In most parts of Traditional Africa, theatre was a prerogative of the woman. Women were the storytellers, the humour-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, family 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 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.
Deborah Asiimwe – Uganda
Deborah Asiimwe wears this usual artistic demeanour of coyness and innocence until you encounter her work and realise that here is a playwright guilty of unearthing social ills. Perhaps no Ugandan plays have bespoken the human condition more intimately than Deborah Asiimwe’s. In Cooking Oil (2010), she questions the essence of international aid in a disillusioning age of corrupt African officials. Red Hills which she wrote and directed for Kampala audiences in 2019 is a fearless reclamation of the story of a 1994 Rwandan Genocide survivor from self-seeking Western media, while Appointment with gOD scoffs at the politics of immigration and the pains of getting a US Visa.
An alumna of Makerere University and the California Institute of the Arts, Asiimwe won the 2010 BBC Radio Playwriting Competition with her play Will Smith Look Alike. She worked with the Sundance Theatre Institute in the US before returning home to establish the Kampala International Theatre Festival in 2014. The festival has over the years grown to be one of the biggest theatre events on the continental calendar, and in the past showcased work from, among others, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, USA and UK.
In 2018, she co-founded Tebere Arts Foundation with two female artist friends, Karishma Baghani, Gladys Oyenbot, and one gentleman, Kenneth Kimuli. The organisation now offers an intensive apprenticeship programme for emerging artists and a playwriting residency for midterm career and established artists.
Bolanle Austin-Peters – Nigeria
How would the Nigerian creative industry be without Bolanle Austin-Peters? The lawyer, theatre director and filmmaker dared to tread where many entrepreneurs fear to trade with her Terra Kulture Arena, the first biggest private arts and culture space investment in the country. The ultra-modern facility has a library, a restaurant rich in Nigerian cuisines, a 400-seater auditorium, an exhibition and performance space, and thus has been resourceful in launching and supporting careers of many artists in Nigeria.
Bolanle Austin-Peters is, however, more known for her (BAP) Productions and their signature musical theatre productions. Her first play SARO the Musical (2013) attracted massive audiences in Nigeria before finding its way to Shaw Theatre in West End, UK. She followed this success with yet other successes such as Wakaa the Musical (2015), and recently Moremi the Musical (2018). Bolanle’s 2017 production, Fela and the Kulakuta Queens Musical, based on the subject of the fallen Nigerian musical maestro-cum-activist, Fela Kuti and the women in his life, had remarkable tours in Egypt and South Africa. Bolanle is simply the ‘goddess of African musical theatre’.
Bolanle read law at the University of Lagos, Nigeria and the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in England. She served as a United Nations lawyer in several countries before her active arts practice.
Hope Azeda – Rwanda
Hope Azeda is one of the most influential figures in Rwandan theatre. She is a poet, playwright, director and founder of Mashirika Creative and Performing Arts, Rwanda’s most prominent theatre company. In an array of over 70 productions, Azeda has authenticated the power of theatre in revealing human fears and tears; hopelessness and helplessness; strivings and fightings and the dreams and aspirations, particularly through her bold theatrical documentation of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.
Azeda’s major work is centred around the ugliness of the Genocide and espouses tolerance, healing and rehabilitation of those who lived it or have been affected in one way or the other. Her first play on the subject was Amashyiga ya Sehutsitwa (1998) which she wrote while still an undergraduate at Makerere University in Uganda. More popular was Africa’s Hope (2004), performed at the 10th commemoration of the Genocide before its international tour in Scotland, Britain, Sweden and the USA. Bridge of Roses (2014) revists the theme and so does Generation 25 (2019) performed at Kwibuka 25, the 25th national anniversary of the Genocide.
Founder and artistic director of the Ubumuntu Arts Festival, one of the most successful on the continent in the recent years, Azeda is also an alumna of Brown University, USA, the Lincoln Center Theater Arts Lab, and a 2018 John P. McNully Laurate. For a girl who was raised as a refugee in Uganda and has travelled round the world, one would think it is easy to forget home. But Azeda hasn’t. Her oft-re-affirmed belief is ‘your history is your shadow and it will always walk with you.’ What a better way to restore hope in Rwanda and the entire humanity than Hope Azeda’s theatre!
Joyce Mhango Chavula – Malawi
Joyce Chavula is an actress, theatre director and filmmaker. A former saleswoman and marketing executive at a local media company, Chavule quit her job to join theatre in 2009. It is no overstatement to state that theatre in Malawi had been suffering a vacuum since the death of Getrude Kankwatira in 2006. Kankwatira had been one of the few active female theatre practitioners in Malawi.
Chavula established the Rising Choreos Theatre Company in 2009. Unforgettable among the company’s major works is the bilateral production between Malawi and Nigeria The Return (2011). Chavule sits on the board of the National Theatre Association of Malawi (NTAM) and has formerly served as its vice chairperson.
Angella Emurwon – Uganda
Angella Emurwon belongs to the triumvirate of contemporary female theatre makers in Uganda, the other two being (your guess is right) Judith Adong and Deborah Asiimwe. Emurwon writes and directs for stage, radio and film. She is a two-time winner of the BBC Radio Playwriting Competition. Her play, The Cow Needs a Wife came third place in 2010. In 2012, she won the competition first place in the English-as-a-second-language category with her Sunflowers behind a Dirty Fence.
Emurwon’s two short plays, Prayer (2015) and Bare Spaces (2017), written for Climate Theatre Action have been performed in Europe, USA, Canada and on the continent. Her full-length play, Strings, was developed at the 2013 Sundance East Africa Theatre Initiative, and subsequently workshopped and performed in Kampala to delighted audiences and reviews.
A 2013 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab fellow, Emurwon’s most acclaimed directing work includes Macbeth, The Cow Needs a Wife and A Ghost’s Story. In 2012, she risked prison when she directed The River and the Mountain, a queer-themed play in a country where homosexuality remains outlawed. The show was banned and her British producer, David Cecil, deported. Her own work tackles issues affecting the often down-trodden and the most vulnerable in society such as women and children.
Emurwon has invested in creating the next generation of playwrights and screenwriters, and she is much involved in several mentorship programmes for young artists in Uganda. On women in the arts, Emurwon notes, ‘There is value in being the soul, the truth-tellers, the seers, the praise-singers, in all ways that this presents to ourselves and our communities.’
Mumbi Kaigwa – Kenya
Kenyan playwright, actress and filmmaker, Mumbi Kaigwa is probably more recognised in neighbouring countries than she is at home, thanks to her pan-African approach to theatre making. In 2013, the South African-based CEO Magazine named Kaigwa as one of the most influential women in arts and culture. In 2016, the Egyptian Government gave her an award at the Festival of Contemporary and Experimental Theatre in Cairo in honour of her contribution to theatre and the arts. The following year, she got the Life Time Achievement Award from Tunisia’s Ministry of Culture at the 19th Carthage Theatrical Days. In Uganda, (and certainly in Kenya), Kaigwa ruffled a few feathers when she introduced The Vagina Monologues round 2003. The play by American feminist Eve Ensler deals with physical, sexual, psychological and other violences against women in a somewhat graphic theatre.
Kaigwa was introduced to theatre at the age of 10, when she played a child role in a television adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s The Strong Breed in 1972. She studied Management Science and had an illustrious career with the United Nations. When she quit her job with the UN in 1999, she did not know it was a return to the arts, her first love. Today she produces for her company, The Arts Canvas and teaches young people theatre acting and documentary filmmaking at her organisation, The Mumbi Kaigwa Arts Institute.
Neo Kebiditswe – Botsawana
Elsewhere christened ‘Botswana’s queen of creative and theatre arts’, Neo Kebiditswe straddles theatre and film, like many young artists of her generation. After graduating as a Theatre major with a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Botswana in 2014, she interned at the university’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts between 2015 and 2017. The opportunity enabled her to work on the department’s theatre productions, notably Twelfth Night.
Kebiditswe is the co-founder of the arts organisation Cherry Apple for which she has formerly worked as artistic director, writer, producer and marketing advisor. She has written and/or directed The Upper Hand (2017); Solitude (2017); Motlhala (2018) and Itenge (2018). Itenge was entered for the Vavasati Women International Theatre Festival, while Motlhala was selected for a reading at the 11th Women Playwrights International Conference in Santiago, Chile in 2018. Needless to say that women and children are the primary audience in Kebiditswe’s work.
Momo Matsunyane – South Africa
Momo Matsunyane is an actress, singer, writer, lecturer and director. She directed among others Tau (2015) which won a Zwakala Festival Award and the Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars (2017). Momo is the owner of Momo Matsunyane Productions started in 2018 which has produced theatre pieces like Dick or Date (2019) and Unlearn (2019) among others. As an actress Momo has featured in her own productions as well as in other notable productions such as No Easter Sunday for Queers (2019) written by Koleka Putuma. Her latest production with Momo Matsunyane Productions Hairline (2020) is on at the POPArt in Maboneng. Momo is part of THENX, the all-female comedy sketch group and holds a B.A Honours in Dramatic Art from Wits University.
Koleka Putuma – South Africa
Koleka Putuma is a poet, playwright, theatre-maker and director. Her theatre works include EKhaya (2015) and Scoop (2015) both written for children and UHM (2014), Woza Sarafina (2016), Mbuzeni (2018) and No Easter Sunday for Queers which won the Distell National Playwright Competition for 2019 which is run by the National Arts Festival. Her acclaimed poetry collection Collective Amnesia has won numerous local and international awards and been translated into Spanish and German with the latest being a Danish translation. Her latest poetry collection: Hullo, Bu-bye, Koko, Come in, is available for pre-order and is set to be released in April 2021. Koleka holds a B.A in Theatre and Performance from the University of Cape Town.
Sarah Sharaawi – Egypt
Undoubtedly the leading Egyptian playwright and producer in the diaspora, Sarah Sharaawi is best known for her first play, Niqabi Ninja (2014) that has been performed in Germany, South Africa and Uganda. She has since then worked on other plays such as Leyla, Haneen and Lifted which she co-wrote with Henry Bell and had performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Sharaawi was educated at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and spends most of her time in Scotland, where, among other things, she coordinates a residency for artists of colour. Through the Arab Arts Focus, she has been able to connect Egyptian artists with the diaspora.
Kudzai Sevenzo – Zimbabwe
Kudzai Sevenzo is a singer, songwriter as well as being a theatre and film actress. Kudzai acting credits include ‘Playing Warriors’, a film by Zimbabwean Director Rumbi Katedza. Kudzai has collaborated with Almasi Collaborative Arts Organisation both as an actress and director. She came to prominence having featured in a staged reading of Lynn Nottage’s play Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine directed by Patience Gamu Tawengwa. Kudzai also participate in the Almasi Cultural Exchange Programme and her one-woman play, Under the Rubble was staged at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in California, USA. She was also assistant director to Danai Gurira for the play Familiar performed in Washington D.C and in New York off-Broadway in 2017. Kudzai is former speech and drama teacher and in 2018 was awarded the Walter Mparutsa fellowship to study at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California, USA where she obtained a certificate in physical theatre.
Meaza Worku – Ethiopia
Meaza Worku is Ethopia’s leading female theatre maker. Since graduating from the University of Addis Ababa, she has dedicated her theatre arts degree to writing, directing and producing dramas for radio, stage and television. Writing in both Amharic and English, Worku is the brain behind Zinegnochu and Desperate to Fight. The latter was developed at the Sundance Institute East African Theatre Program and later selected for the Women Playwrights’ International Conference in Stockholm, Sweden in 2012.
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.