In this third part of an article on African puppet theatre, I examine stage production, the manipulation of puppets and the type of controls used:
African theatrical production differs from its western counterpart in several ways. The lighting of performances is rudimentary: Daylight. Or else shows are lit by the moon, torches, and fires after dark, adding to the otherworldly impression of the characters. The demarcations of a stage and a specific theatre as in western society is rare. Plays take place anywhere in the village, at any time of the day or night, continuing for an undesignated time, and as in the case of the Ibibio Anang Ekon festivals of Nigeria, they may last up to seven hours in length. Amongst the Bozo people of Mali, the stage is created aboard a floating canoe on the river Niger. The narrative (or simply the current of the river) causes the stage to move up or down stream, or at intervals to turn around entirely. A distortion unheard of in Western theatre.
Puppets are manipulated directly by hand or indirectly by using a rod or string as a control, or a combination of both. The puppeteer can be above, below, on the side or at the rear of the stage therefore their position in relation to the stage dictates the type of control used. These might be:
- a hand or glove puppet. This is a costumed figure worn over and controlled by the manipulator’s hand.
- Rod puppets. Controlled by rods made from wood or metal attached to articulated body parts, like the chin, neck, arms or legs of the puppet. i.e. the marionettes of the Ogoni people of Nigeria. The jaws of these puppets are made to snap up and down revealing sets of vicious looking teeth.
- Handle puppets. Held at the base of a stick by the puppeteer with a carved image at the apex like the Kebe-Kebe-Kuyu puppets of the Congo. They appear stiff, and the puppeteer operates them from below.
- String puppets. In European tradition, string puppets are manipulated from above. In Africa, strings are generally pulled from below the stage.
Some of the prestige attached to theatrical performances in Africa, is the strength, stamina and agility required by the puppeteers during long hours of manipulation or elaborate dance techniques during masquerade performances. Sometimes puppets are large articulated torsos such as those worn during the Gelede ceremony of the Yoruba and participants endure heat and confinement within these carved trunks for several hours to create the magic and skill with which these puppets perform. With modern technology, perhaps in the future these unique and magical shows can be recorded and made available for all enthusiasts to enjoy.
Marionettes Du Mali. Werewere Liking. Collection traditions Africaines. Nea-Arhis. ISBN 2-906755-03-6
Bamana and Bozo puppetry of the Segou Rebion youth societies. Mary Jo Arnoldi. Department of fine art. Indiana university.