Ethiopia has a long tradition of creating artistic works that critique society and politics. One such artistic work currently on stage, is Festalen, widely known among the public after the character–Eyayu Fungus. The one-man-show has been wowing audiences since its debut in 2014. EBR’s adjunct writer Meseret Mamo attended the show at the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences on December 16.
On the afternoon of December 16, 2017, Festalen (roughly translated as “my plastic bag”), was staged at the Creative Arts Center of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences. The Academy–a think tank housed in the magnificent historic residence of the late Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde Selassie — was full and though some theatergoers were turned away, many lingered outside the hall, eager to listen in. “We have never seen this hall as [full] as it looks today,” said Masresha Fetene (Professor), executive director of the Academy, at the close of the show.
Eyayu Fungus is a satire performed by Girum Zenebe, an actor renown for his stage performances. Written by journalist, poet, and playwright Bereket Belayneh, the popular character is known especially among artistic fans of Addis Ababa’s monthly poetic jazz shows. Prepared by Tobiya Poetic Jazz Group, the solo show was initially performed in 28 short episodes at the Ras Hotel. These episodes usually ran for less than an hour. With a runtime of 140 minutes, the show presented at the Academy was the longest episode in the history of the play. “Eyayu Fungus is a performance I eagerly wait to watch every month during the Poetic Jazz events; I love it,” Fasil Asefa, a 32 years old University lecturer, told EBR after the show.
Eyayu is a biology teacher who lives on the street, and is traumatized by the tragic loss of his loved ones and depressed by the evils of society. He attributes the moral deterioration, ignorance, selfishness and evil thinking among contemporary Ethiopian society, to a fungus. The critique focuses on how fast these social ills are spreading among the public.
“This is a [mission] to awaken the sleeping generation, which is compelled to ignore its [core] values, and history and has [in fact] forgotten to act accordingly,” reflects Girum while discussing the play.
According to the actor, he and his friends were concerned about what they believed were the deteriorating moral values of the youth and the degradation of knowledge within the generation. Girum and Bereket decided to do something about these issues long before the character was even developed and staged. It goes back to a time while Girum was performing Awgchew Terefe’s written piece “Eyasmezegebku New” at Addis Ababa University’s Cultural Center. The response from the audience was so good that Bereket suggested to further develop the character in an effort to address some of the social ills he had been troubled by. But the character in Awgchew’s work, an uneducated day laborer, was unable to provide sharp social and political critique. So Bereket and Girum needed to create a new character. “That was how Eyayu, a biology teacher, who reads and critically sees what is going on around him, came into the picture,” Girum recalls.
In previous episodes, the character had a family, and a home. He often got drunk and sarcastically told people around him that their actions are evil and hurt society. He refers to them as funguses. George Bernard Shaw, the great Irish playwright, critic, polemicist, and political activist said, “if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” Eyayu Fungus’ audience erupts with laughter while taking in his grating critique.
The show begins with an incident when Eyayu’s plastic bag, where he puts his late wife’s old pajamas, his daughter’s torn socks and his diary, is snatched by thieves. He looks for the plastic bag in different garbage cans and tells the audience what he encounters. He talks to the wind like a friend, categorizes those who perpetrate injustice as sub-human and as scavengers, praises those who are good , and expresses his sorrow for little girls who give birth in the streets.
Eyayu speaks loudly and authoritatively; sometimes the audience is unsure of his sanity. Sometimes he cries and sometimes he laughs hysterically and all of it leads the audience on an emotional and captivating ride. And the audience follows Girum’s performance attentively, despite the poor stage facilities and absence of proper sound and lights. “The messages are powerful, it is intriguing to watch the show and look at oneself and question our actions. It truly tells us not to follow without knowing, not to talk without listening,” said Fasil.
Surely while putting forward sharp social critiques it is impossible to leave aside politics. The play flirts with some well-founded criticisms of public policies. It mockingly highlights the flaws in the development of infrastructures from the light railway to the nation’s sole telecoms service provider.
Recently, the show traveled to the United States and was staged in 27 states. “It is estimated that in Addis Ababa 80 thousand people have watched the show, and we have collected about ETB8 million,” said Girum.
Because the play is a one-man-show and only two people, Bereket and Girum are involved, it makes it easy to take on the road but this is not without challenges. “Although we have prepared an original soundtrack and lighting effects there are times when we are unable to use the sound and lighting effects,” said Girum.
Endalegeta Kebede, Director of the Bilaten Geta Hiruy Memorial Art Center at the Academy told EBR that the Center presents outstanding and experimental art works in different mediums. From visual to musical, film, to dance, the Center stages artistic work every week for discussion. According to the director, Eyayu Fungus was chosen due to its popularity, its content and the new form it brings to the art. “This is the longest one-man show in the country; it speaks to the current situation and brings to light deep social and national views which concern the whole society.”
Endalegeta, a playwright and author of several books himself, said that shows like Eyayu Fungus are voices of the public and can actually contribute to social development by challenging our [conventional wisdom] and questioning the contributions we make to the country.
6th Year . January 16 – February 15 2018 . No.57