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The Strange and the Familiar: Intercultural Exchange between African and Caribbean Theatre

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2009

Osita Okagbue
Osita Okagbue teaches Theatre and Performance Studies at theUniversity of Plymouth.


In the heart of the forest, Makak and his companions endeavour to come to terms with their blackness/Africanness before they can return to their Caribbean island purged of their sense of exile and alienation. The scene captures the psycho-physical pull which Africa exerts on most Caribbean peoples of African descent, an attraction which has coloured both the way of life and forms of cultural expression in the Caribbean. But more significantly, this play (and scene in particular) was my first contact with African-Caribbean theatre which I recognized as familiar, but also one mixed with a certain strangeness and foreignness. Here was a group of characters—black, of course—who spoke in a dialect of English that was very close to the pidgin of my Nigerian society, but who were very different from the Nigerian man in the street. Their racial anguish—the subject of much Caribbean literature and theatre—struck a responsive chord in me, but it definitely was not my anguish because the experience which had produced these characters was totally alien to me. However, beyond this mixture of strangeness and familiarity, was the strange familiarity of the form which Walcott employs in articulating this peculiar experience of slavery. Makak has embarked upon a journey home, albeit in his dream, with a group of other people to Africa. Symbolically, it is a rite of passage and a return to his origins and it is here that the curious mixture of foreignness and familiarity throws up a dramatic structure that is both African and Caribbean and which has led me on a search for the ‘own’ in the ‘foreign’.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 1997

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1. Walcott, Derek, Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972), pp. 290–1.Google Scholar

2. Walcott, , ‘Profile of a West Indian Writer’, The South Bank Show (15 01 1989).Google Scholar

3. DuBois, W. E. B., The Soul of Black Folk (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1965), pp. 162–63.Google Scholar

4. Walcott, , ‘What the Twilight Says’, in Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays, p. 10.Google Scholar

5. Walcott quoted in Hill, Errol, Plays for Today (London: Longman, 1985), p. 5.Google Scholar

6. Soyinka, Wole, Art, Dialogue and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture (London: Methuen, 1993), p. 143.Google Scholar

7. Sadler, Geoff, ‘Derek Walcott’, in Contemporary Dramatists (London: St James Press, 1993, 5th edition), p. 679.Google Scholar

8. Hatch, James, ‘Some African Influences on the Afro-American Theatre’, in Hill, Errol, ed., The Theatre of Black Americans, Vol. 1 (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1980), p. 27.Google Scholar

9. Ibid., p. 27.

10. Pavis, Patrice, ‘Interculturalism in Contemporary Mise en Scène: The Image of India in The Mahabharata and The Indiade’ in Fischer-Lichte, Erika et al. , eds., The Dramatic Touch of Difference: Theatre, Own and Foreign (Tübingen: Günter Narr Verlag, 1990), p. 59.Google Scholar

11. Ibid., p. 62.

12. Hill, , Plays for Today, p. 1.Google Scholar

13. See Soyinka, 's other books, especially Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)Google Scholar, and Art, Dialogue and Outrage, op. cit.

14. Hill, , Plays for Today, p. 11.Google Scholar

15. Okagbue, Osy, ‘Rituals of Knowing: the Search for Meaning in The Road and Dream on Monkey Mountain’ (unpublished seminar paper, University of Leeds, 1988), p. 1.Google Scholar

16. Turner, Victor, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndem-bu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 48.Google Scholar

17. Ogun is the Yoruba god or iron, warfare, and the road, and as such he is the patron deity of drivers and all who work in and with metal. In The Road he is symbolically present as the discarded mask which Murano was wearing when he was knocked down at the drivers' festival; the White Goddess is a key figure in Caribbean folklore and mythology, and in Dream she symbolizes all that Makak desires but cannot have.

18. A female cult of spirit mediumship/possession among the Hausa of Northern Nigeria in which members can become possessed by any of the numerous spirits or gods of the Hausa pantheon. Instances of possession represent an acknowledgement of and a means of curing diseases which are believed to be caused by the spirits.

19. Rhone, Trevor, Old Story Time and Other Plays (London: Longman Drumbeat, 1981), pp. 89.Google Scholar