Shakespeare in Sierra Leone

 Children in Makeni, Sierra Leone

Children in Makeni, Sierra Leone

'Is this a holiday?' - Shakespeare, Julius Caesar I.ii

'Na holidae dis?' - Krio translation of Julius Caesar I.ii

For the better part of a decade, I've been arguing that public theater is a valuable investment in developing countries. Although my own focus has been on Sierra Leone, I believe that in most contexts theater is important way of reflecting on, processing, and transforming social norms, and can be especially constructive in a society that is undergoing systemic change.

This isn't just about my personal love for Shakespeare. There's an important historical link between how the theater was used in early modern England, and how it might be used in developing countries today. Drama in the Renaissance was more than just passive entertainment: it used a familiar mode of discourse that extended to many areas of daily social interaction. Early modern society was deeply histrionic: merchants in the Exchange, prostitutes in Bankside, royal processions--all employed performative tactics whether to attract customers or demonstrate a monarch's power.

 Issa and Jimiyke rehearse a scene from Julius Caesar, Sierra Leone

Issa and Jimiyke rehearse a scene from Julius Caesar, Sierra Leone

In contrast with the subsequent 18th century, where the printed word became the primary way to shape public understanding, the Renaissance relied on spectacle. In any place or time where literacy is low and oral culture prevails, theater can be a powerful tool for interpreting societal change. Of course, public theater doesn't have to look like Shakespeare's Globe; it can be street theater, radio plays, readings--anything that invites an audience to watch, listen, and use these experiences to evaluate their own world.

Public theater encourages critical reflection on society. This habit can be instrumental for those who want to actively shape the direction that their country takes, particularly after violent conflict or social upheaval like the Ebola crisis.

A rich cultural life must grow alongside infrastructure and education because it bolsters tangible growth. It is a myth (part of the skewed hierarchy of needs that has defined and derailed so many aid missions) that intellectual and artistic endeavors cannot flourish in a society whose food is not as bountiful, whose water is not as clean, or whose democracy is not as mature as ours. 

 The cast of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, translated into Krio, Sierra Leone

The cast of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, translated into Krio, Sierra Leone