June 2005 <http://www.playbacknet.org/interplay/interplay.htm>

Does Playback Theater Have a Role in African Family History?

Bayo Omolola

  The relative newness of playback theater in Africa makes it worthy
of discussion to see whether the theater can serve any purpose in the
setting where Africans tell their true-to-life family histories
(stories). Different situations demand the family histories in
Africa. The most common and important one is when different people or
families want to make and establish their entitlement to a
traditional chieftaincy title and thus to family land. When a
traditional leadership title or a piece of land is in dispute, one
way to resolve it is to gather the conflicting parties together and
give them the chance to narrate how they or their families own the
title or land traditionally. Oral history is often what they depend
on, though in modern times, families that have had their histories
documented are allowed to cite from the text to corroborate their

In order to relate the story -telling and performance in playback
theater to the traditional African family history-telling and
characters involved in it, it is necessary, first, to give an idea of
what a typical African society looks like in terms of class
distinction which makes history telling imperative. Doing so will
enable readers, especially those that are not familiar with African
culture, to have a better idea of the setting. African class
distinctions take three forms:

1. People of royal blood who own land and control others.
2. People whose families have traditional titles and own land under
the control of kingship.
3. People whose families have no title.

People from royal families and others whose families have chieftaincy
titles have, by virtue of their birth, more recognition and better
opportunities where issues of traditional power and land property
ownership are discussed. Competition for power, therefore, often
occurs among people who want to occupy traditional positions of
authority, especially when such positions are vacant.
In a typical traditional African settings (and even in the modern
setting where traditional issues are involved), history, in most
cases, is the weapon of defense for anybody who wants to be a king or
a traditional chief. Also, people use history to claim the right to a
specific portion of land. Only those who have direct link to any
lineage that owns the rights to a position or land are the ones
regarded as qualified people to show interest. Elderly people in
their families - those that have good memories to recall family
events, names and history - are the ones that often lead competing
parties to tell family histories. African society allows elderly
people to tell histories as handed over to them by their seniors and
as they have witnessed in their lives. These people have spent more
years on earth than the young ones in the family, and, as such, are
regarded as repositories of family histories. They normally gather to
tell the histories of their families and histories of specific people
whose live have relevance to any claims they make.

The family history unfolds as a teller uses his or her memory, voice,
and gestures. However, controversy often arises when a history-teller
tells a history that another teller stands up to dispute. In most
cases, controversy is unavoidable, as people will, either by hook or
crook, aim at having their interest prevail at the expense of the
other party. This situation can be likened to a western situation of
modern politics in which politicians use all rhetorical strategies -
decent and indecent - to get people's votes. Giving it a playback
theater touch may normalize the tension that often accompanies any
conflicting history-telling situation of African families. How well
this approach may work is open to debate of playback theater
practitioners, literary scholars, and historians.

Like playback theater, family history-telling is expected to focus
and present what really happened to people on earth, as either
relayed to or witnessed by them, and as believed by their families.
Telling in playback theater and telling in the traditional African
history involve audiences that are there to access true-to-life
happenings. While playback theater is about personal stories,
traditional history is about family or lineage "stories". In other
words, personal stories are involved in playback theater while family
or joint stories of key people and events are involved in the
histories of families. The role of playback theater actors in acting
out stories refreshes the story teller's memory and connects him or
her with his or her past experience. This connection is strong enough
to make tellers identify with their past and present times when they
see their stories acted immediately at the very place where they told
the story. The same may work in any situation where family histories
are told. Although the family-history-telling situation, as explained
above, seems more serious because it involves more than an individual
personal story, its basis as a recall of the true past family events
make it fit for playback theatre performance. Putting histories into
action can bring to the fore how the family's past came into being,
and, as such, can give the audience the opportunity to visualize the
past. This situation can create a strong connection between the
teller of history and his family members on one side and the events
of the past presented in the narration on the other hand.

There may be a contradictory view to this idea as people may want to
argue that history is not for entertainment as theater is. As valid
as this may sound, it does necessarily not hold truth in Africa as
signs of seriousness, laughing, frowning, gestures and body
demonstration are not unknown in a traditional history-telling
situation, especially where family histories are being contested.
History tellers often pass comments and tell their family histories
in a crafted way that can give a funny, entertaining scenic and
dramatic presentation of events, though their ultimate goal is to
score a historical point and get what they claim as theirs.

The possibility that playback theater can reinforce the 'true'
aspects of history is striking. The traditional African
history-tellers, naturally, are expected to use their voices
adequately, and to make use of their body to enforce what they
articulate when they tell histories so that their narration can sound
real to their audience. With the essential aspects of history voiced
out and acted by playback theater actors where family histories are
told, the audience will be able to see family events in actions, and
have a deeper and better understanding of history.

The new approach suggested in this writing presents the traditional
African historians, historians of other continents, and playback
theater practitioners and scholars worldwide with the opportunity to
combine traditional history telling activities with playback theater
performances. Also, it pushes all playback theater practitioners and
scholars worldwide to think and pass comments about using playback
theater to tell traditional family histories. The discussion is open,
and the writer of this piece expects and hopes for your response.