Reviving musicals

(The Reporter Ethiopia) – Since the introduction of modern theater in Ethiopia in the 20th century by French-educated Bejrond Teklehawariat Teklemariam, dramatic genre and form shifts have largely been influenced by either religion, politics, or economic condition.

Notable playwrights like Tsegaye Gebremedhin and Mengistu Lemma were able to present plays with strong social and political criticisms. Commentators argue that theater in Ethiopia is limited to a few genres and one thing that is lacking in Ethiopian stage productions is musicals, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

Ethiopia is a romanticized nation nostalgic about the ancient times. A country which is referred as the cradle of mankind and early civilization, mentioned in both the Bible and Quran, described by ancient Greek historians as a nation loved by the gods.

An empire which reached the peak of early civilization has been told and retold by generations. Within this tale there is also a prophecy of a king known as “Tewodros”; who emerges from the east to bring back the glorious times of the past.

In mid-18th century, a nation which was ravished by war and divided among regional warlords saw the rise of a young rebel Kasa Hailu from a small town of Quara in Gondar. Kassa later became Ethiopia’s emperor under the throne name Tewodros II, claiming the prophecy to bring back the united and strong Ethiopia. This dream of the emperor was revisited in one of the renowned playwright Getnet Enyew’s musical play entitled “Ye Tewodros Raey” (Tewodros’ vision). Involving more than 120 actors and actresses, this is one of the biggest productions in the National Theater’s history.

Every week the National Theater arcade is full of spectators eager to watch the play. Away from the blistering sun and chatting with their companions, many wait in long queues to watch the much talked about play of Getnet.

The play starts with a song of what can be called “the little Ethiopia performance” giving a glimpse of the different nation and nationalities. With a glamorous transition following the song, a commanding narration follows telling the story of the prophecy and it is fulfilled with the rising of a powerful man from a place called Quara.

The play directly goes to Kassa before the crowning after defeating one of his contenders. With a catching transition from scene to scene, the play also tells through music, unique to Ethiopian contemporary theater scene. The stage design is transformed during a scene which shows the wedding ceremony of Emperor Tewodros II and Empress Tewabech. The royal officials, attired with armors and shields, gave a unique harmony with their chanting to the wedding song. Later, the death of the Empress was also mourned by 120 people whose melodic expression of grief in musho and wayta filled the audience with sadness. The music was fully synchronized with the play, telling the Emperor’s trials and tribulations. This is one of the very few musicals that is played in the National Theater on a weekly basis.

The Ethiopian theater has been highly criticized for being dominated by theatrical realism with limited alternative genres. They are mostly reflections of the real life forced on middle class drama and filled with dialogues which some regard as devoid of creative settings and stage appearances. Other types of plays such as absurdist and existentialism have no room in the plays. The notion of musicals also follow a similar path where there are only few plays sprinkled every now and then. What is termed musical in the contemporary context consists of songs, spoken dialogue and dance. In some countries musical theater overlaps with other forms of theater such as Opera, which is why many of the musicals are interchangeably called operas.

Many justifications are given for the absence of musicals, such as financial constraints as the production of musicals is relatively more costly than other genres. Apart from that, lack of exposure is also cited as another factor.

Many accounts tracing the start of theater in Ethiopia, put Bejirond (treasurer) Teklehawariat Teklemariam’s play called “Fabulla” or Yawrewoch Teret (Tale of the Beasts) as the pioneer and the first Amharic play in Ethiopian history. However, there are those who argue that this play can be the first in following the western convention of theater plays in Ethiopia rather than being the pioneer theater in the country.

Simeneh Betreyohannes in his thesis for graduate studies titled “Music and Politics in Twentieth Century Ethiopia: Empire, Modernization and Revolution” explains the intertwined emergence of theater and music.

“In the Ethiopian context, theater and music can be safely referred to as twin forms of art, developing together since their birth in the evolution of popular culture”.

The thesis states that the indigenous finds its roots in the traditional comedians or entertainers merely termed as Achawach of the imperial courts which are also shared by several ethnic groups.

The thesis also mentions how the word theater existed in the Ge’ez language and archaeological evidence suggesting that traced theater to the ancient times.

“Since there can be no term without a thing that it represents, theater in Ethiopia must date back at least as early as the Axumite Empire.”

It is not certain what kind of theater existed back then but according to Simeneh even in the emergence of modern theater Azmaris (traditional poet singers) played an important role as the primary professional performers.

Nebiyu Baye, dean of College of Performing and Visual Arts, also says that theater with a framework of musical existed before “Fabula”.

Nebiyu also suggests that music has played a crucial role in the dramatic presentations since ancient times.

Enriched with rituals and performances some argue that Ethiopia’s folk songs also fall into the category of musicals. The war chanting of fukera, kererto and shillela have patriotic poetical narrations accompanied by music and movements. In addition, some see the folk music associated with the rite of passages such as musho, waita, lekso and engurguro with vivid imagery, poetic narration, as the origin of musicals.

For Nebiyu the society’s musical culture was induced in the theater plays such as in the work of Yoftahe Nigussie “Afajeshign”. The play begins with a Begena (string instrument) being played and dancing.

Following the footsteps of Bejrond Teklehawariat, many of the plays were shaped in realism format. During the 1960’s there were not many musicals. Even then, many of the musicals were done by Abate Mekuria, a famous playwright, director and choreographer.

The vanishing of these musicals from the theater scene is a sad situation for Nebiyu.

“This is a genre where Ethiopians can relate to easily with the religious performances, aesthetic rituals, holiday celebrations. They know what musical is but could not incorporate it in the theatres of present time,” Nebiyu says.

To bring back the musicals, a course was designed and included in department of theater at the College of Performing and Visual Arts even though it did not bring any change.

According to Nebiyu musicals are done as a university project but graduates do not endeavor in it when they get out from the university.

Some of the musicals that are done by the university include “Zewold” (a story about conflict resolution in Wello, Amhara Regional State). But works of theatrical arts students do not reach the wider audience due to reluctance of the theater houses, according to Nebiyu. Hence, the plays are restricted to venues located in the premises of Addis Ababa University Sidist Kilo Campus and Amist kilo Campus.

Theater Arts graduate and filmmaker Bahiru Gezahegn recalls his university project based on the renowned poet Gebrekirstos Desta entitled “Kebero” (drum). The play consisted narrative stories, songs, dance performances and choir. Involving 35 students, the play tries to give a glimpse of what the ‘Zar (a religious ritual).

In his university stay, Bahiru says they traveled on different field trips to research the different rituals where they changed some of them into ritualistic dramas and musicals.

According to Bahiru, the limited number of theater houses is one factor for the absence of musicals in theaters. Internationally, the musical theaters evolved through time, giving rise to musical films. Many remember the musical “The sound of music”, and recently “Hair” and “Glee”, both popular among some in Ethiopia.

Though there are no musical films, musical theaters are showing signs of revival over the last few years, according to Nebiyu “Giyid”, “Adabina”, “Yebalager Fikir” “Ye 13 Wor Tsega”, “Sew Bemidir”, “Yelastic Hintsa”, “Yekeletew Mender” are some that graced theater stages in the last decade.

One of the famous musical entitled “Forfe”, which was seen for four years up to last year at Hager Fiker Theater, was also able to win admiration from audiences. One of the director and writer Teshale Worku expresses how difficult and expensive it was to make this play. Starting from stage building to managing 60 actors and actresses was challenging for Teshale.

Teshale said it took ten months for writing, rehearsal and over all pre-production process.

The story line revolves around the negative influence of Khat houses, and liquor stores around school areas. According to Teshale the songs, dialogues and dance are equally proportional. Though it was tiring, Teshale takes pride from the popularity and the critical acclamation the theater attracted.

Tesfaye Shimels, general manager of the National Theater, also sees the revival of musical despite the many constraints. In the early inception of the theater, the integration of music and theater was given a priority as marsh bands and big orchestras were made part of the play, which are not observed now. With the coming of epic plays of the likes of Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s “Hahu Besidist Wer” and Ayalneh Mulatu’s “Yementa Enat” changed the focus.

Stage design, choreography, stage building, outfit for actors, music arrangement, and crowd scene drive the cost of production of musicals higher. The National Theater has the capacity to hold 1,500 people and entrance is set at15 birr per individual. From the revenue, 15 percent is deducted for tax. Cost of advertisement is also deducted from the same revenue. It is afterwards that actors get their cut with the popular ones getting a bigger share. The theater house is revising its entrance fees with entrance for big theater productions costing an individual 40 birr.

Tesfaye says that with the big production like musicals there is no profit. “These plays are done for their artistic values by bringing ideas which can build the nation,” he says.

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