Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora by Paul Carter Harrison

By Paul Carter Harrison

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From which principle “. . ”2 Doubtful though this principle may be as a verifiable scientific fact, there nevertheless is irrefutable evidence that a firm belief in it underlies much of the ritual behavior of mankind. 3 It would be ridiculous, of course, to maintain a direct causal relationship between procreation rituals and such natural events as the return of spring and plentiful harvests in the light of our present knowledge of climatology and agricultural science. On the other hand, would it not be equally ridiculous to underestimate the psychological effects on the participants themselves of rituals like these which are based on a belief in this principle of sympathetic magic?

If we wish to quarrel with our modern African theatre, then, let us direct our rage at its sloppy “amateurism,” its lack of discipline and a sense of purpose, its scramble for miserable crumbs of dollars from under the tables of tour operators. Ultimately, however, the question remains to be asked: in what direction is African theatre moving? The strong impact of foreign influences, particularly in the towns, and the rapid rate of change in attitudes to dramatic art, language selection and use, work, leisure, and a host of other things—all this makes it fairly obvious that the movement toward commercialized theatre will continue unless it is deliberately and vigorously arrested.

One group of these plays—those of the Mandingo—were [sic] described in some detail by Labouret and Travele in 1928. They are all comic, intended for entertainment and the realistic portrayal of the characters and faults of everyday life. As implied by the Mandingo term kote koma nyaga, the plays treat especially of married life, but also involve satirical comment on many other aspects of life. 18 The ritual function and links of the Egungun and Gelede masquerade dramas have been explained. Anansesem also had a partly didactic and a partly religious function, since it was clearly intended partly to instruct the younger generation in moral behavior and social norms, and partly also to explain phenomena that were otherwise inexplicable, thereby reducing their aura of mystery and combating the threat of the unknown which they might have carried.

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