The third encounter with the director of Elinga Theatre Jose Mena Abrantes happened this afternoon. In the hour before the Zoom link would begin to load and connect me at 3pm to the virtual “reality” of Angola, which opens into and makes visible the corners of Jose Mena Abrantes’s living room and his library, it came the time to admit the “ratio” and experience that separates me and the director… and is coming to unite us through a common interest: Elinga and Angolan theatre, African and the global relations that characterize its history, but also more accurately that unites me to a piece of Angolan history, culture, art and theatre.
His library is a little symbol of this vast world restricted by and at the same time accessible through an iPhone and computer screen. I experience Elinga with him virtually and through his stories, and I experience it physically by myself, from my room in London through the books and documents that have been piling up to develop this research. The wooden library colors Mena Abrantes background across the screen. The library, which at this point I have become familiar with leaves me with a sense of the unknown that manifests in not knowing the written world that has been living and lives behind him, and getting to know his career in the theatre-making. Mena Abrantes collection of books accumulated over years, while being unknown to me, I know it has been living and lives conjunctively with him and vice versa. I imagine how those books represent more obviously his intellectual interest, and more deeply his personal and professional career. They both define and complement each other. He chose those books, they were given to him, he found them, he bought them during his researches and travels, etc; and those books are like a collection of past and current memories, and events and stories in-development that speak not only for and of the subjects the books narrate but of Mena Abrantes persona. The books are horizontally disposed on the shelves of his library but I can barely read their titles. They appear so tiny on the computer screen that not even my glasses help to “clear the view.” So, I rely on his oral recounts and on the occasions, like in the previous session, where he picked and showed me Peter Brooks’ The Conference of Birds. His extensive collection is colored by the multiple languages in which these books have been written that like a mirror reflect the multitude of international book shops where he bought them, his experiences locally and abroad, and the countries he has travelled – within Africa, like Cape Verde, Cameroon, to name a few, and outside of Africa, in Portugal, England, New York, Brazil — both under official government’s duty with the ex- president of Angola and through his creation, direction of Elinga participating at international festivals.
Admitting the so-called ratio that separates me, a senior student of Comparative Literature and Cinema in the role of an interviewer and researcher from Jose Mena Abrantes has characterized the waiting hour between 2 and 3 pm (London time). A parallel consciousness spoke to me while I was preparing to take the role of the interviewer. It spoke of how my undergraduate and academic career is reaching a closure in January with the feeling that everyday the artistic and literary world – ungraspable in its wholeness — keeps expanding, also thanks to this project, under my feet and ahead of me.
In my 23 years of experience and inexperience in the theatre world and industry as a student, passionate theatre-goer and reader, and critical observer of theatre performances I interview Jose Mena Abrantes, a man who has been directing and making theatre for 53 years. Jose Mena Abrantes is a literary and drama critic, a writer, a director, an intellectual, and an artist from Angola, who conceives theatre in its wholeness and borderless circulation rather than through the world’s cultural and geographical limitations and apparent separations. For him exists One Theatre, a theatre he calls “universal.” In his conception and meaning of “One” and “Universal,” theatre, however, this terminology is not associated with the Western discourse of “universalism” that in the long years of colonization, domination, and subjugation of “the other,” – by considering the different “the other” which required assimilation or annihilation to exist — has tried to justify its imperialist agenda by trying to establish a “universal culture” to refer in other words to “One (Western) Culture Creating” and “giving sense to humanity.”
It’s hard to get around a vocabulary that throughout these academic years has been so strongly associated with Western imperial agenda and that many post-colonial discourses opened by authors such as Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Edouard Glissant have been working to dismantle. The question that comes to mind is, “what to do of this new Universal (Angolan and African) Theatre ?” Stephen Greenblatt, a scholar and literary critic that I have been using for my sources, in another of his books Cultural Mobility, a Manifesto, which I have recently come across, might help me, as I go along, unravel an answer or at least a way to approach this challenging confrontation.
Here I leave a quote, from the chapter “Theatrical mobility:”
“The Cold War […] the whole map of the world was being redrawn, and not only in the political sphere. The mapping of the human genome had begun decisively to prove that race, which had seemed so tragically determinative of human destiny, was a sinister set of fantasies based on pseudo-science and vulgar superstition. It turns out that we are all African by descent and that we are virtually all genetically mixed, such tiny differences as actually exist misunderstood, reified, and given fraudulent and twisted explanations […] And the imagination works through metaphor, personification, magical animation; that is, it works by projecting voices, inventing genealogies, transporting and knitting heterogeneous elements together.” (p. 75)
Studying Angolan Theatre and in particular Elinga theatre in conversation with Jose Mena Abrantes is mapping a global scope of understanding, studying, and researching African and Angolan theatre. Angola shares a cultural and artistic exchange with Portuguese, Brazilian, Cuban, English and American societies. They are in conversation rather than in exclusion, despite Angola’s colonial and post-independence history, and the years of the Cold War and civil war, which ended only in 2002.