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Tesfaye Gessesse

‘Jack-of-All-Trades, Master of None’

Born in 1937, Tasfaye Gessesse is one of the most important promoters of Ethiopian modern theatre and has been an actor, director and theatre administrator during his career that spanned for more than 50 years. Tasfaye, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, also wrote and directed several plays that have a great relevance in the modern culture of Ethiopia. EBR’s Tamirat Astatkie spoke with the multi-disciplinary artist and his colleagues to learn about his contribution for the Ethiopian art.

Tesfaye Gessesse is a household name in the realm of Ethiopian theatre and literature. He has served as an actor, director, playwright, managing director and professor of theatre for more than five decades. Most importantly, Tesfaye is considered a moderniser of Ethiopian theatre together with his contemporaries like Tsegaye Gebremedhin (Poet Laureate) and Mengistu Lemma. He has also trained talented actors such as Wegayehu Nigatu, Debebe Eshetu and Alemtsehay Wedajo.

Now, at the age of eighty, a lot has changed – his face is time worn and wrinkled, and he’s a frail voice. Tesfaye is a father of five children and a grandfather of ten. However, he is still with his cheerful demeanour, sense of humour and to the best of his recollection.

Born on September 27, 1937 in a small village called Guro Gutu in Hararghe in eastern part of Ethiopia, Tesfaye was the only child for his parents. Unfortunately, he lost his mother and father when he was eight months and two years old, respectively. For years, the tenants who rented land from his parents raised him. At the age of seven, he came to Addis Ababa and started to live with his uncle, his mother’s elder sister.

Having church education, which includes reading psalms and prayer books, Tesfaye joined the then Teferi Mekonnen School at the age of eight and started his formal education. Then he pursued his higher education in the then Haile Selassie I University College, now Addis Ababa University (AAU) where he got his first degree in humanities in 1958.

For Tesfaye, a life-changing incident happened while he was a student at the university acting biblical character in a play called Job. “Emperor Haile Selassie I who attended the play found my acting captivating, and later the Emperor gave me a direction to study theatre,” Tesfaye told EBR.

After earning his first degree in humanities, Tesfaye was offered a scholarship to pursue a postgraduate study in the United States at North Western University’s Theatre School, in Evanston, Illinois. Accomplishing his study of acting, directing and stage craft, he returned home in 1961 and began his professional career at Haile Selassie I Theatre, where he served for two consecutive years as director and stage manager.

Along with his contemporaries, like Tsegaye Gebremedhin, who joined the theatre arena after schooling in Europe in the early 1960’s, Tesfaye brought a remarkable change by introducing techniques of modern play writing, acting and directing as well as adopting professional standards. “We upgraded the practice of theatre to be knowledge based, changing the status quo of producing and performing it in traditional and arbitrary manner,” Tesfaye told EBR while talking about the evolution of theatre in the nation.

He also exerted a good deal of effort to teach better play writing techniques to writers of the time. In addition to acting and directing, he started to write his own plays. “At that time there was lack of theatre professionals and I had to write and direct a range of plays,” says Tesfaye.

Of course, many agree that Tesfaye is among those few who played a key role in transforming Ethiopian theatre by introducing modern approaches and techniques. Kiros Haileselassie, a veteran actor who has been in the profession for more than three decades says people like Tesfaye made theatre up to the standard as well as to stand independently and become popular.

Tesfaye also participated as an actor in a number of plays, such as Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s play Yeshoh Aklil (the crowns of thorns), directed Mengistu Lemma’s play Tsere-kolonialist (anti-Colonist) and Melaku Ashagire’s Alem, gize naa genzeb (The World, Time and Money). Government officials banned the last after one night show.

Although Tesfaye’s career was dominated by directing and acting in plays, he also wrote his own plays such as Laqech and Her Pot and Yeshi. The former was his first play written in English and produced in the US while the later was written in Amharic and again his first play to be performed in Ethiopia in 1962. Tesfaye acted and directed Yeshi, a play that brings the problem of prostitution fore.

While working as a general manager at Hager Fikir Theatre, he directed and acted in plays by different playwrights and his own work as well. For instance, he wrote and staged his musical play Mannew Ityopiayawiw? (Who is a True Ethiopian?). He also premiered Abe Gubegna’s Yedikamoch Wetmed, (Trap for the Weak); Mengistu Lemma’s Bale’ kabbanna bale’ dabba and plays of Tesfaye Abebe.

Tesfaye is credited for having worked actively in upgrading the physical infrastructure of the theatre. He extended the stage as well as having the auditorium made sloping. He also set up a lighting booth for the stage at the back of the theatre among others.

Tesfaye’s luminary profile extends beyond acting, directing and leadership in theatre. His involvement in the establishment of the Addis Ababa University Cultural Centre in 1963 as well as the Theatre Arts Department in 1978 was of paramount significance.

“Under the leadership of Philip Caplan, the first director, and others such as Halim El-Dabh, other members of Peace Core and I took part in the establishment of the Centre,” Tesfaye recalls. He began serving as deputy director and took over the directorship of the Centre when Caplan left a year later.

“The Centre has contributed greatly for the development of arts in Ethiopia by being an active platform for conversation, debate, discourse and criticism on pressing issues that revolves around arts such as music, fine arts, theatre, short plays and poetry,” Tesfaye told EBR with reminiscence of his earlier days in the Centre. During his time in the Centre, he was successful in producing theatres such as Yalaccha gabiccha (marriage of unequals) by Mengistu Lemma and his own Abatena Lejoch (father and sons), among others.

It was also at this Centre and under his leadership that the establishment of the Orchestra Ethiopia, a group formed in 1963, was realised. Halim El-Dabh became the first music director and chirographer at the Centre, and later the renowned Tesfaye Lemma, who enabled the Orchestra to reach at a zenith of its creative powers, joined the Centre.

“Orchestra Ethiopia [laid] the foundation for the development of Ethiopian traditional music. It was those time that are considered as golden era of Ethiopian music in which Orchestra Ethiopia contributed the lion share,” says Assefa Worku, assistant professor at the School of Theatre at AAU.

In fact, cognisant of the immeasurable importance of Tesfaye’s contribution to the development of the Centre from the very outset, the University named the auditorium at the Centre after Tesfaye. This obviously has created great sense of elation to him. However, what is even more important for Tesfaye is to see the operation of the Centre with its full capacity as used to be the case under his leadership back then.

What’s more Tesfaye participated in the establishment of the Theatrical Arts Department at AAU, now ascended to School in 2011, from the very inception under the leadership of the then Dean of the former Institute of Language Studies at AAU Hailu Araya (PhD). With the academic rank of associate professor, he still lectures at the School. “Tesfaye plays a key role in developing the curriculum and later served as instructor as well as chairman of the department,” Assefa reiterates.

Many attribute the secret for the endurance of Tesfaye to his simplistic way of life (lifestyle), copying with stress and leading a happy life. “Primarily, it is God’s will,” says Tesafye admitting partly the reasons for his stamina. “My life could have been stuck at childhood and even later in 1983 when I was very sick and felt as if I was dying. Unlike the doctor’s opinion, I miraculously survived, thanks to the holly water of St. Michael my foster-mother gave me.”

A multi talented Tesfaye who prefers to call himself a ‘Jack of all trades; master of none’ is a novelist, poet, translator and public relations officer. One of his masterpiece short stories called Shilinge in Metekezha a book comprised of short stories and poetry published in 1972 was included in the school curriculum to teach writing of a short story; what’s more, it also served as an inspiration to compose music.

The translation work of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, collection poems, along with the life of the poet is also one of his seminal contributions. “The translation of Rubaiyat proves Tesfaye’s richness and language quality as well as ability of shaping words elegantly,” Assefa told EBR.

In total, he published more than ten books, including the recently published translation of Long Walk to Freedom, an autobiography of Nelson Mandela, South African freedom fighter. For a brief period, he also worked as public relations officer at the former Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation, Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce as well as Educational Mass Media Centre.

His more than five decades service has never been without upward and downward trajectory, however. Since he was not fearful to criticise the regimes through his plays Tesfaye was imprisoned a couple of times and proscribed from his job. “Iqaw, the thing, was a play banned to be staged but allowed to be published during the Emperor’s era. The same play threw me to jail during the Dergue regime while staged. Surprisingly enough, it was a story I wrote in 1972 to show the brutality of Apartheid in South Africa,” Tesfaye told EBR.

Kiros testifies that Tesfaye was not fearful to write, direct and act plays of great significance, but may not be accepted by a regime. “Once, while he was a manager, he increased salary for the artists on his will to encourage the poorly paid artist and to uphold the profession,” Kiros told EBR. “Consequently, all his good deeds put him in prison for a couple of times, suffer a disciplinary measure and put him under pressure. All these are what he paid for the betterment of the profession.” EBR


5th Year • April 2017 • No. 49

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