Former journalist Bereket Belayneh, 33, is a poet and writer of the satirical hit, Eyayu Fungus. The one-man show, a comedy filled with scathing criticisms of the government, and society, has been entertaining audiences for three years. EBR’s Mikiyas Tesfaye sat down with Bereket to talk about the role of comedy and humor in Ethiopian society and theater.
EBR: Tens of thousands of people have seen Eyayu Fungus, or at least heard about it. But very few people know the author of the play. Would you introduce yourself to our readers?
Bereket: I was born in Arsi, Asela in 1984, and grew up there. I went to Jimma University and studied psychology. I came to Addis Ababa after graduation and have been living here ever since.
Although I studied psychology, my true calling in life has always been the arts. During my days at the university, I was active at Jimma University’s Art Club where I wrote poems, short plays and took part in acting and dancing, alongside some very talented young people.
After graduation, the first job I got was as a journalist at Fana Broadcasting Corporate. After working there for three years and going up the ranks from a reporter to an editor, I became a full time freelancer and published my first collection of poems, roughly seven years ago. I also wrote the hit one-man show Eyayu Fungus, which has been staged for more than three years now and is performed by the highly talented Girum Zenebe.
While working as a reporter, I also performed a character named Amedo in one of [Fana’s] popular series called Tinanish Tsehayoch, translated loosely as “Little Suns”.
What inspired you to write Eyayu Fungus and develop the wildly popular character?
While working at Fana, I had a monologue titled Yegna Sefer that ran for about 20 minutes on a weekly basis. It was fairly popular with listeners. I used to write about my childhood, my memories from growing up in Asela, and our current situation. The monologue had some characters that stood out and I think Eyayu Fungus was inspired by those characters.
But the character as we know him today was born out of Awgechew Terefe’s Eyasmezegebku New (translated loosely as “I am getting it registered”) short play, where a character named Ato Mekuria was performed by Girum at different stages including the monthly poetic jazz sessions held at the Ras Hotel in Addis Ababa.
I saw the performance and thought we can come up with a series of performances episodically sequenced with the same character raising different social, political, economic and cultural issues. I approached Girum about the idea and started to develop the character.
But shortly afterwards, I couldn’t relate to Ato Mekuria because of his setting and his socio-economic and cultural profile. His character was a daily laborer with no education. So, I decided if the character is to offer criticism of society, he needs to be well-read, and in order for him to speak his mind freely – as is usually the case in Ethiopia; he needs to be mentally disturbed. So that is the context within which Eyayu Fungus was created.
Do you feel people only consume the comedy and miss the core message of the play?
It’s good that people find it funny. And you can’t tell people what to think. It’s still good if they can get a hundred jokes and be stunned by one critical point. The audience is the ultimate judge.
This does not mean that people’s reactions to the play are always simply, laughter. We get feedback that we did not expect. People, especially those abroad when we took the show on the road, are often shocked and wonder what to do next; they want to take concrete action.
A lot of people tell us that most of the criticism was directed at them personally.
And every now and then, during Girum’s powerful performance, people are laughing hysterically and then stricken with grief and captured in a sense of despair.
You have worked as a journalist and now write full time. In today’s Ethiopia, does theatre enjoy more freedom of expression than journalism?
Yes, it does, but only because the government underestimates its power to impact people. The impact of journalism is well understood, so they keep a very tight grip on the media. They don’t think theater is as powerful as the media; so, they’ve let it enjoy greater freedom.
We’re simply exercising our rights to express ourselves through the show. We used to do so during the monthly poetic jazz sessions. Your intention is what counts and there are lines you should not cross. As long as you don’t violate any laws, you can freely philosophize, critique, and joke.
How do you see the role comedy and humor play in Ethiopia today to express our collective narrative?
We can say so much through humor. A smart government would listen to comedians. But it’s really hard for a comedian when the government makes all the jokes and acts like a clown. People would be confused as to whom to take seriously in this case – comedians (who often tell the truth in their humor), or a government that continues to do things that can only be understood as a joke. This is exactly what is happening in our country right now.
You offer some sharp criticism on the government in Eyayu Fungus. Did your play suffer from any intimidation or pressure from the authorities? Some people even suggested that once the show started touring in North America, you wouldn’t return back home.
I want to underline this point: we never felt any pressure from the government as a result of the play. When we take the show on [tour], people usually think we use a different script than what we use in Addis Ababa. After each show ends, Girum would take the stage and assure the audience that nothing has been added or omitted from what is staged in the country.
We received the green light for the show after the authorities had seen it. And yes, we have the freedom to make some updates to make the show relevant in a rapidly changing socio-economic and political context, and keep the jokes fresh
The play’s critique is not only directed at the government. How is its main argument constructed?
The show does not only criticize the government. It questions society in general and individuals’ kindness, sense of social responsibility. It talks about our collective homework. We pride ourselves as a community that is kind enough to share wealth, but we see a lot of people sleeping on the streets braving the cold, or grieving the loss of loved ones in the emergency room because we are not donating blood. I believe sharing is the most genuine form of saving, and we are lacking this currently as a society.
We do also criticize the government, which is prioritizing construction of buildings before the development of human beings. We need to talk about this openly through art or whatever means available. We can’t lie about what we see all around us.
How often do you update the show and how much change do you bring in?
We make some updates, mainly on the jokes. There are lots of jokes these days, so it’s really not that hard to improve the show. But the updates take place in line with theatrical discipline, and we do not alter the storyline.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a one-man show?
It’s easy for management, and for rehearsals. Importantly, it’s very convenient to work together. It’s really difficult for a large group of people to work together in today’s Ethiopia, let alone be on the same page. It is one of the reasons why art is so underdeveloped in our country these days. A one-man show is very good to avoid conflict.
The only disadvantage I can think of is what would happen if Girum got sick, which happened once during the show’s three-year history.
Since it is a one-man show, all the dynamism to keep the audience engaged rests on the actor, so there’s always some improvisation. Before the one-man show was put together, 30 short episodes were written and performed. Girum has been immersed in the character for the past five years. So we get wide ranging ideas on how to update the show.
In addition to being the play’s author, how are you involved in the staging of the show during the tours?
Besides creating the show, I serve as the light and sound-man when we take the play on tour. We have so far toured 27 states in America and five cities in Canada. It took us 11 months.
The success of the show does not just relay on the appeal of the character or the script. The show also owes its success to the commitment and devotion of Girum as a gifted actor and a kind human being. I wrote the play with a pencil but Girum emboldened it with a pen through his immersing acting. Plus, he can figure out my terrible handwriting and he does his own make up for the play. I always say he is correct even when he makes a mistake.
The play’s messages and the issues it raises are universal. Any plans to have it translated and performed in other languages?
A man approached me while we went to North America and said ‘this should be staged at the Kennedy Centre and performed in English.’ Comedy is highly contextual, but we have wondered what kind of reception the show would get if it were to be translated into another language. People often appreciate the power of the character and Girum’s performance. But I can’t express myself in English the way I can in Amharic so we may have to resort to collaborate with others in this regard.
Let’s talk about money. How much did the play make so far?
80,000 people saw the show in Addis Ababa and it collected ETB8 million. But our cut goes significantly down against all the expenses. Staging a show in Ethiopia is very expensive. We don’t know exactly how many people saw the play in North America, but it was very successful.
What’s next for Eyayu Fungus?
We have plans to take it to 13 cities in Europe, South Africa and Australia. I hope we can take it to every corner of the globe Ethiopians reside in.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on another one-man show and another one with two characters in it. I expect to have them staged in six months. It’s really hard to find an actor you can really connect with for the plays to take a life of their own.
I’m also working on an audio poem collection, which I’ll narrate. I hope it will be ready in a year from now.
What kind of reaction do you get from government officials who watch the play?
They are usually happy to receive the criticism. It’s constructive feedback. We sometimes get some negativity from people at the lower ranks. They sometimes try to give us some discomfort, but we don’t really feel threatened by that.
So many of [Ethiopia’s] problems are attributed to not listening to each other; what we see and hear today in the country is very depressing. There is no point in trying to hide it. It is time to correct our path.
Everyone can speak, but we need to listen to each other more than we ever have. Otherwise we’ll be in grave danger.
6th Year . January 16 – February 15 2018 . No.57