Masks And Myths In Santomean Theatre

Photo of Sarah Mitchell
22 November 2016

Sao Tome & Principe has been a platform for the synthesis of African and European traditions over the years. This mixture between two cultural traditions is expressed in the Santomean Tchiloli, a type of theatre revealing how two very opposite cultures can manifest a form of co-existence through the performing arts.

Sao Tome and Principe’s location off the West African coast made the country a strategic part of the slave trade; the people are therefore descendants of the various European and West African peoples which the trade brought to the islands. Although the official language is Portuguese, most people speak Creole. The most obvious cultural expression of the amalgamation of peoples on Sao Tome and Principe can be found in the islands’ recreation of the Portuguese play The Tragedy of the Marquis of Mantua and the Emperor Charlemagne. Written in the 16th century by the blind Madeiran poet, Baltazar Dias, the play now exists in various adaptations in the Santomean socio-cultural environment; in Creole it takes on the title Tchiloli.

The most distinctive aspect of the play is the stark contrasts that it elicits. The male actors narrate the Renaissance text while being dressed in European women’s clothing and wearing unique masks. The whole highly charged experience is an extravagant spectacle of music and dance, becoming what many describe as a symbolic meeting between African and European heritage. As well as enacting the play every year within the country, Tchiloli groups perform at local festivals both in Sao Tome and Principe and abroad.

There have been many attempts to classify and analyze the Tchiloli, however, as Angela Barros states in an article in BUALA, they ‘often come up against epistemological difficulties stemming from the shortage of African specialists’. The ease in seeing Tchiloli as related to a European influence on an African situation is evidence of a wider trend in the study of African theatre, however there is a deeper emblematic aspect about the Tchiloli that must be highlighted too. Again, as Barros states, Tchiloli, ‘is an example of the strength of the popular imagination and has found a solution in which the African cultural heritage has not been negated and other influences have been assimilated to create a spectacle with real African roots’.

In 2009, directors Kiluange Liberdade and Ines Goncalves produced a documentary on this African expression of tradition. Believing that the story behind this theatre manifestation deserved extensive research and exploration, Liberdade and Goncalves present a new perspective in their documentary Tchiloli, Mascaras e Mitos (Tchiloli, Masks and Myths); one that looks at the processes behind the elements of choreography, dance, music and magic rather than just the initial impression of cultural synthesis.

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