The Wonder Of Will

tumblr_inline_nzi1m2GTrM1sxteos_500There have been thousands of programmes, documentaries, scholarly articles, performances and events broadcast, written and produced over the last couple of months to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Looking across the global media, new and old, it seems that in almost every country, English speaking or not, William Shakespeare and his work has been celebrated.

Amongst all of these, the ones that have really caught my attention have been those that have explored the relevancy of the Bard in a modern ever-changing world.  In particular, today, I want to share a 2 programme series broadcast by the BBC. In the first episode, presented by Nikki Bedi, Shakespeare In India  explores how the cannon  remains relevant in the sub-continent. It looks at how much of the work resonates with the politics, culture and social norms of today and how Shakespeare has faired in a post-colonial world.  The programme also touches on Parsi Theatre, which was new to me.

The second episode, Shakespeare in South Africa is even more interesting. Presented by writer Nadia Davids, it explores how Shakespeare is being performed as a way of discussing race, violence against women, and the current political crisis around President Zuma.  What particularly struck a chord with me however, is the discussion of Shakespeare as part of the debate about decolonising education.


Literary Redundancy – Not A Chance

athol-fugard-2012I came across a programme this week on NPR, which celebrates one of my favourite playwrights Athol Fugard. At the age 82, the legendary South African is still actively writing and directing new plays.  Born in 1932, he grew up under white rule and for decades, Fugard worked tirelessly, both in South Africa and in exile, to illuminate the injustices of apartheid in his plays. Following the elections in 1994, which saw Nelson Mandela becoming president, Fugard says:

I sincerely believed that I was going to be South Africa’s first literary redundancy, but as it is, South Africa caught me by surprise again and just said, ‘No, you’ve got to keep writing, man. There are still stories to tell.’ And, possibly, at this moment in our history, the stories that need telling are more urgent than any of the stories that needed telling during the apartheid years.”


Classed as one of the most important playwrights of the 20th Century, he has been prolific in his output and I have written about him here before in the post Mandela, Apartheid And The Theatre Of The Fight. The reason for the NPR broadcast (embedded below) is the off Broadway opening of his new play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek which is, in part, based on the story of farm labourer Nukain Mabuza, who had spent about 15 years, in the late 1960s and ’70s, painting vivid, highly patterned designs on the boulders and stones in arid terrain of the eastern South Africa.

In the video, Fugard talks about his inspirations for the play that has received decent reviews, with Variety saying that it is thoughtful and poignant and that it places the powerful symbol of man’s dignity in a modern day context. There is also an excellent article in The New York Times by Roslyn Sulcas, Athol Fugard Tells of a Great Outsider Artist.


Fugard’s work fascinates me because he manages to tell universal tales through an African context.  His work is always being staged and as I write, there are productions of My Children! My Africa on in London and Los Angeles,  People are Living There is being performed on his own turf in South Africa and in the US, as well as The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, there is a production of The Island on in Virginia. He writes beautifully, more often than not for small casts, and if you don’t know his work, I highly recommend at least reading some and definitely seeing some when you get the opportunity.


Curated By Kwei-Armah

JLR_271_cA super new resource, The Black Plays Archive has just been launched in the UK. Curation started in 2009 and the aim is for it to be an online catalogue of the first professional production of every African, Caribbean and Black British play ever produced in Britain. It was born out of an idea by playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah and involves a considerable number of institutions from across the UK, with the National Theatre being the primary partner.

It contains Essays that can be read online or downloaded, Interviews (both video and audio) and recorded Play Extracts, either from their original staging or specifically recorded for the archive.

SB_22aThe plays are drawn from around the world by playwrights with an African or Caribbean heritage. Once complete the archive will be an incredible resource of black theatre writing. However, it is wider than that and includes interviews with directors, academics and practitioners that cover the whole spectrum of theatre making. For instance there is an essay from Dr Michael Pearce (academic, theatre director and native of Zimbabwe), Tracing Black America in black British theatre, which explores the rise of the Black Power movement in the US in 1970’s and how this was manifested in British theatre. This is a truly extraordinary and unique project and well worth an explore.

Voices Within

A quick little post from me today. An episode from a BBC World Service programme called  The Why Factor.

Untitled_FotorFrom sub Saharan Africa to the west coast tribes of Canada to the Mardi Gras of Rio, New Orleans and Venice, masks define realities – of religious belief, of healing power, of theatre and entertainment, of concealment and of memorialisation in death. They have been around as long as humanity and they evoke both fascination and fear. Mike Williams traces the power and culture of masks and asks why we have them and what they mean for us.

Click the icon below to listen to the podcast. Not entirely related to theatre but fascinating none-the-less.


A group wearing masks of legendary heroes as they perform a dance in Minhe County of Qinghai Province, north-west China

Mandela, Apartheid And The Theatre Of The Fight


The death of Nelson Mandela two days ago has, quite rightly, brought about a slew of obituaries, articles and opinion pieces from around the world. One particularly caught my attention, written by Emily Mann for the LA Times. It talks about the great man’s unwitting, yet powerful effect on theatre. I’m posting it today simply as a tribute, but is worthy of a read and I whole heartedly suggest that the plays Mann talks about are worth a read too.

I especially recommend Athol Fugard’s The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (which was also written by Fugard in collaboration with Winston Ntshona and John Kani). The former is set in an unnamed prison, clearly based on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for twenty-seven years. It focuses on two cellmates, one whose successful appeal means that his release draws near and one who must remain in prison for many years to come. The latter is a beautiful elegy about the loss of identity and how oppression can make desperate people do desperate things. The play’s protagonist, Sizwe Banzi, is forced to steal the identity papers, and thus the identity, of a dead man in order to get work in apartheid era South Africa.

Nelson Mandela dies: His legacy to the arts

Many people know that Nelson Mandela’s life inspired novels, poems, plays and films, but few people know how powerful his effect on the theater was and how powerful the theater’s effect was on him.

The theater served as a mirror to Mandela, each side influencing and reflecting the other, placing them both in time.

At the height of the apartheid era, the Market Theater in Johannesburg and the Space Theatre in Cape Town, both defiantly nonracial venues in a racially divided country, produced shattering plays about black life under the apartheid regime.


These plays premiered in South Africa in the 1970s and ’80s and then flooded onto the world stages. The plays triggered global outrage at the South African government and support for the struggle for freedom Mandela represented.

Athol Fugard’s “The Island” and “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead” (co-created with actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani) and “Master Harold and the Boys”; Percy Mtwa, Barney Simon and Mbongeni Ngema’s “Woza Albert”; and Ngema’s “Sarafina” along with many other plays of staggering power sparked a conflagration of local and international protest and helped Mandela bring down the apartheid government.

As Fugard once said to me and others, “I sometimes have to subscribe to the old cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. It certainly was true in this case.”

Mandela’s arts legacy reaches beyond the apartheid era. He continued to inspire theater makers around the world to write those plays that would expose social injustice.

One of my plays, “Greensboro, a Requiem,” is about the Ku Klux Klan massacre of a multiracial group of anti-Klan demonstrators in Greensboro, N.C., in 1978. It brought national attention to the event and to the shocking acquittals of the Klan by an all-white jury.

In its wake, the play inspired the mayor and the city of Greensboro to convene America’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled on Mandela and the Rev. Desmond Tutu’s commission in South Africa.

The citizens of Greensboro, as in South Africa, chose to face painful truths about their past so they could enter a future together with a mutually agreed-upon history and a new understanding of each other’s lives. This, too, is Mandela’s legacy. A play can inspire social change.

During Mandela’s long life on the world stage, his influence has been multifaceted and his reach long. His profound contribution to the arts, both the work influenced by him and for him, made not only world but theater history, and his legacy continues to inspire those who work in the theater for social justice.

1990. Nelson Mandela as he is freed from prison after 27 years

1990. Nelson Mandela as he is freed from prison after 27 years


Riding High

Today’s post is born out of one those moments of revelation when you think ‘how did I miss that? How can I not have heard of that’.  I am writing about the Bamana giant body puppets of Mali. If you have never heard of this tradition it is well worth looking at, because when I say big, I mean BIG!


I need to point out at this stage that in the Bambara language the same word is used for both ‘mask’ and ‘puppet’, since both serve the same function: to enable mythical and supernatural beings to be brought to life by hidden performers. I got a little confused at first, but I like the idea that there is no distinction between the two .


Below is a brief background, courtesy of Museum of African Art in New York, but first I suggest you watch this.  The narration is in French (Mali was a French colony until 1960) and very accessible even with my poor school-boy ear.


At Arm’s Length: The Art of African Puppetry

The art of Malian puppet theatre, the Sogo bo (the animals come forth), practiced by the Bamana of Mali and originated by the fishing community of Bozo, dates back to pre-colonial Mali. Sogo bo, a performance of puppet and mask dances, tells stories of Malian tradition, imparting valuable lessons in morality while entertaining the audience.

Within the Sogo bo performance animals of the bush are paramount.The Bamana describe themselves as cultivators and hunting people, and it is therefore animals from the bush that predominate. The animal characters represent far more than their counterparts in the bush. They are the symbols, the tangible manifestation of the essential force of the animal. They are the imperial majesty of the buffalo or the conniving duplicity of the hare. The qualities are implied through the costume and the dance of the masker. The buffalo masker regally marches about, and the youthful spark of the hare can be seen in its quick, vigorous movements. The antelope can be seen striding grace-fully, and the baboon jumps about with vigor.


The Sogo bo masquerades are organized by the village youth associations, the kamalen- ton, and the subject matter most commonly dealt with is hunting and heroic behavior. The youth associations, in essence, own the masquerades. They organize the activities of the night, and it is their stories that the masquerades tell. Weeks prior to the fete, the youth organizations meet frequently, planning and choreographing the events of the masquer- ades. The youths of the kamalen-ton choose the cast of characters, the costumes, the stories, and the masks that will be used. They may choose to bring out and refurbish used masks or create new ones. Their mothers, wives, and sisters provide the textiles neces- sary for the costumes. Once the major planning is completed, the youth organizations split into smaller groups and work on the particular renovation or construction projects assigned to them. Throughout this process, the older men act as consultants, offering advice on the construction of the more intricate puppets.

The puppet masks of the Sogo bo are generally worn over the bodies of the performers (usually two men). The performer(s), surrounded by the wooden frame of their puppet masks, are hidden from view by straw and cloth which cover the frame.The head of the puppet is manipulatable , and from within, the performers move the puppet about in dance.


The Sogo bo performance takes place at night, and can carry on well into the early morning hours, consisting of more than twenty sets of dances. Called to the dance by the beat of the drums, the maskers, either individually or in small groups, dance in character. The large and powerful beasts lumber about slowly, majestically (the more powerful ones come out towards the end of the night), while the energy and spark of youth can be seen in the dance of the smaller animals. Each dance set lasts only five to ten minutes, and in between, the women’s chorus provide song (praise songs for the animals). The chorus, however, does not perform during the dance sets, the sets are without voice. It is the masks, the movement of the maskers, and the beat of the drums that tell the story.Untitled_Fotor

Malian puppetry features maaniw, “little people” or puppets in human form. They range in size, from small hand-held rod puppets to almost 6-foot tall figures. Maaniw play an important role in initiation ceremonies and often appear at nighttime on the backs of kalaka (small stages in the form of a body). They often speak of the individual’s place in society and teach morals.

Though there are certain tenets that are retained in the storytelling, it is by no means a static tradition. Puppet plays that were once held only on specified days are now held on weekends, to accommodate the schedule of those who have left the village to make a living in bigger cities. Modern issues are dealt with, and the plays continue to reflect the lives and times of the Bamana.


1244916533630_FotorThen I read about Yaya Coulibaly, 7th generation descendant of Mamari Biton Coulibaly (King of Segou region of Mali) who is the director of the Sogolon Puppet Troupe. After training at the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali,  and l’Institute International de la Marionette in France he mastered the traditional Malian arts of puppetry.  It would seem he doesn’t rest with tradition either. Malian puppet performances are traditionally voiceless, but Yaya has chosen to integrate voice and performance. I realised I had heard of him before and then I remembered he had worked with Handspring Puppet Company, the people who created the horse puppets for War HorseThey collaborated on a piece call Tall Horse which blended two puppetry traditions: the Handspring work which is based in lifelike realism and the stylised, ritual rtallhorsebased puppetry of West Africa. The play’s narrative is of  a giraffe and its handler, Atir, sent as a gift from the Egyptian Pasha to the French King Charles X in 1827. Its journey took it via Alexandria and Marseilles, creating a sensation en route. Tall Horse premiered in Cape Town and then went on to tour the world. This blending of styles really appeals to me. I would have loved to have seen the play.

Many of you reading this will know of ISTA – the International Schools Theatre Association and they published a great article a few years ago by Laurie-Carroll Bérubé about her staging of Tall Horse which you can read here, Malian puppetry traditions.

Changing tack slight, as part of my research I came across this fascinating recording of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler (Handspring’s founders) and others, talking about puppetry as a contemporary medium of communication and influence. Puppets and politics – fantastic! You will need a couple of hours, but it is really, really interesting and worthwhile.


I’ll finish with a few useful facts about Malian puppetry, taken from Bérubé’s article:

Boliw is the raw spiritual energy/ power contained within performance objects such as masks and puppets. It is believed that women possess boliw – because of their ability to give birth.

Castalet: the large body-puppet, which represents a gentle mythical beast. The body of the animal is a cloth and raffia-covered frame which conceals the puppeteer inside who dances, making the raffia skirt sway.

Merens habitables are the long- necked female characters of traditional Malian performance. Merens habitables are manipulated only by men and post-menopausal women because only they are able to control the boliw contained within the puppet.

Sogo Baw or Sogow (Big Beasts): these are large body-puppets (roughly 2 m long, 1.5 m high), generally representing bush, savannah or domesticated animals. Sogo baw can resemble mobile puppet theatres with small puppets on the larger animal’s back, manipulated from within.

Sogo Bo: the annual masquerade (the Animals come forth) held in June, just before the rains come to Mali’s Segou region