The Tragic Scene of Yemeni Theater

National Yemen

Number of comedian practisning the final scen

By Tamjid al-Kohali

 “Theater in Yemen is a painful reality.” With these words, the Yemeni stage actor Yahya Ibrahim began expressing his deep sadness about the current state of Yemeni theater.

Ibrahim said that today theatrical performances are very rare. Even when theatrical performances are held, they lack many theatrical qualities.

Ibrahim doesn’t deny that Yemeni theater once enjoyed high quality and great popularity. Thinking back on the past, and the forms of theater that have been lost, makes him sad today.

 Ibrahim said that Yemen’s theater reached its peak before pre-Yemeni unity, lasting roughly from 1988 to 1993. At that time, theater thrived from north to south. The plays excelled in all aspects: text, performance, and décor were all strong. 

Yemen lacked sufficient facilities for stage productions even in the past, but plays were performed in cultural centers and involved theater techniques such as sound, lighting and set design. Theater also enjoyed government support in all governorates, added Ibrahim.

Sources pointed out that Yemeni theater had its origins in the late thirties of the last century. Theater’s existence in Yemen began with puppetry performances in Aden, where people at that time needed a way to express their hopes and ambitions under the pressure of English colonization, especially given the lack of newspaper, radio, and TV.

There also existed a policy under colonization to ignore media outlets, which meant that southern intellectuals and politicians needed a new way to reach the people. The best road that presented itself was that of puppet theater, which captured the people’s interest through the characters of Hmbes, Hassan Taz al-Besa, Abu Shanab and others. They were all moving from Lahij to Aden to inform people of the revolutionary thought developing: the thought of evacuating the colonizers from southern Yemen.

Theater in Yemen appeared again at the beginning of eighties, but in different forms. In the same year, the first Theatre Festival was established under the auspices of the Minister of Culture at that time, Hassan al-Lozi. The second Theatre Festival was held in 1994, and the third in 1997. Meanwhile in the north, the people of the Imamate Era were seeking for freedom primarily through poetry.

After Yemeni unity of the north and south, theatrical pursuits continued. A number of theatrical teams were established in 2000, and cinematic and theatrical institution under the Ministry of Culture worked hard to promote theater and drama in Yemen. In fact, the theater was important in all governorates. It handled different issues in the country such as politics, society, and the economy. Some of these teams participated in festivals outside the country.

 Unfortunately, the growth of Yemeni theater soon came to a halt—and even changed direction—after the crisis that struck Yemen in 2011. From that time forward, theater disappeared more and more year after year.

Actors, authors, and directors all suffer today from this deterioration of the theater. The reasons for this deterioration differ from side to another, but all agree on one point: that government neglects this aspect of society, and that the theater is the last of its interests.

Actor Yahya Ibrahim said that the theater deteriorated a long time ago. Although there are good playwrights, artists, and directors, they lack government support, and good artistic management.

According to Ibrahim, the theater that exists today in Yemen is led by private teams, and he participates in one of these teams. These teams offer plays in some directorates in the governorates of Zabid, Hiees, Socotra and al-Dala because of the interest of directorate officials therein.

In the past, the government gave scholarships for those who joined the theater in order to support them in their quest to become professional stage actors. The situation today is just the opposite and aspiring actors’ only chance is to join a theater team that itself suffers from a dearth of basic theatre needs.

Ibrahim isn’t the only one who suffers from the government’s negligence for the theater. Moneer Tlal is a playwright who has produced a number of wonderful theatrical works, leaving a clear print on the Yemeni theater. Moneer said that in fact, Yemeni theater attempts to establish itself any way possible, do to the massive limitations it faces. There simply aren’t enough performance spaces, sound and lighting equipment, and set materials. Decades after Yemen’s first theatrical works appears, Yemeni theater is still in its infancy.

Tlal added that theater works in Yemen are very strong in their text and performance, but they don’t get their right in the public display. In the last year, seven theater works were offered. Most of them are offered on the stage for only one or two performances. Besides, Tial said he would never forget when his children’s play, “Achbor Outside the Palace” was performed seven times. There was not an adequate budget to produce the piece, so he and the director donated their wages to buy the costumes.

Sometimes these performance groups get the chance to participate in international festivals in locations as far off as Algeria, but recently they have been unable to attend do to the prohibitive costs of airfare. The government should provide these resources, says Tial.

Director Amin Hsberr believes that artwork in all of its forms is an industry, so it should be impressive and attractive in order to draw people’s interest. But in fact, the state doesn’t care about theater. The proof is in the pudding: if the state did care about theater, it would spend money on it. 

However, Tlal emphasized that Yemenis are well aware of the meaning of the word “theater.” They are thirsty for theater. He remembers the huge number of people who attended the Sana’a Summer Festival where he offered eight plays for children, four of them puppetry shows. On that day, thousands of people came to Seventy Park. The venue was so crowded that most people couldn’t find a place to sit. The actors couldn’t complete their full blocking on stage because of the proximity of the audience.

It is really a problem when people attend a theatrical work and cannot enjoy it in comfort, or otherwise lack key services. This makes people hesitate to attend such an event the next time it is offered.

Amani Alzmary, an actor, said that the rights of actors in Yemen are not respected, especially their financial rights. She doesn’t blame the people for not caring about theater, because the Ministry of Culture itself doesn’t care about it.

Give me a theater, and I will give you great people. This is a quote by an unknown thinker. Although the importance of theater is echoed in these four words, theater in Yemen remains almost absent.   

Theater is the father of art. Theater was the starting point, not only in moving and developing popular culture, but also in that it is the greatest driver of humanity toward enlightened thought. The product of theater is comprehensive, and thus it has been named the father of all the arts. Many countries have realized the social, political, and economic importance of theater. Some countries have learned to consider theater as the moral half of society, which sits beside the physical half. One day, we hope, Yemen will also realize this.