person and a group. Thus, oral literature is structured in a narrative frame that has a storyteller, some characters, themes, a dance or song that belongs to it, and a plot, which depends on the interpretation the narrator gives to his/her source that could elevate heroes above "historical reality and sometimes deify and grant them mythological status" (cf. the Zulu hero Chaka (South Africa), Ozidi (Nigeria), Da Monzon, a Bambara hero (Ivory Coast)). Furthermore, Ebewo (2017) asserts that, while the setting for some of the stories in oral traditions may be the human or spiritual world, a large chunk revolves around the animal world with an ever-accommodating fleet of animals – hare, mouse, tortoise, spider, lion, monkey, jackal, etc. These animals are often "mirror images" of human society. Smith and Dale (1920, p. 342), writing on the folk tradition of the Ila people of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), observed that "in sketching these animals, not Sulwe (Hare) and Fulwe (Tortoise) only, but all the animals in these tales, the Ba-Ila (storyteller) are sketching themselves. The virtues they esteem, the vices they condemn, the follies they ridicule – all are here in the animals".

Figure 5: Tayiru Banbera, a traditional Malian Bard, playing his instrument (Finnegan, 1970).

Oral traditions are a repository of the ideals and values of those cultures, and their narratives also function as sites of social and moral education as well as "archives of historical memory" (Conteh-Morgan, 2004, p. 90). Kesteloot and Dieng (2009), in Les Epopees d’Afrique Noire, have documented the existence of epics as a form of oral tradition in 28 societies across Africa, including but not limited to the pre-colonial Mvet, Moneblum ou l’homme bleu of the Beti, Bulu and Fang peoples of Cameroon, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea; the taaxuraan and the mbandd of the Wolof of Senegal; the Sounougounou (Ivory Coast); the hira gasy (Madagascar) and tyi wara (Mali), etc. However, the most prominent example of this genre is the koteba of the Bambara, Peul and Sanufo peoples of Mali (Belinga, 1978).

The Koteba or Kote Koma Nyaga is a ritual, satirical theatre (Conteh-Morgan, 2004). It consists of structured and organised plays with a clear plot and human actors. While Labouret and Travélé (1928, p. 74) translate Koteba to "satire directed at things pertaining to the institution of marriage", the Malian theatre scholar Diawara (1981, p. 20) gives the meaning as: kote (snail) and ba (giant), thus "giant snail". According to Diawara, the translation describes the spires of a giant snail shell that the koteba is said to resemble in performance, an appearance caused by the swirling movement of dancers arranged in concentric circles and moving in a counter-clockwise direction. For Diawara, the spinning movement of the masked dancer, the kono, which opens and closes the koteba show, also creates the visual impression of a snail shell.

Staged in the evenings in the village square, a koteba performance is made up of different types of entertainment that include plays and falls into three distinct section – the kotedo (kote dance), consisting of rings of dancers (women, men and children) arranged in concentric circles with drummers forming the innermost circle; the prologue, which showcases a number of dance skits by young men depicting, via burlesque and satirical gestures, the behaviour and antics of social figures such as the blacksmith or the buffoon; and the nyogolon, which is a series of skits depicting scenes of family, domestic and sometimes economic life. Characters such as the holy but licentious Muslim cleric, the bullying but cuckold husband, the corrupt tax collector, the boastful and yet incompetent hunter, the infirmed and strangers such as Bobo (an idiotic foreigner) and Somono (a lazy person) are described and lampooned on stage.

Figure 6: A Mande storyteller in performance (Finnegan, 1970).


Festivals function as the lifeblood of African people and there are many festivals across the numerous indigenous societies in pre-colonial Africa (Ebewo, 2017). Numerous pre-colonial African festivals constitute theatrical performances in African traditional contexts. Ebewo (2017) asserts that to Africans, whose understanding has not been adulterated with foreign concepts, a festival is a theatrical event as it is going to the theatre for Europeans. This is because festivals form "an integral, dynamic part of the culture of an unalienated African, an occasion to which s/he responds spontaneously" (Ogunba & Irele, 1978, p. 4). African festivals demand "communal attendance as a civic duty" and bring people together to share a common interest (Ebewo, 2017, p. 9). Furthermore, festivals constituted a prime artistic institution in pre-colonial African societies as they provided or served as an organisational space and melting pot for "virtually all the arts forms of a community" (Ogunba & Irele, 1978, p. 5). Ogunba & Irele (1978) explain further that festivals in African cosmology

tend to have a story or myth to perform and each makes use of its own peculiar style in the dramatic realisation of the story. In the process the arts costuming, masking, drumming, chanting, dancing and several others are utilised in a manner not totally dissimilar to their usage in other dramatic traditions. Thus, each year there is a cycle of performances which evokes much of the history of the community and also brings to light all the artistic forms in the community. It is this total presentation that is properly to be regarded as traditional African festival drama (Ogunba & Irele, 1978, p. 59).

Examples of pre-colonial African festivals include New Yam festivals, fishing/hunting festivals (e.g., Argungu Fishing Festival in Nigeria), Kuru Festival of the Basarwa tribe in Botswana, and Reed Dance Festival (Umhlanga) of Eswatini and South Africa.


In African societies, masquerades are associated with ancestors, goodwill and governance. They constitute spirits who defend and safeguard society, preventing all potent threats to its existence and that of related institutions (Akubor, 2016, p. 33). In view of the above, masks are considered to be the material representation of a spiritual presence, assuring the presence of the ancestors amongst the living (Eyoh & Diakhite, 2017). For Diakhate & Eyoh (2017), masks are emblems or signs that are not only used to erase the personality of the wearer but also identify the wearer with an ancestor or a supernatural being. As it can be used to symbolise both humans and animals, the wearer can thus take on the appearance of a creature belonging to another species while still retaining ancestral connections.

The mask tells a story that either directs or invigorates a supernatural past or present as a way of enhancing the cohesion of the group or addressing a hostile situation within the community. Far from being only a face covering, pre-colonial African masks included garments that covered the wearer's body partially or fully. Masks are mostly displayed in motion, especially via dancing, and play the crucial, dramatic functions of representing the gods, inspiring dance and music, and social integration (Eyoh & Diakhate, 2017). Typical examples of Masquerade performances in Africa include the Egungun of the Yorubas (Nigeria); Mmonwon of the Igbos (Nigeria); Isinzaso masquerade of the Yao and Maku peoples (Tanzania); Ekpo of the Efik/Ibibios and Ekpe/Mgbe of the Efik and Ejagham (Nigeria).

Figure 7: Ekpo Masquerade of the Ibibios (Nigeria) (IFC, 1977).

Ritual/Religious Performances

Ritual performances, while largely theatrical, are not theatre (Diakhate & Eyoh, 2017). These performances, amongst other things, are forms of social action and symbolic instruments that seek to effect real change in the world outside the performance space. Thus, the staging and participation in religious/ritual performances are obligatory, as they are often enacted to either help the community avert some form of disaster or as thanksgiving for such divine help (Kwabena, 1991). Furthermore, performers in religious ceremonies are not actors, as they do not imitate characters or events; rather, their actions embody an "actual, holy form", enacted to "bring about an order of things higher than that which they customarily live" (Huizinga, 1955, p. 14).

There is no denying the fact that Africa is "prodigious rich" in rituals of all kinds (Diakhate & Eyoh, 2017). While some pre-colonial African rituals are in a lighter vein and give rise to comic expression, the majority have their origins in religious expression and magic. These ritualistic performances are not only numerous and varied but also ultimately elaborated differently by each of the continent's more than 1,000 different ethnic groups. As noted in Diakhate & Eyoh (2017), each of these rituals constitutes the germ of a theatrical performance in its use of mask, dance and incantation. A typical example of religious/ritual performance is the Kambolon ritual. It is organised by the Keita Clan of Kangaba in Mali every seven years for five days to celebrate leadership and incorporate a new age grade into Mande society (Jensen, 1998). The ceremony has a tripartite structure, namely: a separation phase on the first day, where the old roof of the Kamabolon sanctuary is taken off; a transition phase of gestation for a new social order, for which the sanctuary remains roofless; and a reincorporation phase on the fifth and last day, when the restored sanctuary is given a new roof – a symbol of a remodelled and reconstituted social order. According to Jensen (1998), the most important theatrical events of this ritual performance occur on the eve of the last day, when individuals, arranged into lineage and social groups, proceed at intervals to the sanctuary with the accompaniment of drumming and dancing. This is followed by the arrival of invited griots, who commence an all-night recital of praise songs and incantations that, in the early hours of the morning and dawn, culminates in the performance of the epic of Sundiata. On the last day, an evening of recitals is followed by the hoisting of the new roof atop the sanctuary – a triumphant moment that traditionally involves attendees crossing the hedge to touch the new roof, an act believed to bring blessings (Conteh-Morgan, 2004).

Figure 8: A traditional Limba Initiation Ritual/Ceremony in Sierra Leone (Finnegan, 1970).

Folk Celebrations

These are secular comic theatres that occur during harvest times and family ceremonies as collective entertainments. Beyond this, the principal aim of these performances is the representation of mores observed in daily life. The setting is generally simple yet dependent on the master of ceremonies and the nature of the events celebrated. Folk celebrations are mostly intended for a large rural public, including men, women and children. The contents of the event vary from light entertainment to community satire and are often characterised by virtuosity in areas such as mime, verbal skills, acrobatics, song and dance. They could be performed either at the village square, at large family compounds or in the king/chief's courtyard with the audience standing in circle around the actors and, like in ritual events, no admission is charged. Sometimes a tree might serve as a stand for props and costumes as well as a backdrop.

Diakhate and Eyoh (2017) observe that during certain folk celebrations, the celebrants wear painted patterns or pictures on their bodies, which could typify an animal, a place or sometimes just stylised designs representing a place or thing. Performances in folk celebrations often tell a story by creating a moving decor through costumes or through lines made by the dance steps. The performer, apart from acting, must also be a highly skilled acrobat, dancer and mime, as such performances depend a great deal on improvisation around a relatively limited series of stories drawn from common heritage that mix serious and comic contents. As a secular event, folk celebrations provide spectacles that are much more varied and lively than their religious counterparts. Typical examples of folk celebrations in pre-colonial Africa include marriage ceremonies, war/victory celebrations, traditional enthronement and succession ceremonies, birth and naming ceremonies, and funeral ceremonies.

Figure 9: A traditional Kamabai funeral procession (Finnegan, 1970).


Apart from performances with human actors, there are theatrical traditions in pre-colonial Africa where the actions were dramatised by puppets (Darkowska-Nidzgorski & Nidzgorski, 1998). Like the theatre of human actors, puppetry intersects with both religious and secular purposes. For instance, in Segou (Mali), there is a direct distinction between these two forms: entertainment puppetry or nyenaje (organised by youth associations) and sacred puppetry or nyanfe (organised by men's associations). Here, the puppets and other stage props used in the sacred performance are considered to have supernatural powers, while those for public entertainment are seen as mere toys (Conteh-Morgan, 2004). An example of the most developed pre-colonial African puppetry performance is the Sogo Bo or youth association puppet theatre of the Bamana, Somono and Bozo people of South-central Mali (Arnoldi, 1995; Liking, 1987). Carved in wood and dressed in either cloth or grass, the puppets are manipulated with a rod or string and depict a wide variety of characters: humans (farmers, fishermen, etc.), women (the young, the attractive, the matronly, etc.); animals (buffalo, antelope, birds), and spirit figures. With the advent of colonialism, the corpus of characters expanded to include European types such as the missionary with his beard, the district officer with his whip and helmet, as well as contemporary African politicians. While puppets are the main dramatic elements in a Sogo Bo theatre performance, they are not the only actors, as their performances are usually accompanied by masquerades, drummers, singers and dancers. Conteh-Morgan (2004, p. 106) notes that certain songs and dances are associated with specific puppets and function as a means of communication between the audience and the puppet figure.

In her description of a Sogo Bo performance, the Ivorian writer and performer Werewere Liking (1987, p. 38) distinguished three phases the announcement of the show and summoning of spectators through energetic drum music in the public square; the warm-up phase, during which the acting space is set up and the arriving audience is entertained by songs and dance; and the proper display. These phases of performance are anchored by the masked figure gon (the baboon), who not only acts as an "internal producer and master of ceremonies" by opening the show and introducing the various puppet characters to the crowd but also works assiduously to ensure order throughout the show by preventing over-enthusiastic spectators from spilling over into and obstructing the acting space (Liking, 1987). The Sogo Bo performance consists mostly of two types of dance action in which the puppets mimic, in stylised form, the animal figures they represent, imitate scenes of domestic or social life, or engage in "shape-shifting" dances (Arnoldi, 1995).

Figure 10: A close-up image of an African puppet (IFC, 1977).


The survey above illustrates just a few examples of the many different types of pre-colonial African performances that constitute the basis of what could be described as African Drama and Theatre. Unlike Western theatre, which is dominated by the written text (drama), pre-colonial African theatre combined diverse performances with little or no textual influence and was largely based on unique cultural traditions, passed down from generation to generation via oral traditions/storytelling and their performances. From music and dance to theatre and puppetry, these performances were an important part of communal life in pre-colonial Africa. It is important to note that these performances were not static but constantly evolving and adapting to changing circumstances, including but not limited to European and Islamic influences resulting from colonialism, trading and migration. Despite the many changes that have occurred, these performances have remained a central part of life and continue to influence contemporary African culture today.

Bibliographical References

Akporobaro, F. B. O. (2006). Introduction to African Oral Literature. Lagos: Principle Publishing Co.

Akubor, E. (2016). “Africans Concept of Masquerades and their Role in Societal Control and Stability: Some Notes on the Esan People of Southern Nigeria”. Asian and African Studies, vol 25 (1), pp. 32-50.

Arnoldi, M. J. (1995). Playing with Time: Art and Performance in Central Mali. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ayakoroma, B. (2012). Theatre Practice in Nigeria: To be or Not to be. Keynote Lecture presented at International Theatre Day, Abuja.

Balme, C. (2008). The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beier, U. (1967). Yoruba Theatre. In Introduction to African Literature, edited by Ulli Beier. London: Longmans.

Belinga, E. (1978). L’Epopee Camerounaise: Mvet Moneblum ou l’Homme Bleu. Yaounde: Université de Yaoundé.

Betiang, L. (2001). Fundamentals of Dramatic Literature. Calabar: Baarj & Omnix International Limited.

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