Reimagining Tragedy from Africa and the Global South (ReTAGS) is a project that proposes to take a concept – tragedy - from the very beginnings of theatre in its European manifestation, and to reimagine it from a perspective in Africa that is at once directed at the complex challenges of our global postcolonial present and towards our possible futures both inside and outside of the discipline. The project recognizes the numerous adaptations and stagings of ancient tragedies by major writers and theatre-makers across the African continent – Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan, J.P. Clark (Nigeria), Efua Sutherland, Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana); Ebrahim Husssein (Tanzania), Sylvain Bemba (Congo Brazzaville), Saad Ardash and numerous others (Egypt), Athol Fugard (South Africa); Trinidad Morgades (Equatorial Guinea) - and in the Afro-diaspora – Aimé Césaire (Martinique), Félix Morisseau-Leroy (Haiti), Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados), Derek Walcott (St Lucia). It is also inspired by the concept of African Tragedy as outlined by Soyinka for example in his essay from the 1960s, ‘The Fourth Stage’.i
The research project is being led by Prof. Mark Fleishman, at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. The project will create space for an extended interrogation of this vast body of tragic works produced in the theatres of Africa. Furthermore, it will use performance methodologies as analytical tools to gain purchase on the complex realities of the colonial aftermath by investigating current events in the postcolony beyond the theatre, through the “prism of tragedy”.ii Importantly, the project will also make space to challenge the Eurocentric biases and preconceptions of Theatre Studies in two respects: first by shifting, and thereby challenging, the perspective from which it operates and the assumptions that align with this predominant perspective; and second, by challenging its predominant methodologies by engaging art practice as a mode of research in a central way alongside other more conventional research modes and methods.
The project will consist of a number of work packages as follows:
1. Research and study of the archive of postcolonial tragedies produced by an earlier generation in the immediate aftermath of direct colonial rule with a specific focus on theatricality.
2. Performance analysis of instances of ‘excessive’ revolt outside of the theatre, mostly enacted by a younger generation in the neo-colonial aftermath. Such instances occur within the collective realm of popular protest and within the individual realm of postcolonial selffashioning and are characterized by transgressive, often violent, behaviours with potentially tragic and ruinous outcomes. These can be read, I would contend, as performances of desperation by an increasingly alienated constituency in a world characterized by increasing inequality.
3. Artistic research investigations of tragedy/the tragic. This work package will also, importantly, involve an attempt to consolidate and take forward the thinking on the role of art practice as a research methodology in the discipline which until now has been scattered and focused in specific geographical domains mostly in the global North.
The outcomes from these work packages will include an extensive series of events and publications. Events will include regular public seminars on various topics; short-term practice laboratories that engage both arts practitioners and researchers in thinking concepts through practical engagement; two symposia that will draw a diverse set of speakers from around the world but with a global South focus to UCT; two PhD summer schools for African PhD candidates, to assist in growing the next generation of scholars in theatre and performance studies. Anticipated publications will include: an online archive of productions of tragedies and adaptations of tragedies that have been staged across the African continent and in the Afro-diaspora through the twentieth century to the current time with a focus on theatricality; a series of journal articles based on an interrogation of this archive; two edited collections of essays emerging from contributions to the two symposia; a series of performance works performed in multiple locations in Africa and workshop performances with youth participants and documentation associated with these performances; a handbook on Performance as Research methodologies and pedagogies.
i This essay was first published in Jefferson, D.W. and Knight, G. W. 1969. The morality of art : essays presented to G. Wilson Knight, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul. The version I have used here is: Soyinka, W. 1988. ‘The Fourth Stage: Through the Mysteries of Ogun to the Origin of Yoruba Tragedy’. In Biodun Jeyifo (ed.) Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ibadan: New Horn Press, pp. 21-34.
ii Quayson, A. 2003. Calibrations: Reading for the Social. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, chapter 3, pp. 56-75 (56).