Antique Theatre House, Desperate for Change
Established in 1935, Hager Fikir Theatre is the oldest indigenous theatre in Africa. Known for its immense contribution during the patriotic resistance against the Italian aggression, the Theatre passed through many challenges while producing hundreds of plays largely aimed at uniting the citizens of the country. Being a place where many Ethiopian renowned artists were nurtured, the Theatre contributed greatly in the growth of modern music and drama. In connection with its 84th year anniversary, EBR’s Kiya Ali profiles the Historical Theatre.
As a professional dancer specialized in traditional songs; Tadele Ayalew was a teenager when he joined the nation’s oldest theatre house, Hager Fikir. He joined Hager Fikir a few years before becoming a part of Yehizb Lehizb (roughly translated to people-to-people) tour. It was one of the biggest music shows at the time, organized to express the gratitude of the Ethiopian citizens to the rest of the world for the solidarity they had shown during the 1977 drought.
He earned a salary of ETB127, and received an additional allowance of ETB13 whenever there was a tour outside of Addis Ababa. This amount of earnings was not small considering the value of the currency at the time. But, Tadele, who is in his early 60s, says the money was less equivalent to his skills. “We were not working with money being the goal,” he says. “Our ultimate goal was serving our country by advocating for the unity and the love of the motherland through using different forms of art.”
The founders of Hager Fikir had the same motive when they established it. The history of the theatre dates back to 1935, when Ye-hager Fikir Mahber (The Association for the Love of the Motherland) was founded. The aim was uniting the citizens through using different forms of art in order to collectively defend Ethiopia from the upcoming Italian invasion. Inspired by this cause, the first production of the theatre was done in an open air stage setup at Menilik Square. Many sophisticated productions of plays like Shillela and Fukera (warriors’ songs and dances), poetry, traditional songs and dramas were presented on the square. Performing at the time were artists like Yoftahe Nigussie, pioneer in Ethiopian drama and a major dramatist of the 1930s and Negatwa Kelkay, the first female singer. They all strived to use their art to preserve the ancient courage and patriotism of the Ethiopian citizens. However, their efforts bore no fruit. In 1936, Ethiopia lost to the Italian Army at the battle of Maychew. Although the country fell under Italian occupation, Ye-hager Fikir Mahber managed to continue its work.
The Italian forces used divide and conquer as the major strategy to subjugate the Ethiopian citizens. Using this as a major weapon, the fascist government put all their effort to divide them by religion and ethnicity. In order to tackle this and preserve the unity of the country, the founding members of the Association used art forms like music, dance and drama to influence the citizens and prompt them to unite and liberate their nation.
The fascist government understood later the value of the theatre. They started attacking, imprisoning and killing members of Ye-hager Fikir Mahiber, for their great ability in mobilizing the citizens. Soon after, unable to resist the attacks of the Italians, the Association was forced to stop the movement. After the end of Italian occupation in 1941, Ye-hager Fikir Mahiber resumed operations and moved in to its current location in Piazza, which was a large warehouse before its reconstruction in 1942. The same year, it opened branches in Debre Markos and Kefa (Bonga), Welita, Dese and Bale. In 1968, the Association rebranded its name to Hager Fikir Theatre.
Although the National Theatre was formally established during Emperor Haile Selassie I reign, Hager Fikir had continued being a popular theatre house for the common citizens. Many renowned artists who won great applause from the public like Aster Aweke and Tilahun Gessesse, began their careers on the stage of Hager Fikir Theatre. Most of the plays produced by Hager Fikir during Emperor Haile Selassie I reign dealt with family, society and history.
Asselefech Ashine was among the artists who joined the Theater during the imperial regime. The singer, traditional dancer and actress joined Hager Fikir when she was 12 years old and served at the theatre for 30 years. During this period, she was among the highest paid artists having started with an initial salary of ETB50. Her first play was Korat (determined), which was about a patriot’s life. “During my time, many plays were produced to advocate about unity, which we also demonstrated by working together despite having different ethnic backgrounds,” says Asselefech, who went on to play in more than 80 theatres in her career.
During the Derg Regime, Hager Fikir partly continued its work. This was by producing plays with a socialist flavour, as the government had censured the remaining works of the directors, musicians and actors. In 1975, the then director of Hager Fikir, Tesfaye Gesesse was arrested for his play “Iqaw” (“The Thing”), a theatre labelled by the military government as anti-Derg and anti-revolutionary.
In addition to the Ethiopian plays, plays by William Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller, Henrik Ibsen and Molière were translated and presented at the Hager Fikir Theatre. Besides the regular performances, the theatre also broadcasted live radio shows on Ethiopian radio. However, in the last years of the Derg regime, Hager Fikir turned its attention to commercial oriented theatres with a high dosage of romance and tragedy.
According to the official figure, 360 theatres had been produced and played at Hager Fikir up until 1992. “But from 1992 onwards, the number of theatres played have not been documented, largely because of a weak administration system,” says Memehiru Chamo. Despite the downfall of the military government in 1991, the production of commercial oriented theatres at Hager Fikir still continued.
Currently, more than 141 people work at Hager Fikir. The theatre’s plays are performed from Tuesday to Sunday and the musical shows on public holidays. Sprawled on a 6,856 square meter of land, Hager Fikir Theatre has two theatre halls. The smaller hall, which has 400 seats, is used for training and other events. The larger hall, which was opened during Haile Selassie I reign, can hold close to 800 people.
Yet, until 2018, Hager Fikir had not had an ownership deed document over its land. “Some influential government officials were blaming Hager Fikir for working with the past rulers. They failed to understand artists. Like all other professionals, they have a responsibility to work with any government, criticizing the wrong doings and appreciating the good ones,” Memehiru states. “Internal problems like lack of consistency to legalize the theatre house and negligence, were among the other reasons for the delay of the legalization process.”
“The last time the theatre hall was refurbished was in 2002. This demonstrates that the theatre house is not given the attention it deserves, considering its historical value. Many high standard modern cinema halls which are comfortable for audiences are being constructed in and outside of Ethiopia. To be modern like other theatre halls and cinema houses, Hager Fikir needs renovation,” Memehiru tells EBR.
It seems hope is on the horizon. During its 84th year anniversary celebration, the management of Hager Fikir raised the proposal to renovate the theatre, which was well received as the Addis Ababa City Administration pledged to cover its cost of renovation. Hager Fikir later submitted an additional proposal to the Addis Ababa City Administration to expand its compound to the right and the left sides of the current buildings. If their proposal is accepted, the theatre will cover 19,800 square meters and will be transformed into an institute of the arts.
The lack of incentives for the artists is the other challenge Hager Fikir is facing. The gross salary for traditional and modern dancers as well as singers at Hager Fikir is ETB 2,008 and ETB 2,514, respectively. On the other hand, the highest gross salary is ETB 6,700.
“The number of theatres produced has since been declining due to the lack of incentives for enterprises and artists, it discourages everyone,” explains Yonas Getachew, an actor who has worked at Hager Fikir for 19 years.
It seems better days might come for the artists in the near future. For the 2019/20 fiscal year, the budget allocated by the City Administration to the Hager Fikir theatre is ETB13 million. “This is the highest budget in the history of the Theatre,” says Memehiru. A step forward in restoring an antique treasure in Ethiopia’s history.
8th Year • Aug.16 – Sep.15 2019 • No. 77