Tesfaye Gessesse : A Life Dedicated To Theatre

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Tesfaye Gessesse, the longtime acting teacher and artistic director of the Ethiopian National Theatre, has died. He was 84. Tesfaye died Wednesday at his Addis Ababa home of complications related to COVID-19, his family announced.

He was instrumental in bringing to the stage the early work of many of Ethiopia’s accomplished playwrights, including Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, and Mengistu Lemma.

Tesfaye was also credited for revolutionizing the theater in Ethiopia with his plays, acting, direction, and teaching. Jane Plastow, Professor of African Theatre at the University of Leeds, UK, said he led a radical change in the form and content of the Ethiopian national drama in the early 1960s. Dereje Tizazu, an Ethiopian journalist and author who is in the process of publishing the late Tesfay’s biography told Ethiopia Observer that Tesfaye was a pioneer who truly developed modern Ethiopian theatre and managed to produce memorable theatre brands with brilliance and charm, at a time when the theatre was flourishing as the most vital sector of the arts in Ethiopia.

Tesfaye, the first Ethiopian to earn an M.A. degree in Theatre Arts, had written and successfully produced several plays. Among his plays were Father and Sons, the absurdist Iqaw (The thing), Tehaddiso (Renaissance), Yeshi, Cherchez Les femmes, and Ferdu Lenaninte (The judgment is for you).

Tesfaye had directed and starred in multiple plays, including in Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He translated a brief sketch of the lives of the Sufi mystic Omar Khayyam and his Rubaiyat. His short story “Ayee my Luck ”, which was translated from the Amharic by Yonas Admassu, received critical acclaim after it was published in African Arts in 1971. It was praised for its penetrating account of an Addis prostitute and her self-righteous client.

His numerous accomplishments as a cultural programs presenter, however, are less known. Tesfaye used to host cultural programs at Radio Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (radio and television) in the early 1970s.

Born during the Italian occupation in Guro Gutu, Hararghe to his father Gessesse Qolech and his mother Belletech Yayyehyirad, Tesfaye was eight months old when his mother died. A year later, he lost his father, Gessesse Qolech who was the son of Fitawrari Qolech who served as Ras Makonnen’s army commanders. Tesfaye was brought to Addis Ababa at eight at the request of his aunt who wanted him to go to school. So early, 1945 he came to Addis by train, as he told Reidulf K Molvaer, author of Black Lions: The Creative Lives of Modern Ethiopia’s Literary Giants and Pioneers.

In Addis Ababa, the young Tesfaye started learning in Teferi Mekonnen school. Tesfaye’s fair complexion provoked a malicious rumour that he was an illegitimate child and he was half-Italian, many of his classmates calling him, Graccha, “Grey,” which was used of donkeys and mules of that colour – and as a nickname of half–casts. The fact that he was born during the Italian occupation served to reinforce the rumour. Tesfaye later told Molvaer that the new “attention” disturbed him so much that he became sick and was hospitalized. “Tesfaye got no peace of mind because of this question till he had asked his aunt if his “real ” father was an Italian, as people had been hinting to him,” Molvaer wrote. “When Tesfaye asked his aunt about this, she told him that she had been present at his mother’s death-bed. The dying mother told her that neither in her dreams nor in reality has she ever slept with a white man, but only with his ( Tesfayé ‘s) father,” the author of Black Lions recounted.

And yet, this experience apart, Tesfaye insisted that he had a happy childhood, “companionship, affection, all the good things.” At Teferi Mekonnen, he was a scout, and as such he went camping often, and around the campfire, he would sing and act in skits, he told Molvaer. There he met and became friends with some students who became lifetime friends, including Sebhat Gebre Egziabher, who later became a renowned author in his own right.

After completing his secondary education, Tesfaye had enrolled at the University of Addis Ababa’s Law Faculty where he graduated in 1958. While there, upon watching him play at a drama staged by another prominent playwright, Kebede Michael, Emperor Haile Selassie advised the young Tesfaye to study theatre and arranged for his scholarship at Northwestern University’s theater school, in Evanston, Illinois. Returning in 1961, Tesfaye was “a part of a small group of reformers, who in the 1960s turned theatre from an art form aimed at propagandizing for the aristocracy into a means for examining the political and social situation in Ethiopia.”

A few years later, Tesfaye moved to Haile Selassie I University and helped to establish the Creative Arts Centre under the initiative of the American national Philip Caplan who came to the country on a Fulbright scholarship. The two reportedly met in 1962 to co-direct a play and they hit on the idea of starting the drama section at the young Haile Selassie I University and establish a centre for experimental drama and actor training. Under the auspices of the Centre, Tesfaye and Caplan had directed the premiere of plays by the then young playwrights including Tsegaye Gebre Medhin and Mengistu Lemma. The center at the time was a kind drama school where the noted actors Wogayehu Negatu and Debebe Eshetu and a talented director Abate Mekuria, got their preliminary training and experience. Solomon Deressa, Gebre Kristos Desta, Haile Gerima, Berhane Meskel Reda were also among the active visitors to the Centre. Tesfaye acted as the Centre’s director for four years and he nurtured countless future stars.

In 1973, Tesfaye was appointed as director of the Hager Fikir Theatre where he served for three years. In 1975, he was suspended and sent to the Fourth Army Division Headquarters’s prison by the newly installed military regime “following a conflict with certain employees”. A revolution was in the offing, and there were tensions between workers and leaders.

Six months later, he was released and appointed as the director of the Ethiopian National Theatre. It was around then that he staged one of his well-received plays, Tahadisso (Renaissance). His attempt to improve the economic and working conditions of artists ultimately led to his termination in 1983.

In 1989, he became chairperson of the Theatre Arts Department at Addis Ababa University but was dismissed and incarcerated for a short period when the military government was overthrown.

Tesfaye Abebe, a veteran director and head of the private theatre company Tesfaye Abebe Ye Theatre Budn said he was “distraught” at the news of Tesfaye’s death. “Tesfay as a gentle and decent human being. It was always a pleasure to meet up with him and share good times,” he said.

A theater hall at Addis Ababa University has been renamed the ‘Tesfaye Gesesse Arts Center’.

Tesfaye was married to Meretush Akalu from 1961 to 1988 and they have two children together, Meselech Tesfaye and Gessesse Tesfaye. After the marriage with Meretush ended in divorce, Tesfaye remarried Menbere Girma, with whom he lived until his death.

Main Image: Tesfaye Gessesse with Golda Meir (1898–1978), the fourth Prime Minister of Israel on her visit to Ethiopia in 1962.

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