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Angola: Elinga Theatre, from Glory to Oblivion

The curtain rises for a voyage into the world of theatre and in this moment we escape reality and open the doors to a dreamworld where the unexpected becomes the backdrop. For 24 years the Elinga Theatre in Luanda opened the doors to this dream and allowed thousands of people to enter into the magic of theatre. Its opening is often confused with the birth of theatre in Angola.

Considered as one of the only spaces in Luanda dedicated to theatre, the association always remained open to the promotion and development of theatre and of the imagination. Just like other historical buildings surrounding it, the theatre is now about to disappear, letting the curtain fall definitively, to give way to modernisation.

In an article for Le Monde newspaper, the journalist Christophe Châtelot says that [pt]:

Um importante centro da cultura angolana, vai desaparecer, como tantas casas antigas do centro da capital. Os arranha-céus, esses, crescem como cogumelos e deslocam para os subúrbios, a toque de bulldozers selvagens e de bastonadas da polícia, os musseques, essas favelas angolanas sem água nem eletricidade em que se amontoa a maior parte dos 6 a 7 milhões de habitantes de Luanda.

An important centre for Angolan culture will disappear, just like so many other old houses in the centre of the capital. The skyscrapers, on the other hand, grow like fungus and move into the suburbs, accompanied by savage bulldozers and police beatings, to the ‘musseques', those Angolan favelas without water nor electricity in which the majority of Luanda's 6 to 7 million inhabitants crowd together.

Elinga Theatre, photo by Stef Meaow published on the site Buala under CC licence (BY-NC-SA)

Elinga Theatre, photo by Stef Meaow published on the site Buala under CC licence(BY-NC-SA)

The building was built in the 19th century, a ‘living’ symbol of the passage of the Portuguese through Angolan lands, and was declared a historical monument by the Angolan Minister for Culture. However, in April this year this status was rescinded in order to make way for the Elipark building project, which will comprise a car park, offices and a hotel.

The threats to demolish the building which houses the theatre have given rise to negative reactions on the social networks. On his blog “Morro da Maianga”, journalist Reginaldo Silva emphasised [pt]:

Uma batalha antiga do “gangue do betão armado” que está prestes a ser ganha. Um decreto da ministra dá o dito pelo não dito ao dizer que já não há mais história naquele edifício. Acabaram-se as histórias por ali. Agora história é outra. Por este andar (…) a baixa histórica de Luanda vai desaparecer completamente dentro de 20 anos ou menos. Espero ainda estar vivo para apagar a luz e fechar a porta.

An ancient battle of the “armed gang of concrete” which is about to be won. A minister's decree goes back on its word by saying that there is no longer any history in this building. That kind of history has come to an end. Now history is something else. At this rate (…) Luanda's historical downtown area will completely disappear in 20 years or less. I hope to still be alive to turn off the light and close the door.

Photo shared on the Facebook page of the Elinga Theatre.

Photo shared on the Facebook page of the Elinga Theatre.

One of the Elinga Theatre's founders, actor Orlando Sérgio, speaking to the newspaper Público, said that [pt] “the building and the way in which it was experienced have given a unique feel to the city's downtown area, so, some day, Luanda will be just like so many other cities”.

The director and playwright José Mena Abrantes, in a note on Facebook, tells the story and trajectory of the Elinga Theatre:

O grupo Elinga-Teatro (do umbundo ‘elinga', que significa acção, iniciativa, exercício) foi criado no dia 21 de Maio de 1988. A sua existência inscreve-se, no entanto, numa linha de continuidade iniciada com o grupo Tchinganje (1975/76) e prosseguida com o Xilenga-Teatro (1977/80) e com o Grupo de Teatro da Faculdade de Medicina de Luanda (1984/87).

De comum entre todos, a presença do mesmo director artístico, a activa participação de um núcleo de actores (…) e, acima de tudo, um mesmo projecto de teatro, voltado para o resgate e promoção da cultura angolana a todos os níveis, incluindo um tratamento moderno dos seus valores tradicionais, e para a difusão de um repertório teatral universal.

De um propósito vincadamente interventivo do ponto de vista político, em que o teatro foi utilizado principalmente como instrumento de mobilização e consciencialização popular (Tchinganje), passou-se a uma etapa em que começou a ser dada ênfase a uma função expressiva mais elaborada (Xilenga e grupo de Medicina), até à fase actual, em que a pesquisa de linguagens novas e a experimentação se tornaram dominantes (Elinga).

The Elinga Theatre group (from the umbundo ‘elinga', meaning action, initiative, exercise) was created on May 21st 1988. Its existence, however, follows in a long line which began with the Tchinganje group (1975/76), succeeded by the Xilenga Theatre (1977/80) and the Theatre Group of the Luanda Faculty of Medicine (1984/87).

Common to all of these initiatives is the presence of the same artistic director, the active participation of a nucleus of actors (…) and, above all, a single theatre project, aimed at rescuing and promoting Angolan culture at all levels, including a modern treatment of its traditional values, and at spreading a universal theatrical repertoire.

From a pronouncedly proactive purpose from a political standpoint, whereby the theatre was used primarily as an instrument of popular mobilisation and awareness-raising (Tchinganje), it then moved into a phase in which the emphasis began to fall on a more elaborate expressive function (Xilenga and the Medicine group), right up to the current phase, in which the investigation of new languages and experimentation became dominant (Elinga).

Internationally recognised, the Elinga has performed plays in 8 countries including Mozambique, São Tomé, Spain and Portugal. Nothing suggested that the theatre and, as a consequence, the cultural hub where numerous events linked to art and culture are held, were to be wrapped up.

In 2009 the Theatre's members had already received an eviction order from the Provincial Housing Board, in which it was stated that the rental contract on the space had come to an end. At that time the plan to reorder the Luanda Marginal and to build a five-star hotel was still in progress.

Contained within an “old house” which always needed work, the old building and cultural heritage site of the Angolan people also had an area dedicated to art, music concerts and dance. Numerous plays were performed at the Elinga, plays which will be remembered forever, such as “The Wardrobe and the Bed”, a comedy about the mistakes made in love and friendship.

At the current time it is not known where the new home of the Elinga will be, and a farewell to the theatre's magic seems ever nearer.

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