KHARTOUM (Reuters) - In an open-air theater by the river Nile, a crowd whistles and claps as actress Huda Mamoon plays a deranged woman chased by a ghost in a white cape.
Mamoon’s play on the suffering of women through the ages is part of a theater festival in Khartoum, where Sudan’s once flourishing theater scene is enjoying a revival after years of neglect during bouts of economic crisis and war.
“Theater touches us because it speaks to us through our traditions and language,” said Hasun Gozoly, a 31-year-old actor and dancer.
“Some Sudanese find it hard to get involved emotionally in messages that come from television and the Internet. But theater and plays pass on a message in a traditional way.”
Sudan — known abroad more for decades of violent conflict and a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur — has a long history of theater that ranges from ancient folk drama to contemporary plays that delve into politics and comedy, said Musaab Elsawi, a theater critic for the al-Rai al-Aam daily.
Sudanese theater enjoyed its golden period in the 1960s and 1970s, before floundering during years of economic hardship and civil war, he said. Skepticism from governments keen to keep tight control on public thought did not help either, he said.
“Theater has its own power, it’s not like music or singing which is considered just entertainment,” said Elsawi.
“Politicians don’t always trust artists. The artist has a message, and it makes people think, which can be in conflict with what a politician wants.”
Still, over the past decade, interest in theater has slowly returned, especially after the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of war between the north and south and spurred Sudanese to reflect on national identity and image, he said.
At a time of upheaval across the Arab world and mounting tensions over a fresh economic crisis and soaring prices, some suspect Sudanese officials are more than happy to encourage cultural activities like theater to distract the masses.
“The government has realized that art and theater is a way for us to bring out our emotions,” said Gozoly.
“They realize we’re actually helping them by giving people an outlet for feelings of anger and sadness.”
Today, Khartoum boasts at least three professional theater groups, while a much larger unofficial theater scene is also active through schools and cultural centers, said Hilke Diemer, a Dutch dancer who has studied Sudanese theater.
In a conservative society where alcohol is banned and parties require approval from the government, theater is also one of the few public entertainment options that brings crowds of people together in a convivial atmosphere.
At Khartoum’s National Theater hosting the drama festival, Sudanese began gathering for an evening of drama as dusk fell over the city on Saturday, bringing with it more bearable temperatures and the hint of a cool breeze.
Chatting over glasses of sweet tea in the courtyard preceded the performance, which kicked off on a wide stage with fairy lights strung across the walls.
Mamoon’s opening act was followed by that of Mohammed Abdallah, 35, whose play tackles the concept of life and death and urges the audience to think outside of the box.
For actors like Abdallah and Gozoly, the stage is more than a chance to entertain and provoke thought.
In a country with widespread poverty and high illiteracy, it is also a tool to educate the masses on everything from female genital mutilation to the quality of drinking water.
“People come here for entertainment, they don’t come here to learn new stuff,” said Gozoly. “But we try to pass on new stuff to them through the plays we do.”
In an age where local theater can be swiftly uploaded onto the Internet and Youtube for anyone across the world to see, Abdallah has even bigger dreams for Sudanese theater.
“We want to show the world that there are many good things about Sudan,” he said. “People only know about the conflicts in Darfur and Abyei. We want to change this image through theater.”
Editing by Paul Casciato