Still Burning the Candle: Playwright Ayalneh Mulatu

by Wendy Laura Belcher. Published in the Ethiopian Review (February 1998)

The street children eye the glossy couple approaching their camp. She wears the latest fashion, he wields a video camera as if it were a gun. The couple strike a superior pose and announce that they are doing a documentary. Just as the couple start shooting, the ragged children erupt in shouts and pelt them with stones. The couple flee and our aging guide comments sagely, “Such people sell our poorness for profit.”

His line gains cheers. At the last performance of Street Children, a variety show that ran for six months at the Hager Fikir in 1997, it’s clear that the Addis audience is out of sympathy with the sports utility crews who have descended on the city in the past few years. The dance-drama openly targeted nongovernmental organizations as corrupt. As we left, Ayalneh Mulatu, the prominent Ethiopian playwright who wangled us an invitation to the performance, observed that such criticism is common to Ethiopian theater.

In Ethiopia, theater and protest have been linked from the very beginning.* Tekle Hawariat, the founder of modern theater in Ethiopia, wrote his first play in the 1910s. Titled Fable: The Comedy of Animals, it featured animal characters whose outrageous behavior satirized the court elite of the day. Empress Zauditu, upon seeing the play performed, promptly banned it and all other dramatic performances. Ever since, Ethiopian playwrights have struggled to find ways of expressing their ideas and getting their work performed without going to jail for it. Although Ethiopia has been kinder to its playwrights than many countries, problems of censorship have been persistent.

Fortunately, Ethiopia’s ancient literary culture has consistently provided techniques for dealing with repression. In particular, the Amhara fondness for the double entendre and the practice of samena worq have inspired generations of playwrights, including Ayalneh Mulatu.

Born in 1949, Ayalneh Mulatu has had a long and varied career in the arts. Teacher, director, poet, and dramatist, he wears many hats. After studying in Moscow in the early 1970s, he held many influential cultural positions in the government, including head of the nation’s Culture and Sports Department from 1980 to 1991. While there, he wrote Adey Ababa,a musical drama created to thank the world for its famine relief efforts in Ethiopia, which toured Europe and North America. In the early 1990s, Ayalneh was the director of the Addis Ababa University Cultural Center, until he was dismissed along with forty other professors in 1993. In 1995, he started the first private theater house in Ethiopia, Candlestick Theater (above St. Matthew’s Church, near Aret Kilo), a small theater addressing social issues. There he put on his full-length dramas Kedja (sequel toDeha Adeg [Child of Poverty]) in 1995 and Wullo in 1996.

Over doro wot, popcorn, and three cups of coffee, Ayalneh and I discussed his drama work during the 1990s.

WB:   How did you got involved in theater?

AM:   My father couldn’t read or write, but he was a warrior during the Italian aggression, and during that time he collected a lot of books from the Italians, sometimes from those who served the Italians. My job was to read to him the books he had collected. In the Ethiopian tradition, you break to drink coffee, and during the coffee breaks I would read to him. I can say that all the books written during that time by Ethiopian writers or translators, I have read. My father was very, very intelligent, once he listened to a book, he never forgot it. Sometimes, if it was an Ethiopian history, he would correct it. “Oh, this is a mistake,” he would say. Again and again he asked me to read a book and I started to memorize the whole story of Ethiopian literature, Ethiopian history. Everything, I read. When I finished all the books, I started to read the Bible, three times from the first to the last I read it to my father. Because of this I became involved, unknowingly, with literature. So, starting from that, I started to write plays, poems, and so forth.

WB:Why don’t you tell us about your latest play?

AM: Tebegawa Galemotta (The Artful Widow) is an Italian play from the sixteenth century by Carlos Goldoni. It is about an Italian widow deciding among her suitors. I’m not that interested in translating plays, because I want to write my own, but I was expelled from Addis Ababa University and didn’t have any money. Since the Italian Cultural Center offered me 50,000 Ethiopian Birr to translate it, and that was a lot of money, I agreed to translate the play and produce it at their center in the summer of 1995.

They gave me the money, I translated the play, and it was approved by the Ethiopian committee at the center. After, since I was the producer too, I asked the Italian Cultural Center if I could change a few things for the Ethiopian audience. First, I asked to change the characters. Instead of making the suitors Italian, British, French, and Spanish, I asked to give them Ethiopian nationalities. Since the French are also fascinated by love, I wanted to make that suitor Oromo and call him Bartuma Mosesa. Since the Spanish are also fascinated by kingdom, I wanted to make that suitor Tigrayan and call him Blata Suhul Gebre-Medhin. Since the British are also very rich, I wanted to make that suitor Muslim and call him Haiji Achmal. And since the Italian is her true love, I wanted to make him a neutral person and give him the general name Tuledteka, which means “heritage.” So they agree. Second, I asked them to change the time to the present, and third, I asked them to change the place to Addis Ababa.

The story of the play is about an Italian widow. She is very intelligent and she is loved by four gentleman from France, Spain, England, and Italy. Each says they love her very much, they don’t want her to love anybody else, without her they will die, they will fight for her, and so forth and so forth, And this intelligent woman, she thinks, “How can four men love me equally? There must be some misunderstanding. I have to check!” So she decides to fool them by dressing in their native costume and speaking to them in their native tongue. She wears a mask, dresses like a French woman, and approaches the Frenchman in French, “I am from your country, I hear that you love somebody from Italy, that widow, but you should leave her and join me!” When this Frenchman sees her, he says, “Well, I didn’t know that you were here, such a beautiful countrywoman, so I will leave the Italian and love you.” She cancels that one! Then she goes on like this, approaching everybody until she found only one person, he is the Italian in the play, who says, “I gave my love to the widow, I don’t want to change.” So she married him.

In the Ethiopian context, I did the same, but the names and costumes and language were changed. In the beginning, the widow is dressed in half modern dress and half traditional dress, no nationality is represented by her clothes. Then she goes to the Oromo dressed in the Oromo national dress and speaking some Orominya words, and he says, “If you are an Oromo, if you really love me, I don’t care about that Addis girl.” I made the widow a girl from Addis Ababa. So she goes to the Tigrayan dressed in Amhara national dress and speaking some Tigrinya, and the same thing happens. Then she goes to the Muslim dressed in Muslim costume and speaking some Arabic and he says, “Oh, I didn’t know there was a Muslim girl like you, if I get you, I don’t care about that Addis Ababa girl, I forget her.” But when she goes to the neutral Ethiopian man–who is not representing any nationality, he wears a Western suit–he says, “Well, I gave my love to that Addis girl and I don’t want to change.”

In my case, I didn’t finish the play like Goldoni finished the play, I didn’t force them to marry, I just stopped the play there. Instead, the widow calls the suitors to her house and she confesses, she tells them that she is only one woman, that she cheated them, and they are all very shocked. At last she says, “I am going to chose who is going to be my husband.” She says, “I have the right now to chose.” And all of the suitors say, “Okay, chose,” but she says, “No, I can’t because there must be peace between you first. If you establish peace and unity between you, then at last I will chose, and the others will join my wedding ceremony and it will end happily. In this current condition, I cannot chose my husband.” With this, the play stops. There is no marriage.

Everybody translated this play in his own way, some people might have been offended. People used to know that they were Ethiopian, but now everybody thinks about his nationality, his ethnic group. So, even though it’s true, they don’t want to see it on the stage. Anyway, a lot of people came to the performances but the Italian ambassador called me and, after just three shows, they closed the play down. That’s what happened.

WB:   You seem to me to be making use of samena worq. Have you ever done this before in a play, using characters as symbols?

AM:   In Adey Ababa, written in 1987, during the very worst drought, during the dergue time. Of course, Ethiopia is a poor country, I know, but we have history, we have culture, and we have to show this to the world, not only our poorness. So I started to write this play to be taken abroad, I worked for seven months, and I created a very good story line, a story line that, up to now, nobody understands. At last, maybe Mengistu understood it, I don’t know.

Anyway, the story line is of one beautiful girl and two boys who are fighting over her. This girl is innocent, she loves one of them, but she can’t explain because the two boys are always fighting. She has a mother and the mother cannot convince the boys to stop fighting either. The fighting gets worse and worse, so the daughter runs from province to province to escape. We show the cultural songs, the cultural dances of whatever area she runs to, and the two boys, they always follow her. At last, they catch up and they say, “Let’s fight, whoever kills the other, he can marry her.” So they take out their swords and they are almost ready to finish each other off when the mother comes. “Why are you fighting?” she asks. “Because of your daughter,” they say. Then the mother asks the daughter, “Why are you making them fight? Why don’t you chose?” And the daughter asks, “Do I have a right to chose?” “Yes!” says the mother. So, she chooses one of the guys, she kisses him, and then everything is finished. And the other boy, he joins the wedding ceremony, and everything becomes happy. With this, the story is finished.

When I came back from touring with the show, everything in the play had been translated. The mother was Ethiopia, they said, the girl was Eritrea, and the two rivals were the EPLF and the Ethiopian government. They said, the playwright gave Eritrea the chance to chose one of them. Well, of course, in the play there is no sign whether she chooses the EPLF or the unity, that is still the secret of the play. Anyway, with this play I had a hard time, I was not in prison, but it became very sensitive.

WB:   Anything else?

AM:   I called my first private theater Candlestick because the candle represents the artists and the stick represents the theater house. It gives some sense for the situation of Ethiopian artists, because we have been suffering for a long time, but we are still burning and giving artistic life.

*I am entirely indebted to Jane Plastow’s wonderful book African Theatre and Politics: The Evolution of Theater in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe: A Comparative Study, published in 1996 by Rodopi Press in Amsterdam and Atlanta, for this article’s history of Ethiopian theater.

Note: This article is slightly different than the final version published in The Ethiopian Review, but since that is no longer available online, I've posted it here.