Contemporary Yemeni Theater: More Melodrama than Tragedy

Sana’a Summer Festival, a photo from archive

By Katherine Hennessey

I read with great interest Tamjid al-Kohali’s recent Op-Ed on the state of Yemeni theater (“The Tragic Scene of Yemeni Theater,” 17 Nov 2013).  First of all, I would like to extend my compliments to Tamjid for writing on the subject.  Yemeni theater is a genre which merits much more attention than it currently receives, from journalists and scholars alike, and it is admirable that Tamjid has taken the initiative to write about it.

I also sincerely sympathize with the difficulties described by the Yemeni actors and directors in Tamjid’s column.  The picture painted by Yahya Ibrahim, Munir Talal, Amin Hazaber, and Amani al-Zamari is a grim one.  

Yemen as a nation should be celebrating the achievements and the genius of all the talented Yemenis who work in the theater.

My goal here is to add a few salient points to Tamjid’s Op-Ed.  Firstly, historians of Yemeni theater like Sa‘id ‘Aulaqi, Hussein al-Asmar, Yahya Muhammad Sayf, and ‘Abd al-Majid Muhammad Sa‘id have all written important texts on this subject.  ‘Aulaqi states, and the others concur, that modern Yemeni theater was established in Aden in 1910, rather than in the late 1930s.  Subsequent development of the theater is uneven but continuous. 

This means—among other things—that Yemen has a longer, richer history of theater than any other country on the Arabian Peninsula.  It means that today, practitioners of theater in Yemen are participants in a tradition that reaches back more than a century.

‘Aulaqi, al-Asmar, Sayf, and Sa‘id also devote their histories primarily to performances of live theater.  Puppet theater is an interesting ancillary phenomenon, but the history of theater in Yemen is primarily one of plays performed live, on stage, by Yemeni actors and actresses.  

All of us who wish to improve the state of Yemeni theater would do well to heed these historians’ example:  rather than despairing over the obstacles in theater’s path, we should focus on the triumphs that it has achieved and continues to achieve. 

Yes, Yemeni theater is underfunded. But theater practitioners complaining about lack of funding is not news.  If you ask playwrights, actors, and directors in the majority of countries in the world if they have enough money, or sufficient government support, they will say no, just as they say in Yemen. 

Theater in Yemen does face some unique, but fixable, dilemmas: 

1) The current financial model for Yemeni theater is dysfunctional.  The most obvious problem is its lack of a range of revenue streams:  theater today depends almost entirely upon financial backing from the Ministry of Culture.  Entry is generally free to the public, so no money is made from ticket sales.  Foreign organizations and institutes do occasionally support particular productions, but there seems to be little support for theater from the Yemeni private sector.

2)  The majority of performances are inadequately publicized in the media (radio, TV, newspapers, online, etc.).  Thus many potential audience members only find out about performances after they occur, if at all.  I myself depend upon Yemeni friends and colleagues working in the field to inform me when a production will take place.

3)  Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Yemeni theater needs serious scholars and journalists to document and analyze its plays.  Hundreds if not thousands of Yemeni plays have been performed since 1910.  Yet I would estimate, based on extensive research, that only a few dozen of these have been thoroughly documented. 

By “documented” I mean that there is an accessible record of the most basic information about the performance: 

–the location and date

–the names of the author, the director, the lead actors, etc.

–the contents of the script (what is the plot, and who are the characters?)

–the form of the production (what does the play look like on stage?)

–the meaning of the performance (what is the historical context in which the performance takes place, and what might a thoughtful audience member learn by watching it?)

These are the building blocks of a history of contemporary Yemeni theater.  This is the kind of information that we must have in order to make a convincing argument about theater’s importance. 

That such documentation is rare is not due to some tragic flaw within the plays or the practitioners.  Rather, it is a problem that we as observers of Yemeni theater can rectify through careful research and writing.

The fact that so little is published, especially in English, about Yemeni theater, places a special burden on those who write about the subject to be as accurate, precise, and objective as possible. 

For instance, Tamjid’s article states that “this year, seven theater works were offered.”  Yet far more than seven plays have been performed in Yemen this year.  In fact, one single event in one city in Yemen–the Theater Festival this May in Sana’a–showcased nine different plays in just over a week.  That does not make Yemen the new Broadway by any means.  But seven plays throughout the country in an entire year is a considerable underestimation, and one which paints an unduly grave picture.

Yemeni theater does need more funding, and better infrastructure.  It also needs an archive, a blog, a Twitter feed, a Wikipedia page, and many more newspaper and academic journal articles about particular performances and what they mean in and to Yemen. 

But none of that means that Yemeni theater is in a tragic state.  It’s a fascinating genre that has attracted dedicated and enormously talented writers, actors, and directors.  A tragicomedy, perhaps.  Theater of the absurd, sometimes.  But I would argue that there are very few public spaces in Yemen as free and as forward-thinking, or which provide us as much reason to hope for a brighter future for Yemen, as the stage. 

Over the past four and a half years, I have witnessed Yemeni actors and actresses upon the stage courageously denouncing corruption, social and gender inequality, and religious hypocrisy.  I have watched them plead movingly for better education, for political reform, for more freedom and economic opportunity.  The stage is the place where Yemenis of all ages and social strata can express their aspirations for (and frustrations with) life in Yemen.  And that’s something to celebrate.

So let’s dial down the melodrama.  Let’s dispense with clichés about theater being the mother of all the arts and the school of the masses.  And let’s make a serious effort to show the world what Yemen’s theater practitioners have accomplished, and how they continue to triumph over adversity and hardship while putting on extraordinary plays.

Katherine Hennessey, PhD, is a Fellow at the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and a professor at Sana’a University.  For her take on the history of Yemeni theater, you can read her article in La Voix du Yemen, 22 Oct 2013.