Performance in the Two Sudans: Against the ‘Normal Focus on Politics and War’

Earlier this week in London, Ali Mahdi, director of the Bugaa Theatre in Khartoum, discussed his troupe’s performances in Darfur, while John Martin talked about his work with theatre across South Sudan:

By Raph Cormack

CYdKOrfWkAAl8n0Ethnomusicologist Angela Impey started the third event in SOAS’s Centre for African Studies lecture series on Sudan and South Sudan by lamenting the lack of attention given to cultural activities in most scholarly discussions of the two countries.

John Martin, in his talk, mentioned that the first time he went to Khartoum he was expecting, because of everything he had been told and read, to find a barren arts scene. In fact, he found the complete opposite. So the two talks by Ali Mahdi Nour and John Martin were intended to be remedies to the normal focus on politics and war. Ali Mahdi, director of the Bugaa Theatre in Khartoum, discussed his troupe’s performances in Darfur and John Martin talked about his work with theatre across South Sudan.

However, the focus on the evening of 11th January was not an ethereal “culture” divorced from politics. Rather, it asked where culture and politics might intersect. Specifically, both speakers examined the role of theatre and performance in shaping their societies. In short, the task they had given themselves was to use what people call “the transformative power of theatre” to foster debate, cohesion and self-reflection in the Two Sudans.

For actors the transformative effect of theatre can seem very obvious. To work for an extended period, contemplating and embodying a play, must have an effect on the performer. Both Nour and Martin emphasise this aspect of drama and are keen to encourage as many different people as possible to experience this sensation. Both, though, in the manner of Berthold Brecht, want more from the theatre. In their talks the two show different ways that drama can be a transformative experience for the audience, too. In doing so, they hope to bring some kind of benefit to two places that have seen troubles for many years: Darfur and South Sudan.

Ali Mahdi Nour, a star of Sudanese theatre, starts his talk a little late as he has just come from a television interview. The charismatic actor with a thick, white handlebar moustache and the green headwear of his Sufi order tells a brief history of his career. He is most famous for his comedy “hiya wa-huwa” (She and He), which ran in Khartoum for 7 years and, by his own admission, paid for the lavish house he now lives in. A trip to an IDP camp in Wau — then in the South of Sudan and now in the new country of South Sudan — changed him. After his experiences there he began to think deeply about his own role in the future of his country. He left behind his previous existence.

Now he does something different. “I never call it theatre. I call it performance”. Performing plays inspired by traditional Sudanese stories, with his audience arranged in a ring around the players. For one month of every year he then takes a band of actors and actresses from the Bugaa Theatre out to Darfur to perform in communities affected by war and displacement.


He has his own way of turning the spectators into performers and investing everyone with the power that drama has to change. To start his performance, the actors start banging large drums to gather people to the performance are. His renderings of traditional stories then last around 55 minutes. When the tale has finished, Ali Mahdi asks the audience how they might like to change the ending. Depending on what they suggest, he will alter the performance. Then he will ask them again and take other suggestions. Sometimes he will play the story again 10 times and performances have been known to last five hours. By this point the distinction between actors and spectators is effaced and people throng what might have previously been called “the stage”.

John Martin’s experience in South Sudan had its own challenges. The political situation is, of course, very different and for reasons of security he was often limited to working with secondary schools. The actors also had unexpected linguistic problems. Most people he encountered were able to speak Juba Arabic informally between themselves but when it came to more formal pronouncements the older generation wanted to use Standard Arabic, while the young felt more comfortable in English.

Unlike Ali Mahdi Nour, Martin was only taking an advisory role in local organisations. He worked a lot with the South Sudan Theatre Company, who are currently working on releasing a documentary about their performance of Cymbeline at the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival in London.

Martin’s work is more explicitly expired by Augusto Boal’s “Forum Theatre” than Ali Mahdi Nour. In Martin’s description of this concept, the actors take an issue that is effecting their lives (some stock examples include: forced marriage, political corruption, etc.) and workshop a play that shows what the worst outcome could be in one of these cases. Once the play has been prepared, it is in the hands of the audience to try to stop the terrible advance of events. They must interrupt the drama at the right moment and join in the action to rectify it. The actors on stage, though, remain in character and push back against the audience. By the end, again, one cannot tell who is an actor and who a spectator. Martin has worked across South Sudan, using this method with a multitude of people.

This is theatre as a transformative experience in a very different way to how one might envision it. The spectator is not moved to transformation by the experience of viewing a play but of participating in it themselves. Every performance will, therefore, be radically different (perhaps incomparable) and many will fail. However, whatever happens people of different backgrounds, allegiances and outlooks are forced together to actively engage in a representation of their own problems. This is where the transformation comes from.

Even if the event itself is a powerful experience for all involved, the critic might argue that any period of communal transformation is short and passes with the end of the performance. Do people really change long-term or is the real benefit confined to the play alone? It is, of course, very difficult to say.

Howewer, Ali Mahdi Nour, an incorrigible story-teller, relates an anecdote to the crowd. At one IDP camp in Darfur he notices an old woman, reluctant to dance. With a little persuading he brings her in to the circle and once she has started it is almost impossible to stop her. As the performance comes to an end she approaches Nour and, reaching into the folds of her dress, pulls out two black stones. Thanking him profusely she says that these two stones were the last ones she picked up from her village as she left. Keeping one for herself, she hands one to the actor, saying that it will protect him from the devil. As he closes his story, Ali Mahdi Nour taps his pocket and says to the audience that everywhere he now goes he takes the stone with him (and it’s kept him safe so far). However small it may be, a single day can have resonances long after the performers have dispersed.

Raphael Cormack is a PhD student at Edinburgh University working on 19th and 20th Century Egyptian Literature. His blog is