De-centering Theatrical Heritage: Forum Theater in Contemporary Senegal

by Brian Quinn

Abstract

The current state of Senegalese theater is a source of concern for a number of the country’s most prominent directors and performers, many of whom have come to doubt the efficacy of the centralized cultural policies that have led to the construction of two grandiose national theaters just a few kilometers apart from each other in the country’s congested capital of Dakar. State-subsidized theatrical productions at the Théâtre Daniel Sorano and, more recently, at the Grand Théâtre National have struggled to achieve relevance within the national cultural landscape. And yet, independent, so-called popular theater troupes continue to spread if not thrive, largely ignored by both official cultural policy and scholarship on Senegalese theater and performance. This article explores the work of an independent forum theater troupe called Kaddu Yaraax, which has managed to establish an international profile and become a de facto role model for countless community-based independent theater troupes throughout Senegal. Much of Kaddu Yaraax’s success can be linked to its decision to work exclusively in the form of forum theater, as inspired by the performance philosophy of late Brazilian theater artist and activist Augusto Boal. I will argue that dramaturgical decisions necessary in the process of creating what is called a popular theatrical performance compel companies such as Kaddu Yaraax to address questions of Senegalese theatrical heritage and to position themselves vis-à-vis notions of pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary performance. These stakes are made apparent through an exploration of the performative architecture that troupes employ.

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Brian Quinn is a PhD candidate at UCLA’s Department of French and Francophone Studies. Focusing on theater and performance in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, his dissertation examines shifting definitions and practices of theatrical staging in Senegal. Looking at the historical institutions where such performance paradigms have emerged, he has also focused on important postcolonial sites of memory in the field of cultural production.