Origins of African Drama and Storytelling
African cultures are diverse and rich and their drama traditions are founded in oral cultures and traditions, use of drums and percussion instruments, use of dance and movement and use of costume and mask. Performance rituals in ancient times probably took place at night a meal. The African oral traditions normally involve a folktale being recited, sung, and or danced and sung.
Some African performers see that the most ancient of African storytelling performances involve three parts:
- The opening formula or group clapping or introduction or call
- The story expository
- The conclusive formula
A drama session which explores and uses early African storytelling techniques normally begins with an opening formula which can involve an exchange of jokes and riddles or a group clapping or call. Then a storyteller begins the narration of the tale. This can be introduced by a signal such as drumming or hand clapping. The storyteller sets the scene, introduces the characters, and defines the conflict using all sorts of techniques. In some parts of Cameroon and Ghana, the storytellers or performers perform a real dramatic play where storytellers sing, dance and through their gestures and body movements create the imagery and symbolism of the story. Many early African forms of drama involve only a single performer who imitates many characters in the story or may use different costume items or masks for different characters. The final part of the story or the conclusive formula, sees the closure of the story with a final didactic or moral statement about an issue or message explored.
Using any of the Ananse folktales of Ghana is a good starting place for exploring early African drama styles. The performance of the Ananse stories are accompanied with music, singing, drumming, percussion instruments, clapping, and dancing.
Exercise in Early African Drama & Storytelling
1 a) Ampe (Ghana)
This is a game best played with a group of four or more. It’s an active game, with so much clapping, singing, and jumping involved that it almost looks like a dance. It’s a game that’s been past down from generation to generation. A leader is chosen and the rest of the group either stand in a semicircle or split into groups of two. The leader begins by jumping, and when you land from your jump, you place one leg forward. Points are earned depending on which leg (left or right) meets the opposite leg of your opponent first. Everyone gets a chance to be the leader.
1 b) Nigeria
Another clapping game can involve clapping in a group. One person sets up a clapping rhythm and repeats it. The group then takes up this rhythm. Each new rhythm starts off at a medium volume and energy and then it gets softer. Then another person starts a new rhythm and the whole group repeats it until they all get sifter and someone else introduces a new rhythm.
1 c) Tanzania
Another introductory game can involving students playing with adjectives. The group forms a circle. Then one person starts with an animal that begins with A and prefixes this animal with an appropriate adjective. The next person goes on to do the same with B etc. (Adventurous Aardvark, Bellowing Bear…).
Telling a story
2 a) One easy way to start to tell a story is to start with a dance sequence or story. Try the following sequence in a group.
• Introduction: The whole group shows a slow sunrise – three-four children rising in an arc with hands held. The remaining children are the sleeping desert.
• Heatwave: The whole room becomes a baking heatwave, undulating and shimmering. All students do these actions
• Toiling in the heat: Children digging to the rhythm, weaving with their hands, carrying water containers or pots on their heads.
• Giving thanks: Children give thanks for food and shelter – all in a circle mirroring the movement of one leader.
2 b) One person begins a tale and stops after a few sentences. The next person picks up the story thread and continues it, then stops. Next person adds to it and so on until the tale comes to a resolution.
2 c) Students can also come into the centre of the circle and tell a short story on their own. They could also choose to read an African folktales (see bibliography). These stories can be accompanied by clapping or drumming by the performer or by the audience.
2 d) The audience or another performer can then recap or retell the whole story entirely in dance form. This should be shorter than the original. Alternatively, a dance can be done to recap the events of the story at the end of each section of the story.
2 e) Students can share an African Creation story. They can list the characters and each act out the characters or animals involved in the story. Each student can act out a different animal and they can use movements, masks or visual cues to show this animal.
2 f) Students think of a plant or animal from their district. Students think about what the origin of this plant or animal may be. Students create a story or performance to tell the story of how this animal or plant came to be the way it is. The story can be built around a chant and rhythm. The rhythm could be made with hand clapping or with the feet stomping.
2 g) Students can create their own creation story based on landscape. Here are some instructions which may help students to do this:
Look at the hills, mountains, rocks or any geographic features that are outside. Look at the shape of one geographic feature and think of an animal which that feature could represent. Look at other geographical features and decide what other animals each feature could represent. Look at the arrangement and relationship of the different geographical features and attempt to make up a story that tells how these animals came to be frozen in these particular poses in this particular place. Begin to develop your landscape story into a form (spoken with gesture or spoken with dance) you have chosen. Make your story
as imaginative as you can. Don’t be too realistic.
The Conclusion or the Moral or Message
3 a) The storyteller can come up with what the message or moral of the story was and tell this to the group at the end.
3b) Alternatively, the group or a member of the audience can get up and announce what the moral or message of the story was.
Asihene, E. 1997. Traditional Folk-Tales of Ghanaa. Edwin Mellen Press. New York.
Beier, U. (ed.) 1966. The origin of Life and Death: African Creation Myths. Heinemann, London. http://exploringafrica.matrix.msu.edu/students/curriculum/m14/stories.php
Brockett, O. 1995. The History of Theatre (7th Ed.) Allyn & Bacon. Boston (pp 635-639).
Dada, O. 1970. West African Folktales. Dorrance and Company. Philadelphia.
Bower, J. 2007. Dance and Drama – The Spirit of Africa. Aston Scholastic. New York. http://education.scholastic.co.uk/content/1461
Harwood, R. 1984. All the World’s a Stage. Secker & Warburg. London (pp13-36)
Lott, Joanna. “Keepers of History.” Research Penn State. http://news.psu.edu/story/140694/2002/05/01/research/keepers-history
Owomoyela, O.1997. Yoruba Trickster Tales. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln & London.
Tembo, M. 1996. Legends of Africa. Michael Friedman Publishing Group.
World of Tales. 2004. Varna, Bulgaria. http://www.worldoftales.com/African_folktales.html
Ero. C. Kokodiko - African Storytelling. 2009.