The Role of Women in Teatro africano

The didactic function of African theatre confers a certain exemplary character on texts, which is reflected in the role played by women in each of historical periods depicted by the source texts. In the three dramas set before the arrival of the colonisers that take up the myths of the past, the female characters Moremi (Moremi), Abraha Pokú (Abraha Pokú) and Lemba (La olla de Koka-Mbala) take on the leading role from their privileged positions as members of royalty. In Kondo el tiburón, which refers to the first stage of colonisation, women are represented by Amazon warrior women, noted for their strength and courage. In El Presidente, contextualised in the years following independence, the leading protagonists are all male, and the only woman character is silent, functioning as an indictment on the immoral actions of the men. By contrast, Tres pretendientes ... un marido, located in the contemporary period, presents a diversity of female characters, belonging to the ordinary people and distributed among the generations, allowing the audience to see the changes in the way women think and the attitudes adopted by the youth in relation to the ties of traditional customs and the degradation of postcolonial societies.

The feminist discourse thus acquires great relevance in the selection of texts for the anthology Teatro africano, in which women not only act as protagonists, but also stand out as symbols of change and of the values that should shape the identity of the peoples of Africa, and consequently of Cuba.

Royal Women

The different historical periods that constitute the contextual framework of the works compiled in the book Teatro africano determine the social position of the female characters and, therefore their conduct, ideals and principles. In texts set in precolonial times, the protagonists all belong to royalty, as authors employ the past in order to present heroic or epic events that reflect the greatness of the kingdoms of Africa before the arrival of the colonisers. However, while these characters display many traits attributed to queens of precolonial matriarchal societies in Africa (Goettner-Abendrot 2012), their roles acquire a profoundly revolutionary character since these women do not exercise sovereign authority until, in the face of violence and injustice, they rebel and take control of their destiny and that of their peoples.

Moremi, the protagonist of Duro Ladipo’s play by the same name, is a legendary character of the Yoruba culture. She lived in the twelfth century and was the wife of Oranmiyán, the second King of He Ife, an ancient kingdom located in southwest Nigeria. This territory was harassed by its neighbours, the Igbo, who made continuous warlike raids in search of slaves and whom the Yoruba considered invincible. Moremi decides to do what the men have been unable to do, namely to free them from the slavery to which they were subjected by the Igbo. Thus, Moremi becomes Queen no longer by marriage but by right, since she shows the determination and courage needed to fight to save her people. This becomes clear when, after vainly requesting the King’s intervention, she is forced to face the Igbo alone:

«Ya me voy. No han de volver a ver mi cara, a menos que regrese a enseñarles el secreto de los igbo y entonces, que nuestros nietos cuenten que en tiempos de Alaiyemore una mujer usó la espada y la corona, una mujer resultó ser el legítimo heredero de Oduduwa» (34-35).

[I am leaving. You will not see my face again unless I return to teach you the secret of the Igbo and then our grandchildren will talk of how in Alaiyemore’s time a woman used the sword and crown, a woman turned out to be the rightful heir of Oduduwa].

She is willing to do anything to accomplish this, so she turns to the goddess of the Esinmerin River, who agrees to help in exchange for what Moremi values most: the life of her son. Moremi’s acceptance elevates her to the category of heroine, and makes her a symbol of decisiveness, courage and sacrifice, as reflected in the way she responds to the river goddess: «Entonces no me queda otra alternativa. Mi hijo debe morir para que viva mi pueblo» (37) [Then I have no other alternative. My son must die so that my people may live]. Moremi must choose between her feminine role represented through motherhood, and her warlike role that, as the text points out, belongs to men.

This dilemma is reflected in the play through the evolution of her oroki, the praise name attributed to kings which serves to highlight their virtues. Reflecting the two traits that describe Moremi, namely her warrior spirit and her motherly love, her oroki is repeated throughout the work, but the attributes change. In the first scene, her motherly condition predominates, and Moremi describes herself as «la que está lista para combatir mientras los demás festejan. Una que va seguida por muchos hijos. Una que tiene tela fuerte para ceñirse su hijo a la espalda» (27) [the one who is ready to fight while the others celebrate. One who is followed by many children. One who has strong cloth to hold her child on her back]. However, in scene VII, she is referred to as «una mujer usa el agbada del hombre,

Women as Protagonists in West African Plays Translated in Cuba 217 una mujer empuña la espada» (50) [a woman uses the man’s agbada, a woman wields the sword]. In that same scene, Moremi becomes «salvadora de Ife, una mujer más que mujer que combate mientas los demás festejan» (51) [saviour of Ife, a woman more than a woman who fights while everyone else celebrates], where it is highlighted that she had to overcome her feminine nature to save Ife. Similarly, at the end of the play, the oroki emphasises her renunciation of motherhood to bring peace to her people: «Moremi, la que combate mientras los demás festejan. Una que tiene tela fuerte para llevar un niño, una que dio a su hijo para comprar la paz» (1975:58) [Moremi, the one who fights while the others celebrate. One who has strong cloth to carry a child, one who gave her son to buy peace].

Abraha Pokú tells of the exodus of an Ashanti group from Ghana to the Ivory Coast led by Princess Abraha Pokú, who, according to legend sacrifices her son to the divinity of the Komoé River in order to bring her people to a safe place where they can live in peace and freedom. She represents the sense of dignity and justice. In the play, Nokan transforms the mythical adventure into a historical fact to show by means of the past the path that African societies must rake after independence. Thus the text acquires a noticeable political character. The dedication, calling on women to fight for freedom, emphasises the play’s clear revolutionary profile, in which women take on a special role:


Mujeres africanas,/ ustedes estuvieron en y en Bassam,/ estuvieron en el djebel;/ mañana estarán con nosotros en otra parte./ Nuestra batalla conducirá a la victoria total de los pueblos/ Mujeres africanas,/ sean semejantes a sus hermanas de Viet Nam./ Yo las saludo, mujeres heroicas del mundo entero (62).


African women,/ you were in Dimbokro and Bassam,/ you were in the Djebel mountains;/ tomorrow you will be with us elsewhere./ Our battle will lead to the total victory of the people/ African women,/ be like your sisters in Vietnam./1 salute you, heroic women throughout the world].

In the play, Abraha Pokú flees her village to escape the tyranny of a king who has come to power illegitimately, accompanied by a group of slaves who, encouraged by the princess’s message of equality, decide to follow her. On the way, one of them regrets her decision and tries to kill Abraha Pokú, but the arrow misses and kills her son instead. However, the pain of the princess does not stop the group, who must cross the Komoé River to escape their pursuers. To achieve this, a group of volunteers swim across the river to the nearest village to borrow canoes. Once safe, they name Abraha queen of the new village, which is named

Baoulé in memory of her son (in the Senufo dialect, baoulé means “the child is dead”).

The play therefore becomes a song of freedom, achieved through struggle and not through divine intervention. This is the main change that Nokan introduces: it is not the divinities that, through the sacrifice of Abraha’s son, facilitate the crossing of the river, but the commitment of volunteers and the solidarity of the neighbouring villages. Like Moremi, Abraha is forced to give up motherhood, but this occurs through human actions and not because of demands from deities. Moreover, the greatest renunciation occurs at the end of the play, when the queen does not support her second son in the candidacy for succession to the throne but rather a son of a former slave, respecting the values of equality, justice and brotherhood:

ABRAHA POKÚ. (Colocando su mano derecha sobre la cabeza de Basa.) Jefe, no le hagas daño a nadie. Es necesario que todo el mundo trabaje, coma y viva bien. No debes crear un islote para los privilegiados en medio de un mar de miserias. Junto con tus camaradas, siembra soles en todos los corazones. Desconfía de mi hijo. Si instigado por él su grupo se levanta contra nuestro pueblo, combátelo, suprímelo si es necesario. Los progresistas deben vencer a los conservadores (87). [ABRAHA POKÚ. (Placing her right hand on Basa’s head.) Chief, do not hurt anyone. Everyone needs to work, eat and live well. You must not create an island for the privileged in the midst of a sea of misery. Together with your comrades, sow sunshine in all hearts. Do not trust my son. If, at his instigation, your group rises up against our people, fight it, eliminate it if necessary. The progressives must defeat the conservatives].

Thus, Nokan uses the legend to write a combative, deeply revolutionary text, in which the main theme is the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed, whether they are slaves or women, who, according to Abraha Pokú, have a very similar status: «En nuestra sociedad, las condiciones de vida de las mujeres no son muy diferentes de las de los esclavos» (75) [In our society, the living conditions of women are not very different from that of slaves]. From this premise, the author calls on the people to rebel and fight to build a better future: «Oprimidos, levántense y tomen el poder. ¡Libertad para los pueblos! El futuro será más hermoso que el presente y que el pasado» (73) [Oppressed, rise up and take power. Freedom for the people! The future will be more beautiful than the present and the past].

La olla de Koka Mbala is set in a fictional patriarchal society where women and youths suffer as a result of the tyranny of the Kingdom Council, consisting of the sorcerer and the elders. They dictate laws, oppress women and use the death penalty to punish young people who

Women as Protagonists in West African Plays Translated in Cuba 219 dare defy their laws, protected by the fear felt by the citizens, the leaders and the King himself of the pot that contains the spirits of the ancestors. Without achieving the heroic status of Moremi or Abraha Pokú, Lemba, the king’s wife, decides to intervene, and ends this situation through common sense, reflection and wisdom. As the play unfolds, the author builds a critical discourse defending the right of women to be involved in public life and to participate in political decisions. Initially, Lemba is just a poor woman asking the King for permission:

LEMBA. ¿Podrá olvidar el Rey por un instante que sólo soy una pobre mujer y decirme cuál es ese grave problema? (93).

[LEMBA. Will the King forget for a moment that I’m just a poor woman and tell me what this serious problem is?].

However, the story progresses, the feminist tone increases, and Lemba not only expresses her right to her opinion, but also her right to make decisions:

BOBOLO. ¿Desde cuándo las mujeres se mezclan en los asuntos del reino?

LEMBA. ¡Es verdad; Pero quizá es hora ya de que empecemos a mezclarnos. (96).

[BOBOLO. Since when do women get involved in the affairs of the kingdom?

LEMBA. It’s true! But maybe it’s time we started blending in].

LEMBA. No me iré aunque Su Majestad me lo ordene... Así que no se alteren, señores consejeros. Las mujeres estamos hartas de tener que doblegarnos siempre a la ley de los hombres de este país; queremos saber por qué hemos de soportar eso, y pedimos el derecho a la palabra en las discusiones. Aquí estoy yo para representarlas. (125).

[LEMBA. I will not leave even if Your Majesty orders me to... so don’t get upset, Councillors. We women are tired of always having to bend to the law of the men of this country; we want to know why we have to put up with that, and we ask for the right to speak in discussions. I am here to represent them].

Thus, in this drama, the woman does not so much stand out for her actions as for her words.

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