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Bringing African female playwrights centre stage

The way ahead is to highlight the work of female creative practitioners across Africa.

Doctor Yvette Hutchison, Professor of Theatre and Performance, Warwick

I am an Africanist scholar whose research and teaching focuses on Anglophone African theatre, history and narratives of memory, as well as examining how intercultural performance practices are challenged by ongoing postcolonial issues.

Throughout my research, I became increasingly frustrated by how scholarship and curricula on African theatre was limited and defined by what was available in publications – predominantly work from the 1970s and 80s, written by men and printed in an African series by publishers such as Heinemann or Oxford University Press.

I found this skewed perception of African theatre obscured and downplayed the work of African women, as evidenced by the fact that in 2009 there was just one collection of plays published on African women playwrights, and a few individual works that wouldn't fill half a bookshelf.

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In 2014 I was co-editing African Theatre: Contemporary Women (James Currey, 2015), which set out to analyse how African women practitioners, theatre makers, directors and actors were engaging gender roles, inequalities, political and national issues in their artistic work. It was clear that contemporary women in Africa are producing rich and vibrant work, so why was it so underrepresented in scholarship and curricula? In large part, this is owing to the difficulties involved in accessing these artists and their work, who are spread out across a vast continent.

How could I find these female creatives and bring their work centre stage? The answer was surprising.

Working with Amy Jephta, a young South African writer and academic and SA-UK company Every1mobile, we created a mobile application to discover and highlight the work of female creative practitioners across Africa. Our aim was to foster a network for these women to improve their visibility, access funding and professional programming opportunities, training and debate their creative products. At the same time, this enabled me to explore some of my research questions with the women.

As an institution that values international work, the University of Warwick is committed to interdisciplinarity which made it the ideal setting for my research. I have been incredibly supported by the University on so many levels, particularly when some considered this research project a little left field.

Developing this virtual network has been an incredibly rewarding and inspiring experience. As a white South African female academic, I am conscious of the various complexities and historic systems I am part of that have contributed to the positions of these women. It therefore matters to me deeply as someone who has grown up on the continent that the voices of underrepresented female playwrights are heard and celebrated.

Accessibility was also a key consideration for the app: we needed to consider linguistic and cultural barriers as well as access to mobile data, which is incredibly expensive across Africa.

Exploring and finding solutions to these problems with the communities and individuals with whom I have been and am working, produced the answers and became the heart of the research. Therefore, together we shifted the network from discourses on creativity to what Aristea Fotopolou terms, “doing feminism and being feminist” (2016:5), as lived and performed behaviours.

The African Women Playwrights Network has put a much-needed spotlight on the richness of contemporary work by African female creatives. When I started this project, only one anthology of plays existed by African women (Perkins, 2009). However, we have since published a second anthology, Contemporary Plays by African Women (Methuen/ Bloomsbury, 2019) and other plays, highlighting the work of many women. As a result, their work is now being programmed more widely in African countries, the UK and the USA and taught in more school and university curriculums.

I also created a free online toolkit on African Theatre to help broaden the cultural understanding of social concerns within Africa and beyond. African plays are about more than problems; they are rich, creative, beautiful, funny and positive. Now that we have sponsorship for an African Women Playwrights Network and University of Warwick writer-in residence, we are delighted to be hosting a festival of new work at the University of Ghana in September on 'Tackling taboo topics in African female writing'.

Providing African female playwrights with the platform to not only share their work, but also connect with likeminded women from different countries and share their experiences is hugely valuable for artistic development and creativity to flourish.

As Artistic Director of USA theatre Pulley and Button, Bridget Reilley says, “There’s a need for the African Women’s Playwrights Network because it gives these incredibly talented women the exposure that they aren’t getting through more traditional means, and it allows those of us who are looking for them to find them.”

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