Last updated: 21 june, 2011 - 13:43 GMT

The history of African Performance

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BBC Drama producers Fiona Ledger and Jenny Horrocks look back at the last five decades of BBC radio drama across Africa.

This year - 2010 - marks 50 years of African drama on the BBC African Service. The output is sounding rather different now from the early days, and it has grown into a competition designed to encourage new African writing from BBC listeners.

It was back in 1960 that the late BBC producer John Stockbridge was asked by the Head of the African Service to devise some kind of drama for African listeners. He came up with a series, a soap opera set in London.

No copy survives, but the star does. Yemi Ajibade, then a young actor new to the UK, took the role of a social worker, moving around England and settling quarrels.

The season evolves

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

"This is definitely a crushing of boundaries"

BBC African Performance is a unique annual season of radio drama now entering its fifth decade. The Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka believes the season penetrates Africa's borders in one fell swoop.

"They are listening in Zimbabwe at the same time as in Sudan, in South Africa, in Nigeria, in Sierra Leone. And this is definitely a crushing of boundaries in a way that even the written word on its own may not have."

Since then, drama on the BBC African Service has been transformed into a competition aimed at developing new African writing and indeed acting.

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One of the early plays aired on the BBC African Service was Ama Ata Aidoo's Anowa, broadcast in 1968.

Now a grandmother of African literature, Ama Ata Aidoo was then 26 years old. Her play was about a woman who turns down a young man, considered a good catch by her parents, only to elope with an undesirable.

The power of attraction and its disastrous consequences was a common theme in African Performance (or "African Theatre" as it used to be called). Equally strong was the battle of the sexes.

Jeillo Edwards

The late Jeillo Edwards was always adept at playing big strong women

The late Jeillo Edwards was always adept at playing big strong women, though she did confess to being keen on taking the romantic lead. Invariably she played across from the late Alex Tettey-Lartey in the gender war.

Another lead actor who became one of the UK's most successful performers, is Saeed Jaffrey. He played alongside Alex Tettey-Lartey in A Mile to Go, by Kuldip Sondhi, the story of an Indian businessman attempting to leave a hostile African state, only to be thwarted at the last minute.
Kuldip Sondhi combines writing for a living with the hard commercial world of being a hotelier. Few playwrights can rely on their work for a sole source of income.

Nigeria's contribution to radio drama has been enormous and it continues to yield the most drama scripts on an annual basis in the whole continent.

Nigerian novelist and playwright Biyi Bandele's first play Forbidden Fruit was broadcast in 1991 on the BBC African Service.

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Many plays in BBC African Theatre were strongly political, as well as full of personal anguish. In South Africa politics and human suffering fused to produce drama which was traumatic, funny and driven.

While apartheid ruled, London was full of South African writers, actors and directors: Lionel Ngakane, Alton Khumalo, John Matshikiza, Jabu Mbalo. Many returned with majority rule.

Ugandan Vincent Magombe had been cut off from Africa and the West by nine years of study in the Soviet Union. He submitted his first script to the BBC within a week of arriving in London, a complete unknown from Moscow.
"The experiences in Russia were extraordinary and I kept seeing things that really gripped me as an artist, as a writer", he said.

Actor Joe Marcel, a regular performer on BBC African Theatre, ended up in Hollywood. He shot to stardom playing black English butler to Will Smith's boy from the hood in the TV hit, Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

The 1960s and 70s were lean times for black actors. Jeillo Edwards, the first black actress on British television, says she lived on money she was paid from BBC African Theatre, then a monthly production. "But I decided to get married. I thought at least I'll have something to eat and a roof over my head!"

The meeting of two worlds

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The secret of the success of some writers and actors was versatility - moving from radio to television to stage.

No one demonstrated that more clearly than Nigerian Ken Saro-Wiwa. In 1972 his play Transistor Radio was chosen for production by BBC African Theatre. It was the pilot for what became a hugely successful comedy on radio and then television, featuring the feckless but ever hopeful Basi.

But Saro-Wiwa moved away from the world of writing and commerce to the world of politics in the 1980s. He paid the price in 1994 when he was executed, accused by the Nigerian government of murdering political opponents in Ogoniland.

In the mid 1970s BBC African Theatre was reduced from a monthly affair with a dedicated group of actors, to six plays a year broadcast weekly over a six week period. In 1994 the name African Theatre was changed to African Performance to allow for music, poetry readings and drama-documentaries and even stand-up comedy to have their place in the season.

In 1994 the decision was also taken to record two plays a year on location, working with local actors and writers across the continent.

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The last ten years of African Performance have continued to throw up themes that reflect the concerns of the continent.

The plight of child soldiers, mob justice, people trafficking and prostitution, football fanaticism, internet dating and science fiction; These are just a few of the themes that have emerged from our competition in recent years.

There are several winners of the competition who having tasted success have been encouraged to go on and achieve success elsewhere. Nigerian writer Sefi Atta twice won second prize on Afrcan Performance.

First, in 2002 with An Engagement and again in 2004 with Makinwa's Miracle, a hilarious comedy about a fanatically religious woman who believes the face of Jesus Christ has miraculously appeared on her toilet window.

In 2006, Atta's debut novel Everything Good Will Come was awarded the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. Her collection of short stories, Lawless and Other Stories has also won the 2009 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.

Becoming an institution

The African Performance season is something African actors also look forward to taking part in.

"One of the main things about being involved in African Performance is the energy of imagination, the energy of story-telling," says Leo Wringer, another actor to have made it in Hollywood.

For Ben Onwukwe, a veteran African Performance actor, it's a pleasure to be involved. "Suddenly I come in this building and there's actors' power! There's the power of the performer who is listened to, and whose contribution is discussed," he says.

For writer, Biyi Bandele, BBC African Performance does something unique. "I think the fact that African Performance reaches every corner of the continent is wonderful. The cross-cultural dialogue it provides makes me think it is very very crucial that it should go on".

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