The term African Theatre is really quite a difficult one to define, and it has been used in numerous ways over the years - falling roughly into two broad categories:
(2) as the name of a specific theatre venue.
As a generic term
There are a number of difficulties with the idea of using the umbrella term African to discuss theatrical, cinematic, media and performance activities from, in and on the continent.
The first and perhaps most important question to ask, given the variety, size and cultural diversity of the African continent is a question one may ask about "African Theatre, African Film, African Media or African Performance, is "What Africa are you talking about?" It is one often asked by commentators, one of the more critical being the Nigerian born author and academic Kole Omotoso (See for example Hutchison and Omotoso. 1995.) The fact is that there are a multitude of "Africas", each with its own particular cultural, social, political, economic, ethical and other characteristics - and ipso facto, its own traditions, conventions and functions of and for theatrical performance. (See the entry on Africa)
The second point has to do with the rather dated notion that Africa did not have a tradition of theatre (or the idea of theatre), and that many African languages did not have a word for it. This stance assumes that theatre - as a cultural practice - was brought to the continent in the period of colonization by European settlers. But this belief is patently absurd, for it totally ignores the nature of theatre and performance as we see them today, as well as the growing archaeological evidence. For example, it is widely believed that the first human beings almost certainly came from the continent, and these peoples (e.g. the San in Southern Africa) had a long narrative and dance tradition, as evidenced by age-old rock paintings containing drawings and other physical indications. In addition, the northern regions, notably Egypt, abutted the European continent and yet are part of Africa. Accommodating this perspective in any discussion of African Theatre is imperative, though at times difficult.
The third difficulty has to do with the definition of the term African and where the lines are drawn between the indigenous and the imported theatrical and other events as it were: E.g the so-called indigenous performance forms and plays, as opposed to performances and texts based on Western or Eastern principles, forms and texts (e.g. Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere etc - and derivative work in their styles), in its turn again opposed to performances and texts produced or manufactured outside Africa, and then merely brought to and shown in Africa. Which of this work is to be considered African?
However, despite these difficulties with the generic term, it is still widely used, usually in one of two broad meanings:
For theatre in and theatre of Africa
Used as a generic reference to "theatre in and theatre of Africa", it . Also used may be African Theater, African Drama, or African Performance (or any combination of these). Alternately it may also be Theatre, Drama and/or Performance in Africa.
To refer to an African style or form of theatre
In the second place as a reference to a style or form of theatre or performance deriving from Africa. In this case the difficulties pointed out become particularly acute.
For more information
Banham, Rotimi, Igweonu (2011),
Encyclopaedia Brittanica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/757261/African-theatre
As the name of a theatre company
There are a large number of companies utilising this name, in and outside South Africa, as any web search will show.
As the name of a theatre venue
There have likewise been many venues with this name, in and outside South Africa.
The African Theatre, Cape Town (1800-1835)
The best known and one of the most influential in the early evolution of the theatre and performance practice in South Africa has been The African Theatre in Cape Town. Also known officially by its Dutch name as "Di Afrikaansche Schouwburg", it was designed by Sir George Yonge and opened in 1800, closing as a theatre in 1835. The building still exists in Cape Town, a listed historic building now known as St Stephen's Church.
For a full discussion, see the entry under The African Theatre
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