When ‘Africa’ at the Theatre Goes Wrong

Imagine you are a person in the Netherlands interested in African events or at least cultural events where Africa is (supposedly to be) prominently featured and you pick up a flyer of an event saying in Dutch: ‘Afrika! Het Oude en Nieuwe Afrika’ (Africa! The Old and New Africa). Your curiosity has been triggered and you glance over the names of those who will be attending and performing. A closer look reveals that of those forty odd names, about four are African. Still ten percent an optimist would say.

Well imagine you’re that optimist and you think this might be some artistic thing you don’t understand. There must be an explanation as to why a respected institute such as the Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam (Municipal Theatre of Amsterdam) would organize this event. As you open the flyer to know more about the event you read the following:

Africa fascinates, calls and scares. The Western man can barely get hold of this continent. Its history is murky, the gap between rich and poor big, the natural resources immense. The developments are rapid. It seems that the role of the European has played out, while the Chinese have arrived. Time to put the spotlight on Africa.

Your optimism is fading — you are stunned. It is, as the title of an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw, by journalist Seada Nourhussen says “Africa through the eyes of the Westerner”. Nourhussen perfectly pinpoints the amazed reaction to the event.

She questions whether the promotional text was meant to be ironic. But no, according to the lead programmer of the Stadsschouwburg this week is about ‘Dark Africa’, by which he apparently means the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding countries.

Five days of different art forms dedicated not to the African continent or dark Africa as the Stadsschouwburg wants the public to believe, but to celebrate the slightly (you’re still an optimist) wrongful promotion of a continent at an event. Three plays on the relationship between Belgium and its former colony Congo, all played, written and directed by white men. A theatrical adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. All interesting plays. But African?

The focal point (and opening night) of the festival was the book launch of Goodbye Africa by Marcia Luyten, a journalist who lived in Africa for over a decade and like any respected former correspondent she looks back at her period abroad by publishing a book. In it she concludes: “If we still want to be of any meaning on the youngest continent then we should accept Africa the way it is. We should stand on its red earth and try to understand Africa’s nature.”

And as the optimist stands with the flyer in his hands, he concludes that events like these are evidence of the misunderstanding of ‘Africa’s nature’.

* Image: “Africa”, a play by NTGent.

Further Reading