Traditional Religious Festival as Theatre

October 24, 2016 OPINION/NEWS

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Shola Balogun

‘Oro’ is a secret society whose cultic ceremony is connected with ancestral worship. Its festival performances begin with the offering of sacrifices in the shrine known as ‘Igbo Ooto’ (Oro grove).

Though women and the uninitiated are forbidden to witness certain aspects of the proceedings, the ritual amongst the Yoruba people of Southwestern Nigeria is embellished with songs and dances.

The purpose for studying this aspect, however, is to deduce how the indigenous practice can act as a guide towards what constitutes theatre to the African in comparison with that of ancient Greek’s or other European traditions.

To further this study, we shall divide it into different phases:











It is quite apparent that oral narratives in Africa, as asserted by Daniel Crowley (1971) are provocative of performance. The essential features of its methodology which depends upon the ‘relationship of performer to audience’, to Crowley, makes it ‘not literature but theatre’. According to Bolanle Awe (1991): “Oral traditions are the products of non-literate societies as do the written documents to literate one. They constitute a record of the past of their society and are also an expression of its values, mores and general way of life (which) can be done with a musical instrument such as the drum, the gong, and in such cases the instruments communicate through direct representation of the spoken language, simulating in the process the tone and rhythm of actual speech.”

Like ‘enkijuka’ of the Masai and ‘Ifo’ among the Igbo, the oral narratives give way to impersonation of the characters in the story, the altercation of speech to suit the characters implied and the participation of the audience members in the sing along songs. The performative impact of the norms to the traditional societies ‘contrastly provides an incentive’ to demonstrate and play-act the mythical figures presented in the narratives.

It is the didactic indoctrination of oral narratives which ‘must include a wide group of performing arts like ancestral rituals, funerary rites, initiation ceremonies, spirit-possession dances, entertainment dances, tragic and comic masquerades, praise-songs ‘make up the indigenous African theatre, as put by David Kerr (1986:3).

In his study, ‘An Approach to pre-colonial African Theatre,’ Kerr concurs that the religious origins of African theatre did not give it a permanently religious stamp; he is not denying the evidence that: “Many pre-colonial African theatre rituals were not even intended for a public ‘audience’ at all, but were prepared for gods and ancestors, and for this reason the dramatic elements-performing area, masks, movements, and ritual speech were bound by rules of secrecy. (In some indigenous festivals) the language of ritual songs are completely incomprehensive to the (public observers).”

To better understand the theatre of the indigenous people, G.S.Kirk (1973) speculates that it requires concentration on an underlying structure of relationship, rather than on their overt content or any narrowly allegorical interpretation. To Kirk: “The whole idea of considering phenomena myths or cult-practices in isolation from the (theatre of the natives) as a whole has seemed, to anthropologists at least, time-wasting and repellent.”

Myths, as far as G.S.Kirk is concerned, are about gods, or derived from ritual. The traditional African festival is based specifically on the enactments of the age long beliefs. It is a dramatic display, which is essential in illustrating the imaginary but fascinating aura accorded the gods and goddesses: its potency to ward off any pestilence and attract the sublime presence of the ‘divinities’ is conceived in the context of songs and dances.

Drid Williams in his “Primordial Time and Abofoo Dance” (1968) asserts that such an efficacy is enhanced through the combination of ‘assigned meanings’ and true mythos which is an act of faith: “Rituals are encounter with this kind of (spirituality),and with the meanings that we assigned to our lives. Ritual(songs and)dance are both repetitions and representations of these meanings.”

In the Yoruba pantheon, each god and goddess assumes some mystic dance steps special to his or her attributes. The prominence of dance in ancestral worship is significant in the creative performance evident in its presentations. The cultic eerie drumbeats accompaniments exhibit the terseness suitable for a virile dance performance.

Kushendi is one of the most fascinating features of indigenous performance art embedded in the ancestral worship of Oro. It is a form of communal dance among the Yoruba people of Idofin in Southwestern Nigeria, West Africa. The dance, as reflected during Oro festival, has a day specifically assigned for its rendition. This assigned period, to the people of Idofin, is the most significant of Oro festival. It is used as the means to seek the favour of the ancestral spirits during the festival. The dance also functions as para drama, which usually cements the entire proceedings.

Thus the incumbent Aro, the paramount head of the Oro cultus and concurrently the leader of Idofin, Sagaun, Igbole, Pako and Igboora-the five autonomous communities that make up the town, apparently chooses its day of enactment.

One of the prescribed codes of conduct for Aro’s title is that the incumbent must never go out of his courtyard throughout the days of his life. By virtue of his office, he declares the dates of the festival which is then announced by Akewe, the manager and leader of Oro dance troupes.

The fifth day of the festival is devoted to Kushendi, the dramatic dance of Oro by its trained troupes at the centre of the town, the ancient market of Idofin. That the indigenous religious observance can rightly be referred to as theatre, James Buller (1982) in his analysis put it that: “The result of successful performance is not applause from an audience, nor a salary or financial gain, but more often food on the table and a close bond with the spiritual world.”

The performance aspects of ritual are truly symbolic. They serve as the conventions through which the deities are acknowledged and credited with some occurrences. In primitive rites and ritual practices, as J.P.Clark (1981) would put it, “the elements of pleasure and entertainment cannot be neatly pared from the devotion and ecstasy of religious worship.”

The dramatic circumstances, though primitive, are nonetheless theatre. To K.C.Murray (1939): “Africans are by nature dancers, so it is not surprising that in all parts there are ordinary men and women who dance with a precision of movement equalling that of Europe. Dancing, carving, and drumming are the chief arts of the African peoples who in their dances combinemusic, movement, colour and form, sometimes with the addition of dramatic elements, and often with the chief performers wearing decorative costumes, head-dresses or masks which are in themselves important works of art…for in African dancing  the body is used as living sculpture whose forms are expressive and meaningful.”

Thus, he launches attack on the misconception of ‘expressive open Body’ in African dancing as the expression of sex, as misconstrued by some writers on African dances. As Murray would put it, such a notion is “quite incorrect” but considerably states: “It is true that…all African dances originally had a religious intention.”









Shola Balogun

Shola Balogun, playwright, poet and writer is from Yoruba, southwestern Nigeria. He received his Masters Degree in Theatre Arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, specializing in Literary and Dramatic Criticism. He was the winner of the First Educare Trust’s Olaudah Equiano Poetry Prize (2002) and the Festival of Peace Poetry Award (2005) organized by the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. He is the author of a collection of poetry, The Cornwoman of Jurare and Other Poems (2007).

His books The Wrestling of Jacob, Praying Dangerously: the Cry of Blind Bartimaeus, and Death and Suicide In Selected African Plays, are available at Amazon and select bookstores.

His play, Egue Eghae, is ready for the stage. Shola Balogun also writes stories for children. His Yoruba background and encounter at the age of 21 with the poetry of John Donne and William Shakespeare influenced his creative writing.








Awe, Bolanle. Hearken to the Ancient Voices. Ibadan, Institute of African Studies, 1991.

Kirk, G.S. Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and other Cultures. London, Cambridge University Press, 1973.




Buller, James. “Organising Indigenous Theatre” in Theatre International No.6 1982.

Clark, J.P. “Aspects of the Nigerian Drama” in Yemi Ogunniyi (ed.) Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Source Book, Nigeria Magazine, Dept. of Culture, Lagos. 1981.

Crowley, D.J. “Folktales Research in Africa “Open Lecture, University of Ghana, 1971.

Kerr, David. “An Approach to pre-colonial African theatre” in African Theatre Review Vol.1 No.2 April 1986.

Murray, K.C. “Dances and Plays” in Nigeria Magazine, No.19, 1939.

Williams, Drid. “Primordial Time and the Abofoo Dance” in Research Review of University of Ghana Institute of African Studies. Vol.4 No.3, 1968.


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