A Historical Figure Draws, Inspires Audiences
Kake Wurdowet was a woman who lived more than a century ago in the Gurage Zone of what is now the State of Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples. Her story is the subject of a play at the National Theatre that’s gained critical acclaim. Wurdowet is renowned for championing women’s rights when it was unorthodox to do so. The play and its central figure have raised questions about the role of theatre in bringing the stories of historical figures to life. EBR’s adjunct staff writer Meseret Mamo spoke with the playwright and theatregoers to learn more about the historical theatrical work and its impact in shaping society.
When the play Ye-Kake Wurdowet opened at the National Theatre on Wednesday, April 14, 2016, it received a warm response from the audience, demonstrating that theatrical works about historical figures are substantive and well received by theatregoers. It begins by telling a story of a woman who lived 155 years ago in the land of the Gurage people. Wurdowet, whom the story is about, has been a significant historical figure for the Gurage people for generations.
The reason behind her acclaim – calling for the equal treatment of women – may seem simple today, but her questioning of societal norms was considered daring during her period. Although she married the love of her life, her happiness didn’t last long. It ended when she discovered her husband had two other wives. Since she couldn’t stand the idea of sharing her man with others, Wurdowet began protesting the customs of her culture, which allowed a man to have more than one wife – and one that cursed a woman who divorced her husband without his consent and blessing.
The self-motivated protest she ignited later grew into a wide rebellion by the Gurage women; one that enabled people to raise questions about women’s rights. Equal representation before the law or elders who serve as judiciary council in the society, asking consent of women for marriage, the right of women for divorce and the right of equal inheritance of her family’s property were the core questions women raised during Wurdowet’s time.
In fact, her real full name was Wurdowet Kake at the time. However, according to the traditions of Gurage people in the 1860s, a father’s name came before the child’s if he was well known and respected among the society.
Those involved with the play say that Kake’s importance in history cannot be overstated. “She was a pioneer for women’s right activists,” said Dagmawi Feyisa, the play’s director, unable to hide his admiration. He told EBR the theatre is an historical epic, meaning that its significance extends beyond the play itself – and is essential in imparting important historical information to current audiences.
Dagmawi has worked in the theatre industry for nearly 30 years and wrote a play about Gurage culture called Adabina in 2003 and together with Nebiyu Tekalign he directed Keadmas Bashager, which was written by Bealu Girma in 1993. Currently, he works at his own advertisement company called Haleta.
According to Dagmawi, the play is important because it showcases the society’s cultural practices like marriage, living styles, rules and values. “The play itself is filled with different songs that demonstrate the people’s culture and its values,” argues Dagmawi. “It is also historical by the fact that the main character lived more than a century ago and the ideas raised in the theatre were real.”
The theatrical work was staged for the first time in September 2015 at the National Theatre and involves over 100 actors. It took Dagmawi and his colleagues more than a year to prepare for the play’s production and several years to write it.
Stakeholders and experts stress the importance of plays with historical themes for building a better generation that learns from the mistakes and righteousness of previous generations.
Ayalneh Mulatu, a poet and playwright, shares the importance of theatres with historical themes as a tool of reviving the feeling of greatness and national pride. “It is only when a generation knows its heroes through history that it gets its true identity and [can gain] the courage to fight poverty, environment degradation and hunger.”
According to an introductory essay written by Tewodros Gebre, a lecturer at Addis Ababa University, for Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s (Laureate) compiled plays –theatrical works with historic themes can’t be produced without a message to relay.
Motivating the generation to fulfil certain duties is usually the message found in such works. For instance, the history of Emperor Tewodros has been produced in five plays written by different writers at different times to convey a specific message to the audience regarding national identity or social issues.
Information obtained from the National Theatre reveals that 15 plays with historical themes were staged in its more than 60-year history. Though stages were dominated by stories from the Bible, plays such as Hanibal and Tewodros, written by Kebede Michael and Girmachew Teklehawaryat, respectively, were presented in 1956.
In addition to these, King Armah, Hindeke, Wuchale 17, Alula Aba Nega and Abune Petros were some of the historical plays that have been staged at the Theatre. These works gained wider popularity with the public as well. Solomon Teka, an actor who has worked at the Theatre for nearly 40 years, remembers how a play, Ye-Tewodros Raye (Tewodros’s Vision) was popular
“Unlike other times, the theatre hall was always full when Tewodros’s Vison was displayed,” Solomon told EBR. The play is currently being performed in the United States.
Ye-Kake Wurdwet falls into the same category. For some, knowing that the topic of equal rights for women was raised more than a century ago is an intriguing phenomenon. This is why the Women and Youth Directorate of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MoCT) decided to host the play at the National Theatre for a one-day event outside of the production’s regular schedule. Civil servants in Addis Ababa and civil society leaders working on women’s rights were invited to watch the theatre for free on Wednesday, April 14, 2016.
Weynshet Hailemariam, Director of the Women and Youth Directorate at the MoCT, explains the reason behind the Ministry’s intention. “It is to revive the [past] struggle for women’s rights in the mind and hearts of the current generation,” she said.
Audiences of Ye-Kake Wurdowet also have the same perspective. Brihanu Abera, a married man who works at the Ethiopian Cultural Centre, watched the play. “The ideas raised by the theatre, which is about equal rights, are mind-blowing and it challenged me to check myself,” he told EBR.
“[Kake] lived for 33 years but made history that transcends generations,” says Chanyalew, who wrote the play and has worked as a researcher, a writer, director and an actor for over 30 years. When he first heard the story, he published it in Efoyta magazine in 2001. “I will not stop until I see her story produced into a film,” he adds.
Yet, insiders indicate that producing such plays and films is a tough and expensive job compared to theatres made with different themes. “Films and television dramas are now becoming popular and many are attracted to it in terms of making money and gaining popularity,” Dagmawi said. “The generation that used to produce very good pieces are now gone and the current generation seems disinterested to build on the works of previous generations.”
Chanyalew stresses how demanding the development of the play was in terms of time and money. Before the story was written, it took immense effort to study the historical facts to accurately depict the lives of the Gurage people. To do so, the National Theatre and the Gurage Zone Administration studied the culture of the region in the 1860s through anthropological findings.
However, he says only 50 to 60Pct of his and the director’s vision was realised. “We suggested 3D pictures on stage, the participation of live horses and the renovation of the stage and the theatre hall with the scenes and sounds that support the play,” Chanyalew told EBR. “All were denied despite our detailed proposal.”
The main reason was finance, according to Chanyalew. He said the theatre’s production costs are more than ETB1.2 million, whereas ordinary theatres cost between ETB60,000 and ETB80,000, with a weekly running cost of ETB27,000. Close to 110 actors participated in the play. “It wouldn’t be possible to have it on stage in the present quality if not for the Gurage Zone Administration, which gave us its full support,” says Chanyalew, who adds that the Gurage Zone Administration covered all the costs.
All the same, people in the industry are happy to have such a breakthrough work within in terms of originality, quality production and satisfaction among audiences. After a long time, the National Theatre also sold out all tickets. The play has also reached a record in number of audiences too.
The play’s success is translating into financial gain for the National Theatre. For six plays in the week the maximum ticket sold is ETB800, earning a revenue of ETB32,000. For Ye-Kake Wurdwet, 1,000 tickets were sold according to Abiyot Gete, Director of the Information Technology System Directorate at the National Theatre. The hall has 1,200 seats and around 200 tickets are freely distributed to invited guests, making the theatre hall full.
Despite the play’s success, it may not stay in production for long if audiences don’t continue to support it in large numbers. The Gurage Zone Administration’s sponsorship will end this month and the risk of dropping the play might be inevitable. “The income from ticket sales is enough to cover the running cost but a drop of 200 or more theatregoers will disrupt this balance,” Chanyalew concludes. EBR
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