In most parts of Traditional Africa, theatre was a prerogative of the woman. Women were the storytellers, the humor-artisans, the word-spinners whose grease moved the wheels of society. Men from hunting or war would return to the song-singing and dance-dancing of women; the ululations and bosom-shaking of the girls in the arena were the spiritual energy that flexed the muscles of young wrestlers; through old women’s dirges at funerals, families’ loved ones would be given a befitting farewell. The woman crafted the story that kept the family, the clan, the nation, together.
Today, there is a league of African women taking on this mantle; these precious princesses of the African stage are weaving through the intricate corridors of modern-day patriarchy to make theatre on the continent. From Lagos to Nairobi, from Cairo to Cape Town, women are moving and shaking Theatre.
The African Theatre Magazine brings part two of the women making waves in African Theatre. Some of these are well-known names but others are names you will wish you had read and known about yesterday.
Adong Judith – Uganda
In Uganda, Adong Judith needs no introduction. You can drop her English name and we will still know that you are talking about this “never-do-things-in-halves” playwright, theatre director and filmmaker. Adong is the writer of the highly-acclaimed stage play Silent Voices (2012), an exploration of victims and survivors of the infamous 1986-2006 civil war in Northern Uganda.
She is a theatre arts graduate of Makerere University and Temple University in the USA where she took an MFA in Filmmaking and Media Arts. Adong has, in the past, taught scriptwriting and film at Makerere, besides writing for radio (Rock Point 256) and screen (M-Net TV series – Kenya).
In 2010, she was at the Sundance Theatre Lab. The following year, Adong was the only African out of the 10 International artists who attended the Royal Court Theatre Playwriting Programme, where she developed her gay rights play, Just Me, You and the Silence.
She is now dedicated to Silent Voices Uganda, an all-female founding directors theatre company that annually puts up sparkling theatre productions. Her writing and directing credits include Silent Voices (2015), GA-AD (2017) A Fest of 10 Minute Plays (2018) and Niqabi Ninja (2019). Under her artistic directorship, Silent Voices Uganda runs a continental Theatre Directors Apprenticeship programme every year.
Ayodele Jaiyesimi – Nigeria
Ayodele Jaiyesimi juggles corporate work with the arts. She is the founding CEO and executive producer of the arts organization Thespian Family Theatre (TFT) Productions. A member of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Ayo, as she is fondly called, is a poet, playwright and producer.
She is the writer of ITAN (an inter-generational drama, now adapted into a comic book), The Five Maids of Fadaka, The Mad King of Ijudiya and Siddon de Look, which Wordupp 411 describes as a “rich potpourri of dance, suspense, drama, comedy, music, traditional language and adulations.” Among the notable plays she has produced are The Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka and Midnight Hotel by Femi Osofisan.
Hazel Mambo – Malawi
Hazel Mambo is a production coordinator of Madsoc Theatre, a private establishment in Lilongwe, and the co-founder of Mwezi Arts. Mambo is the artistic force behind the Madsoc Theatre Residency, a platform for equipping amateur artists with the tools of the craft. Under her leadership, Madsoc Theatre also runs the Thespian Base for working theatre professionals and the March for Women program for women in the arts.
Having worked with International designers like Francoise Grand (France), Pascale Martin (Australia), and Bozena Szlachta (Germany), and trained in costume design and make-up artistry at the National Theatre Organization (NTO) in Zimbabwe, Mambo has peerless passion for aesthetical performances. Such productions that Mambo has worked on include The Trial of Jack Mapanje, The Marriage Proposal, and Ganyu, among others.
Jalila Baccar – Tunisia
Anyone who knows the least bit about Theatre in Tunisia knows Jalila Baccar. A graduate of French literature from the École supérieure de Tunis, Jalila has been a part of and running the theatre and cinema industry in Tunisia for over 40 years. She is the founder of the first private theatre company in the country along with her husband and longtime creative partner, Fadhel Jaïbi. The company, The New Theatre (Almasrah al-jadid) commonly known as Le Nouveau Théâtre de Tunisie was established in 1976.
In 1993, together with Jaïb, Baccar founded the company Familia, taking the name from the title of their first production, a Tunisian folk comedy by Baccar and Jaïbi. The actress, playwright and director boasts of over 17 theatre productions including Special Evening, In Search of Aïda, Junun and 7 films to her name. In 2010, Jalila Baccar received the Order of Arts and Letters. And if you thought she was slowing down, you’d be forgiven to think that the award-winning theatre maker, member of the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts who has seen Tunisian theatre through the years, would stop any time soon.
Janet Badjan-Young – Gambia
Janet Badjan-Young is arguably one of the most influential women in the Arts and culture industry in Gambia. She graduated with a BA in drama from the UK and a master’s in communications from the USA. She worked in different countries on the continent including Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and others during her career with the United Nations before moving back to Gambia.
She has since written and directed plays like The Ultimate Inheritance, The Hand of Fate, the dance drama The Dance of Katchikali: a dance drama and more. In 2011 she created and directed The Chains of Inspiration, a dance drama about the slave trade across the Atlantic with funding from UNESCO.
Referred to as Aunty Janet in some corners, Janet is currently the director of Ebunjang Theatre complex.
Mariam Ndagire – Uganda
Mariam Ndagire is my childhood crush. Yeah. (Need I see a priest for confessions about this?) With just a few months shy away from a golden jubilee age, Ndagire may not be as distractingly beautiful as she was 20 years ago. But isn’t joining acting as a 17-year-old with the now-defunct Black Pearls and going on to become playwright, singer (and now film director and producer) agelessly beautiful already?
When Ndagire won the International Theatre Institute (ITI) Award for Best Actress in 1990, she did not look back. She co-founded Afri Talents, one of Uganda’s most known theatre groups, and became a shareholder in the group’s playhouse, Bat Valley Theatre. Here she has written about 40 plays for the theatre’s populist Luganda audiences. Some of her plays like Tendo Sisters, Banadda Twegande (2005), Eninga ku Lwazi (1999) and Pereketya (1997) have been adapted for other media such as radio and television.
Now a full-time filmmaker and occasional theatre artist, Ndagire established the Mariam Ndagire Film and Performing Arts Center in Kampala. The school trains young artists in writing, acting and filmmaking. There may not be many female theatre artists with an oeuvre or stature as robust as Ndagire’s work.
Patience Gamu Tawengwa – Zimbabwe
Patience Gamu Tawengwa is a playwright, director and producer of theatre, television and film productions. She is co-director together with Hollywood-based theatre and film actress Danai Gurura of Almasi Collaborative Arts Organization which focuses on creating and producing theatre works which connect Africa and the diaspora. Patience has directed numerous theatre productions and has won multiple awards with one of many highlights seeing her becoming the youngest ever winner of a NAMA award for Outstanding Theatrical Production for the play Loupe in 2008. Through Almasi, Patience has been at the forefront of creating riveting and award-winning work and the organization also hosts other events to further develop the theatre industry, such as the Almasi Mentee Director program and the Almasi Playwrights conference. Other key aims of Almasi include the professionalization of the theatre sector through education and collaboration with professional American dramatic artists and institutions. Patience holds qualifications from Kennesaw State University in the USA and Movietech Film and Television College in South Africa.
Philisiwe Twinjnstra – South Africa
Philisiwe Twijnstra is an actress, singer, playwright and director. She has written plays like The Red Suitcase (2016) and Salty Pillows (2017), which won second place at the PANSA Playwright Festival, and Not Enough Buses in Spring, which won her a CASA award Residency for 2018. She also directed among others a UKZN Drama and Performance student’s production of the Nongogo (1959) written by celebrated anti-Apartheid playwright Athol Fugard. Philisiwe holds a drama qualification from Durban University of Technology and is also a Master’s candidate for Creative Writing at Rhodes University.
Sylvaine Strike – South Africa
Sylvaine Strike is an actress, writer and theatre director whose career has straddled theatre, film and television. She is also the artistic director of her production company Fortune Cookie Theatre Company. Her most recent production Dop (2020) was on at the Market Theatre. Sylvaine holds a Performer’s Diploma in Speech and Drama and additional qualifications in physical theatre from the Jacques LeCoq School in Paris. She has also won the coveted Chevalier des Arts des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) international award in 2019 for her contribution to the performing arts awarded by the French Ministry of Culture.
Zippy Okoth – Kenya
Zipporah Agatha Okoth, Ph.D., or simply called Zippy, is a lecturer of film and theatre arts at Kenyatta University’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, Communication and Media. That’s just a part of her. In many other things, she is an author, filmmaker, actress and the founding director of the Legacy Arts and Film Lab, which curates the Lake Pan African International Film Festival.
Her very successful musical play, Tiga, was performed in 2015. But it is her two-hour one-woman show, Stranger in My Bed, played to audiences on 14th February 2018 at the Kenya National Theatre that has made Zippy a respected name in cultural circles. In the play, the eponymous character marries a dazzling military officer. Her hope for a sweet, fairy-tale love is dimmed when the husband turns violent. The play is adapted from her autobiography, Oops, Zippy! The Diary of a Divorced Woman. With subjects such as divorce, Zippy Okoth is using theatre to bring rarely-discussed subjects and issues affecting women into mainstream conversations.
This is no exhaustive list by any means. There are numerous women (more than we can cover here) wielding the wheel of crafting stories and bringing them to audiences across the continent.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.