Enduring Life, a Journey of Passion, Excellence in Theatre
Last month, the National Cultural Centre honoured Abate Mekuria for his numerous contributions to the theatrical arts. While he’s enjoyed an esteemed career, the commemoration came as a surprise, since Abate hasn’t always enjoyed an affable relationship with the government, past or present, due to his plays that often deal with controversial social issues. Still, many in the artistic community think the award was well deserved for a man who has given so much to the development of Ethiopian theatre. EBR’s adjunct staff writer Meseret Mamo spoke with Abate, his colleagues and a former student to learn more about the man and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
Ever since the introduction of modern theatre in Ethiopia, some artists have tried to introduce different genres and forms of presentation to take the art to the next level. However, only a handful of them have received widespread acceptance and notoriety from fellow actors, critics and audiences.
Abate Mekuria, the renowned theatre director, playwright and choreographer, belongs to this
small elite group of professionals who have devoted their lives to the creation of theatrical masterpieces.
He is celebrated among legendary artists who’ve left a lasting impression on theatre, like Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin (Laureate) and Mengistu Lemma. Even at the age of 72, Abate continues to develop the art using the language of theatre as an empowering tool to address many social, political and economic issues.
In fact, his colleagues often refer to him as a person who can’t detach himself from the stage. So far Abate has directed 12 stage plays, six of which were written by Tsegaye and two of his own. Aside from their timelessness, the legacy of the plays he’s directed – which include the Last Hour of Mekdela-of Emperor Tewodros, Ha Hu Be’sedist Wer (which means ‘Learning the alphabet in 6 months’), and Othello – have managed to significantly influence the growth and development of contemporary theatre in Ethiopia.
It is this lifetime commitment and contribution to his craft that convinced the National Cultural Centre, which operates under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, to commemorate Abate at the National Theatre last month. The event was held in the presence of his colleagues, friends, family members, students and fans.
Artist Fikadu Teklemariam, who played in the Last Hour of Mekdela-of Emperor Tewodros and attended the event, spoke about the impact Abate has had on his professional life and theatre itself. “I couldn’t have come this far as an actor if it were not for Abate’s critique that awakened me from my effort to imitate somebody else,” he told the attendees.
Despite the recent celebration of Abate’s contributions to the arts, he’s faced challenges throughout his career. His most recent work includes Shoe Shine Opera, which is a musical performance that was produced in 1992 focusing on the lives of abandoned street children. Although the Shoe Shine Opera took part in the International Windybrow Festival of Johannesburg in 1997, where it received the FNB Vita award for first prize, the play was banned shortly after it was first performed in Ethiopia. He had earlier received the UNESCO Award as African Guest Director; and the Haile Selassie I Prize in 1974.
Abate feels pity for a country where plays are barred from being performed for general audiences. “There was a time when street theatres were famous around the globe and were unique,” he told EBR, reflecting on how certain plays could have changed the trend in the country’s theatre culture.
Such local pressure pushed him to establish the Mekuria Theatre Studio in 1994. Through his studio, Abate worked to strengthen the art of theatre and drama groups at the regional and national level by producing and directing plays that address social issues like women’s and children’s rights, gender-based violence, and illegal human trafficking.
Abate says he likes to focus on social issues in his work because of their universality. “Although it was the intention of donors that pushed me towards that initially, eventually I liked what I was doing because these issues touch everyone’s lives,” he explains. “What is more interesting than producing a theatre every ordinary person, like farmers and children, can understand and appreciate?” By the time the studio closed in 2008, he had produced 16 plays.
The Mekuria Theatre Studio was also one of the founding members of the East African Theatre Institute, which was established in 2000. The intention was to create a forum among East African theatre professionals to exchange ideas and create opportunities to develop the art in the region. Ethiopia hosted two of the Institution’s festivals, the first and the last, in 2002 and 2008, respectively. However, the Institute ceased to be active two years after his studio closed.
Abate says that the closing of the Studio was one of the saddest events in his life. “It was closed because we were asked to pay ETB2.6 million in taxes,” Abate told EBR in frustration. “The amount of tax we were required to pay was so much that closing it down became unavoidable.”
His original intent was to establish the theatre as a non-governmental organisation (NGO), but he was told that he couldn’t because the government doesn’t allow profit-making institutions to operate under the guise of an NGO. However, Abate says that the government’s allegations were not the reality: “we were never profit-oriented.” He says that the moment demonstrates the tenuous relationship he’s had with the government throughout the years: “I have never participated in politics but [I was unpopular] because I speak the truth.”
It’s for this reason that Abate was surprised by the fact that the National Cultural Centre held a commemoration in his honour. He says he is lucky to be alive and see a time in which the government has come to realise his contributions to the arts. The commemoration, he says, feels especially gratifying because he’s had many friends in the past who were killed because they told the truth through their art.
The praise Abate is receiving now isn’t limited to his theatre contributions – it includes other artistic genres. He directed a film titled March to the Battle of Adwa which was produced to commemorate the 100th anniversary celebration of the victory. Close to 6,000 people participated in the 60-minute film and it took 29 days to complete. However, after the making of the film, he says the fact that national television networks never played it in its entirety and that they never gave him due recognition made him feel bad. Despite this reality, Abate says the experience was fruitful, as creating the film provided him a medium through which to express his thoughts and feelings in a different way.
Abate attributes a great deal of his wide-ranging talents to the education he received abroad. This intensive training and rich work experience have buttressed his career and profile in the artistic community. After Abate graduated from the former Haile Selassie I University in 1965, where he studied English with a Theatre minor, he took advanced studies and practical trainings in different renowned institutions and theatres in Europe. These include the London Opera Centre, at Convent Garden; the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts; the Northcott Theatre in the UK; the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland; the Stanslavski technique in Moscow; the Grotowski Theatre in Poland; and the Brecht Centre in Germany.
In 1966, Abate obtained a scholarship to study mass communications at the Communications Media and Television College of Glasgow, Scotland. Following the completion of his studies, he worked with the BBC and independent media like Grenada and ITN television studios in London. Prior to that, Abate worked at the then Ethiopian Television as a director and producer in 1965 and served in different managerial positions at the Hager Fikir Theatre and the National Theatre.
When speaking about his time studying abroad, Abate says he appreciates the political situations in foreign countries, since they show respect to the arts and the theatre community. He says this mentality is one of the reasons why the arts flourish and develop in other countries.
Still, Abate says he learned a lot from his contemporaries within the Ethiopian arts community, like Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin. He remembers how the love for art was strong and how passionate the artists were in the early years of his career. He still believes there are people with love and passion who have the capacity to produce masterpieces, but he has resentments towards theatre management. Abate says theatre managers today don’t allow creative people to shine brightly. He believes the community today is focused not on the quality of a particular work but the amount of money the theatre can earn from a particular play.
Despite his critiques, Abate is still working to improve the arts, a fact that surprises his colleagues. Artist Abebe Balcha, who played the character Minilik in the March to the Battle of Adwa film and the character Othello in the Shakespeare play of the same name, says he is fascinated by Abate’s passion to improve the theatrical arts even at this age. “What surprises me the most is that Abate still says he is just warming up,” says Abebe.
After all these achievements, Abate now serves as a professor in the Yoftahe Nigussie School of Theatre Arts at Addis Ababa University and he says he is still determined to work more. “It is when I work that I feel alive and energetic,” he told EBR.
This passion and drive has contributed to an enduring legacy, which is most evident in the artists he’s helped develop. Chalachew Fereje, a former student of his at Addis Ababa University, is one example. He remembers Abate as a humble professor who made classes engaging because of his extraordinary abilities. But most of all Chalachew is fascinated with Abate’s capacity to have a particular philosophy undergird everything he does in terms of performance – and one who is deft at mixing artistic theory and practice. “He is [an] energetic [professor] who updates himself all the time with new ideas,” says Chalachew, who now is a lecturer at the same school in which Abate works.
His students – past and present, both at the Mekuria Studio and AAU – say he is an astute instructor with straightforward critiques and opinions. They believe he is a positive mentor who does everything to instil artistic capabilities in his students. For Abate, this is part and parcel of his overall strategy. He told EBR that passion and excellence are what he wants his students learn from him about the rigours of theatrical performance and its potential to contribute to society’s development. EBR
4th Year • February 16 2016 – March 15 2016 • No. 36