Under the mango trees in the courtyard, actor and director Etienne Minoungou speaks in the booming voice of an icon whose younger version he resembles — boxing legend Muhammad Ali. His intense eyes keep the audience riveted as he performs a monodrama titled My Name Is Muhammad Ali. Too serious? Don’t worry, there’s lighter entertainment on offer too.
Outside, the wide, unpaved street of red laterite soil is packed with families, walking leisurely, stopping by roadside restaurants and bars to munch on juicy Burkinabe kebabs, grilled chicken and porc au four (baked pork meat). A series of homes with courtyards lining the street serve as open-air theaters where performers act out stories to capture the hopes and fears, dreams and aspirations of their audience.
This is Les Récréâtrales — short for Festival et Résidences Panafricaines d’écriture, de Création et de Formation Théâtrales, or the Pan-African Theater Festival and Residency for Writing, Creation and Training. Held in the Bougsemtenga neighborhood of western Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, it’s West Africa’s largest open-air theater festival. Every two years, it draws the best artists and minds of Francophone African theater from across the continent — from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi to Senegal and Togo.
Each acting troupe is hosted and fed for weeks by a local family.
But it’s also unique in the way it builds community participation. Each acting troupe is hosted and fed for weeks by a local family. The best part? It’s affordable for most residents. “I think theater was confiscated by specialists for the elite,” says Minoungou, who is also one of the co-founders of the festival. “And they left a lot of people outside.” In 2002, the festival launched in three family courtyards. In 2016, there were 15 families involved. “The festival changes our lives,” says Joel Bazié, whose family hosts troupes. The artists practice in the courtyards, set up temporary stages and designs their sets — the open-air venues can each seat between 50 and 300 audience members. By the time the festival starts, the street glitters with artistically designed lights.
All earnings from the performances go to host families. But the money is only one part of what drives the community’s support. The stories performed are often based on the lives of ordinary people in the region. Families follow the rehearsals, and often lean in with ideas, especially if they’re not in agreement with how a play depicts the reality of common people, says Bazié.
The spirit of community engagement and rebelliousness in Bougsemtenga is also a reminder of the 2014 peaceful overthrow of the country’s dictator, Blaise Compaoré (after 27 years in power), and the revival of ideas associated with the country’s former revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara. For each festival, sculptor Sahab Kouanda creates a new piece in the main square. In 2016 it was a statue of Sankara — known in the 1980s as “Africa’s Che Guevara” for his Marxist views — welded out of metal waste.
Minoungou, though, wants to use the festival’s cooperative spirit and accessibility to draw upon a much older legacy, at a time when the country finally has a democratically elected government. “Remember, in ancient Greece, the theater was in the middle of the city,” he says. “The theater was a place of democracy.” In Ouagadougou, come October, it will be once again.
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