Performing arts like music, dance and drama have accompanied various aspects of traditional life and festivities in which both male and female participants have been active, using them as a form of human self-expression. In modern forms of art, especially theatre, however, the participation of women in the male-dominated industry has been very limited, and history has a big role to play in that.
Theatre is a recent phenomenon in Ethiopia. It started in the early 20th century with the emergence of modern educational systems of western concept in the country. Though art in general was not imported as a part of modern schooling packages, it has recently been introduced by Ethiopians who were sent abroad for a higher education.
*Bejrond Teklehawariat Teklemariam, (*A title for a government position equivalent to Finance Minister), was one of those Ethiopians who was sent abroad for a military course but instead studied and attended theatre performances during his stay in Europe . Once back in the country, Teklemariam wrote and produced a comedy play based on the fables of La Fontain called Fabula (1913), which was considered the first play in the history of modern theatre.
After Fabula, plays were produced and staged in schools for special events like National holidays and particular school days, which were written and directed by a few Ethiopian teachers and performed by male students. Though theatre had not yet been developed as a serious profession, there was still no record of women participation in Ethiopian theatre history. Women’s participation had been very limited and to some extent their contribution had been denied. The followings are a few examples which made it into the recent history books.
In 1932 , a girls’ school called Etege Menen*, (named after the wife of emperor Haileselassie I), was established in Addis Ababa which was a step forward for girls to get an education as well as get involved in art. As the boys’ were known to perform in schools, the same is true also for students in Etege Mennen girls’ high school where play productions during school days and National holidays were being staged. This was mostly done by a lady teacher and school mistress Sindu Gebrou who initiated, supervised and directed the plays with students who were all women.
Sindu Gebrou was known for her plays which were produced in Hager Fikir Theatre. It was the first theatre in Ethiopia opened in 1935. She had her plays published in 1947. Sindu wrote more than 20 plays in her lifetime. This particular woman playwright and director had been consulting and closely working together with the well-known Playwright and Director as well as teacher Yoftahe Nigussie, who is a prominent figure in Ethiopian theatre. The Ethiopian school of Theatre arts was named after him.
The existing Ethiopian theatre history has not only reflected parts of theatre history, but also created a controversy around who the first actress in Ethiopia was. Most argue that Asnakech Worku, a singer, dancer and actress, was the first actress who performed in plays which are considered to be “theatre in a modern sense” (1952). On the other hand, it is also argued that Selamawit Gebre Selassie was the first actress in Ethiopia (1952) who used to, solely, participate in acting. The two actresses were the first to join the male performers at the same or in different times and places; however there were women performers, actresses, directors, and theatre sound designers in the early stages of professional Theatre in Ethiopia but who were not recorded in history.
Here is an example; there was a play production by the students of Etege Mennen girls' High school called “Yeyekatit Eilkit”(the February Massacre), based on a true and sad historical event during the Italian Invasion in which many civilians in Addis Ababa were brutally killed by the Fascist Troops. The play was written and directed by the then school Mistress of Etege Mennene girl’s high school, Sindu Gebru. A special music piece for the play was composed and performed live by pianist Yewubdar Gebru (a sister of Sindu). Since the school was only for girls, it was very difficult to get boys to act, as a result females were forced to imitate male characters. This particular play was staged in 1946 in Etege Mennen high school in the presence of Haileselassie I.
The same play was later produced by Hager Fikir theatre, but this time it was performed by men, because women artistes had not yet joined theatre profession, according to historians. But in actual fact, there were actresses in schools who performed out of their own preference, of which a few did continue to work in the theatre profession. For instance; Ferehiwot Tekleargay, Zenebech Tesfaye, Askale Amneshewa, Beletu Atnafu, Aselefech Bekele and Yeshi Teklewold. All these were amazing actresses and theatre practitioners.
Although women’s participation in acting has been increasing, they did not dare involve themselves in the field of directing and playwriting. The challenges for the early woman artists were many, but lack of basic education, training in theatre as well as proper recognition and encouragement can be factors for the inadequate number of women in Ethiopian theatre.
The late 50s and early 60s were considered a golden time for Ethiopian theatre in which different well written, produced and read plays by well educated male playwrights became prominent. No women playwrights have been discovered in theatre history that can be mentioned as role models even in this 21st century, however, there were those few mentioned above who did write plays in the theatre history but never were encouraged or acknowledged by historians.
In recent times, women have started to emerge in Ethiopian theatre as playwrights and directors. But after a hundred years life course of theatre, each is treated as a ‘first’ in the field.
- Assefa, Enguday: The role of woman In Ethiopian Theatre. Addis Ababa University, Intitute of language studies, Theatre arts department thesis, 1985.
- Gebru Sindu: Yelebe MetSehaf. Addis Ababa, 1949.
- Hager fakir Theatre. 60th Anniversary Especial Issue.1998.
- Debalke Getachew. Asnakech Worku-queen of art. Shama books publisher, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2005.
- Theatre Arts Department Graguates bulletine, 1985.
- Infotainment magazine, interview with theatre practitioner Debebe Eshetu, volume 2, no 18, August 2004.
- Capital Newspaper. An article with the first Ethiopian actress Selamawit Gebreselassie. vol 8 No 409 October 15,2006
- Fere Kenafir Ze Kedamawi Haileselassie. A collection of Haileselassie I speeches, 3rd part, Addis Ababa, 1959.
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