Edinburgh — The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest arts festival in the world and takes place every August for three weeks. The festival sees thousands of performers and entertainers coming from every continent, resulting in hundreds of shows in a multitude of venues across Scotland's capital. From big names to unknown artists, and first-timers to veterans, there is a diverse mix of theatre, comedy, dance, musicals, operas, live music and art exhibitions.
This year saw a variety of African acts being acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, with a number receiving awards and five star reviews. The majority of these acts were from southern Africa, with the highest number from South Africa. West Africa was also represented with Nigerian theatre and Senegalese music, while from East Africa there was a collection of Ethiopian, Kenyan and Tanzanian circus acts.
Apartheid and adaptations
The theatre productions and range of performers at this year's Fringe was exceptional. Classics were adapted and new plays performed. Apartheid was a recurring theme for many of the productions from South Africa, though each approached the issue differently.
Woza Albert, performed by Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu and Peter Mashigo under the direction of Prince Lamla, told of the second coming of Jesus (Morena) during the 1970s. These two performers played dozens of characters with only a small number of props and costumes, (some humorous, such as a pink round nose used when playing white officers). The play sharply critiqued the apartheid system and was a reminder of the struggles, indignities and dangers that black South Africans faced. The play was also, however, a celebration of South African spirit and provided recognition to those who fought against the repressive system.
In Mother to Mother, South African actress Thembi Mtshali-Jones retold the true story of a female American scholar killed in a racist attack in August 1993. Thought-provokingly told through by focussing on the mothers of killer and victim, the polarised political situation surrounding the attack was laid bare.
Set in a library, Athol Fugard's Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act sees a black man and white woman discussing the predicament of their mixed-race relationship. They both long for personal and emotional freedom and are eventually arrested, charged and shamed.
August Strindberg's Miss Julie was brilliantly adapted by Yael Farber and brought over by the Baxter Theatre from Cape Town as Mies Julie. Set on Freedom day in South Africa, the ferocious acting had everyone gripped as Mies Julie and her servant John nearly reached a sense of equality time and again, only for one or the other to be rebuffed with half-swallowed pride. Unable to forget past grievances and the issue of land ownership, the play dealt with the resentment, memory and the unresolved legacies of the apartheid era.
Another adaption came from Overo Productions, Nigeria, in The Miller's Tale: Wahala Dey Oh!, a reworked version of Chaucer's classic set in modern Nigeria. A colourfully-costumed and talented cast sing, dance, joke and act while telling the story of the young and attractive wife of an old carpenter, who outwits her husband leading to his demise. The play is full of Wahala (trouble), and the use of pidgin English is cleverly juxtaposed with the English of the elite, which, along superstition and juju, highlight the main themes of the piece.
Waiting in long queues is part of the Fringe experience, something And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses cleverly exploited by starting outside the theatre where audiences were met by two women looking for the rice queue. Once seated in more familiar setting, director Princess Mhlongo's play told the story of a prostitute in South Africa who had fallen on hard times and a domestic worker who form an unusual relationship while queuing for rice. The setting of a long queue, which moves little as the day goes by is a feeling many can sympathise with, but this queue becomes a symbol of inequality in which issues of bureaucratic corruption and gender inequality were played out.
Grassroots Theatre Company, from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, spends 20% of their time at the Fringe and similar events abroad. This enables them to raise funds through their performances which they then use to run workshops in schools and organisations throughout Zimbabwe in which they use dance, drama and music for positive change and aim to help reduce poverty and HIV/AIDS. Their production Africa Calling in which themes of identity were explored through music and dance was a heartening play with the underlying message of 'we are one'.
Circus acts, musicals and few laughs
The hours of work and preparation gone in to these acts was easy to see. World-renowned Cirque Mother Africa, for example, brought together 35 artists and musicians to make its show. The performers are trained at the artist's college of Winston Ruddle in Tanzania, which since its founding in 2005 has trained more than 150 young Africans. The crowd was transfixed for the entire hour of the show as a variety of acts moved effortlessly in and out of routine through fantastic choreography and music from a Zanzibari six piece band.
South African tap dancers Tshegofatso Mafojane and Mduduzi infused their style with that of traditional South African Gumboot dancers, a dance involving the slapping of chest and boots which stemmed from the ban on talking amongst mine workers. It was Yonas and the young boy Tarik from Ethiopia, however, who had the crowd on their feet with a daring display of acrobats which saw Yonas working like a machine to spin, flip and launch Tarik into a dazzling display of twists, turns, spins and somersaults. Kenyan contortorionist, Lazarus Gitu, had the crowd not knowing which way to look as he weaved and coiled his body in all kinds of bizarre ways. The performers costumes also helped make the show even more visually engaging with many dressed in Kitenge, a cloth often decorated with a huge variety of colours and patterns, while others wore headdresses, masks and jewellery, emulating African tradition.
Another colossal display of enthusiasm set to pounding African beats was Zambezi Express. 30 high-energy performers told the story of a young boy from Bulawayo and his journey to South Africa in pursuit of the ultimate footballing dream. This action-packed musical produced by Gerry Cottle and Zimbabwean theatre company Siyaya (on the move), was full of dance, music, percussion, a cappella vocals and acrobatics, and was infectiously enjoyable and heart-warming.
Also bringing in the laughs and making his Fringe debut was South African comedian Trevor Noah. Noah's black South African mother and white Swiss-German father meant that he was born as an outsider of mixed-race in apartheid South Africa. His hour of comedy transcended borders and social barriers as he told his story of growing up and moving to America and then back. His sophisticated jokes had a unique brand of realism and he had an impressive ability to make insightful comments about heavy subjects.
A capella, funky afrobeat and legendary guitarists
Whilst the majority of performances included elements of music, there were those that specifically aimed to please the ears with their national and local dialect, sounds and instruments while also infusing the modern with the traditional.
The grand St John's, a 19th century church, was the venue for the joyous celebration of Soweto Entsha (Zulu for 'new'). These four gospel singers blessed the audience with fresh a capella sounds and a unique style from Soweto. Their smooth, warm voices perfectly complemented one another and their dancing throughout the 75-minute performance was just as uplifting. From busking on the streets of Soweto in 2008 to touring France and performing at the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it seems this group's talent and drive will continue to propel them further.
From Johannesburg came Vocal is Lekka, an outfit of six performers and singers. Covering an array of hits from Fadhili Williams' 'Malaika' to Bonny Rise's 'Mustang Sally' as well as songs in Afrikaans, their melodic rhythms with slick and sometimes comedic choreography carried the performance even when some in the audience didn't understand what was being sung.
Also playing at the Fringe were Malawi's Nkomba, a contemporary African folk band who sang in English and Chichewa and played an engaging mixture of songs which touched on social and political issues from deforestation to the plight of women in Malawi.
In addition, Edinburgh-based Senegalese singer Samba Sene led an international collection of musicians delivering an exuberant fusion of funky Afrobeat grooves with undercurrents of ska, rock and Senegalese soul.
Rise Kagona, also now based in Scotland, and legendary guitarist of the Zimbabwean band Bhundu Boys (which toured the world extensively in the 1980s and 1990s), entertained the audience at the Jazz Rooms with his new jit jive band. Rise's unique sound of transferring traditional jiti rhythms to guitar provided a mellow yet uplifting 90 minutes of music.
This year's show saw some great acts and many are likely to return. The Fringe is an open-access festival, meaning that anyone from anywhere with a show to present and a venue willing to host them is able to participate. With that in mind along with the fact that there are many great acts across the continent, Africa's participation at the world's largest arts festival will hopefully continue to grow.
Craig Halliday is a practising artist with a masters degree in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. He has a particular interest in popular culture and contemporary art, with a special interest in East Africa.