As Africans, we have come a long way from pre-colonization to post-independence. Excluding book lovers, history and literature addicts alongside the students learning these courses, it appears only a few people know how far we have come in Africa. In terms of culture, social, economic, political, and familial values, African playwrights have done their due research and penned their thoughts into plays to help document the history and tribes of the African continent through fiction.
In light of this, I compiled a list of 7 must-read African playtexts with a short synopsis of the recommended texts, highlighting the underlying themes explored in each play.
Kurunmi by Ola Rotimi
Set in the eighteenth century, Kurunmi’s plot is kicked into motion when Alaafin Atiba of the new Oyo kingdom in 1858 sensed he would soon join his ancestors and called his leading chiefs to acknowledge the Crown Prince, Adelu, as his successor. His request contradicted Oyo’s constitution, which required the Crown Prince- who enjoyed great power and immense wealth while his father ruled- to commit suicide in the event of the Alaafin’s death. Ibadan supported the Alaafin’s request, but Ijaiye, under the titular character, Kurunmi, opposed the Alaafin to preserve tradition.
The play centres around Kurunmi, the Aare-Ona-Kakanfo of Ijaiye who wants to preserve tradition, and the Ibadan Chiefs, led by Ibikunle, who supported the change Alaafin Atiba’s request would bring to Oyo, believing it would play a crucial role in strengthening the new Oyo Empire.
The main theme in this play is the fight between upholding tradition and accepting contemporary change.
Sizwe Bansi is Dead by Athol Fugard
Set in South Africa, Sizwe Bansi is Dead takes on the plot of segregation in South Africa and how the black man survives in the jungle of racial discrimination and ungiven opportunities.
The play revolves around Sizwe, who takes on the identity of a dead man he and his friend, Buntu, stumbled across on their way home from a bar. Sizwe had been unable to find a job since he went to Port Elizabeth in search of greener pastures as his passbook declared it illegal to reside or seek employment in the town.
Sizwe figures a way out of his plight after the discovery by swapping his identity with Robert Zwelinzima, the dead man, to pursue a life in Port Elizabeth . This means that Sizwe died so that he could live as Robert. The play gets its title from this absurd but clever act.
The themes in this play are racial discrimination, life, and death, among others.
Fate of a Cockroach by Tewfik Al-Hakim
Fate of a Cockroach, as one would suspect, tells a political story involving cockroaches and ants. The self-crowned king of the cockroaches in Samia and Adl’s human home tries to find a solution to the killing of cockroaches by the army of ants in their ‘bathroom’ kingdom. The king and his few subjects agreed to be careful not to fall on their backs since it would be difficult for them to stand back up, which was the main reason the ants were able to overpower them. However, after following his minister with the company of his queen to a lake, the king inevitably falls on his back to the bottom of the bathtub due to its slippery nature. The story moves on to showcase Adl’s- the human male of the story- fascination with the cockroach who is struggling to get back on his feet.
Although the concept of this play might be absurd, there is enough bait to hook the readers to the last word of it. This play explores themes like political satire and feminism.
Anowa by Ama Ata Aido
Anowa is based upon a Ghanaian legend about a girl who defies her parents to marry the man of her choice but does not live happily ever after. Aido’s Anowa takes us on a spiralling journey that teaches children to obey their parents lest they end up in doom.
Anowa chooses to marry the good-for-nothing Kofi Ako and vows never to return home to Yebi. Luckily, with her passion for work and support for her husband, they made quite a name for themselves regarding affluence, business and wealth. However, they were not blessed with offspring. The story takes the stance that you never know who you marry as Anowa and Kofi Ako meet at crossroads in crucial matters that define their persons and their relationship. The road to tragedy is paved with decision-making and speech. Would Anowa have met a happy ending had she become a priestess like her father wanted? Or would she have found fulfilment if she married an affluent and eligible bachelor from the men her mother had scouted? The story of Anowa gets our thinking caps on as we sympathize with each of the characters in the play as we get to know them and understand their decisions.
The underlying themes in this play are love, obedience, and fate, among many others.
Death and The King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka
This play is similar to Kurunmi, with the events happening after. Death and The King’s Horseman is based on events in Oyo in 1946. Just like in Kurunmi, the king’s horseman is expected to commit suicide so that he can escort his master to the great beyond.
After the Alaafin’s death, the king’s horseman prepares for his ritual suicide by lavishly enjoying his last few days on earth amid celebrations. He was even presented with a young lady to enjoy before leaving for the great beyond. However, Simon Pilkings, a well-meaning District Officer, intervenes to prevent ritual suicide. And his intervention was followed by drastic repercussions on the indigenous and colonial communities.
Bear in mind that while reading this playtext, the playwright mostly based the conflict of the play on the metaphysical factors in the journey of human life rather than a clash of two cultures.
The themes to look forward to in this playtext are the metaphysical factors in the human journey, the link between the dead, the living, and the unborn, and death as a rite of passage, among others.
Song of a Maiden by Zulu Sofola
The gods of Shao declare that to avert imminent disaster and to be allowed to continue their activities, one of the professors from the group of academicians who have come to Shao to do some research has to undergo a ritual marriage with one of the village maidens. Professor Oduyinka and Yetunde, daughter of Alabi, are chosen for this. Both of them hate the idea of this union, and they must find a way to back out without angering the gods or affecting the academicians’ research. The song of a Maiden exemplifies the adage, “You can force a horse to the stream, but you cannot force it to drink water.”
The thematic preoccupations in this play are defiance, arranged marriage, and culture, amongst others.
Ameh Oboni THE GREAT by Ahmed Yerima
Ameh Oboni The Great highlights a sour chapter in the history of the relations between Britain and her former colonies. The play is based on the true events of a great king of the Igala people.
Ameh Oboni was a wronged tragic hero who was pushed into his tragic fate by the wits of his people. He was hated by the white District Officer, Muffet, who would stop at nothing to bring the king down. However, Ameh Oboni had the last laugh, using his death as a catalyst.
The themes found in this play are; fate, ritual, and colonization, among many others.
I urge you to check these plays out for documentation purposes and to live through other people’s stories from the portal of a playtext.