The Audacious Playwright
I wish to see change in my country and I long to have a country where there is justice and sensitivity toward women just as we need tolerance with ethnicity.
Born in Addis Ababa in 1973 in the French Legation area, I attended Miyazia Haya-Sost and Atse Naod School. I completed high school at Kefitegna Asra-Hulet Atekalay secondary school. Later, I joined the evening program in the Amharic Literature department of Addis Ababa University.
I am a producer, playwright, translator, director, actor, journalist, teacher, CEO of Arts TV, a wife and a mother of a 14-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy. Currently, I act on a Fana TV series entitled “Derso mels.”
My love for literature goes back to my childhood. I always wanted to be a journalist or an artist, and people often said I would be one or the other. I loved acting and was great at mimicking people. Reading newspapers aloud was one of the things I really enjoyed. Being a bookworm, I would follow a person holding one and beg them to lend it to me. Once, I remember borrowing a big volume fiction book from my neighbor who told me to return it the same day. Reading it without a break, including not eating, I fainted. The first thing I asked when I was conscious was if the book had gotten wet and ruined. My obsession with books then made my parents angry. I even had the habit of reading on the bus and taxi, which was not customary then. At home, no one had ever bought me books.
As a 12th grader I wrote a letter to an Ethiopian radio station requesting advice on what to do about my passion but received no response. One day, my sister told me she saw a notice posted at a bus station at Amist Kilo next to the technology faculty of AAU. It offered a short acting course at the Culture and Tourism Bureau. Without my parents’ approval, I took the exam
when I had planned to attend church. Three hundred applied for only 70 seats. What’s most surprising was that I passed the exam with little to no exposure to the arts.
Engaging in theater consumed so much of my time that I had to stop going to the university. My parents were very angry when they discovered what I had done. My dad was so sad that he did not speak to me for a few years. He was ashamed of me because back then being an artist was looked down upon.
Beyond gaining knowledge, the program helped me create a network. In a very short time I was able to perform on big stages, radio and TV dramas, as well as movies. I joined a theater club called Aflegnaw touring in the regions and schools in Addis. It was an educational theater related to HIV youth issues and more, but it kept me away from mainstream stages like the National Theater.
Men dominated the theater industry then. There were no women rolemodels in play writing and directing. The main characters, directors and playwrights were men. Alemtsehay Wedajo was the only woman we knew. The society’s mindset was that only a few women were gifted to be playwrights and directors, leaving room only to act. My first daring attempt to write a film script with a girlfriend is an experience I will never forget. Having written the script with a lot of ups and downs, we gave it to a senior artist for feedback. We got anxious as it took him long to respond. His comment was so discouraging, heartless, and devastating that neither of us entertained the thought for years. I later realized all it took to be a writer was ideas and understanding of the technique.
Aflegnaw theater club disintegrated and members had to be employed in other theater houses. Some stopped pursuing acting and my career was pending. In the meantime, I got married to a Frenchman who was a teacher at the Lycée Guebre-Mariam School. With the encouragement of my husband, I translated a French play called “Eight women” to Amharic in 2006. Because of the heart-breaking experience from the past, I kept my work private except to a few supportive
friends. Alliance Ethio-Française and Lycée Gebre Mariam School gave us a hall to practice, and it was performed at the Ethiopian National Theater, receiving rave reviews.
In the history of the national theater, “Eight Women” was the first play with an all-female cast. I produced and directed it. It was a success on a national level that no one believed it could be possible without men’s involvement. I was determined to disprove the myth that women can’t work together. The play became so popular it stayed for two solid years. It was also on tour in the regions, universities, and military camps. The success of the first play I produced was a confidence booster. People started believing that I can do translation, directing, acting, and casting. Having confidence and getting rid of the fear of making mistakes was critical to progress and advance in my career, opening many doors including prestigious training worldwide.
In 2009, I co-wrote and co-directed a successful play with Tewodros Legesse that was produced both in Ethiopia and the U.S.A. involving actors living in both places. In 2011, I translated a French stage play (piège pour un homme seul) into Amharic, “Yemistyaleh,” then published it as a book. It was sold online and on DVD. This was the first time in Ethiopia a stage play became available on DVD.
Next was writing TV drama scripts, again defying the norm that crossing over was risky. In 2013 I wrote the last 20 episodes of ‘’Gemena 2,’’ a popular TV series. In 2014, I wrote the TV drama script for ‘’Dana’’ that continued playing for three years. I wrote and produced a film screenplay called “Condominiyemu” and was the artistic director of the Crossing Boundaries Performing Arts Festival in 2015.
Being mindful of the challenges of women in any profession—especially in the arts—I co-hosted a popular radio show, “Yederaw Chewata,” with Dereje Haile from 2016-2018, combating the notion that a woman has to stay in the shadows. I also used the platform to bring strong
women to the public, raise awareness on gender issues such as violence against women, and more.
I teach theater at Lycée Guebre-Mariam School. My recent works are: translation of “Le Berger devenue chirurgien,” calling it “Eregnaw Hakim;” directing Cyrano de Bergerac in 2018, depicting a darker complexion as the main character; a grant from the US embassy for the script ”Bitihones,” which also won a short-movie award; best female actress at the 7th Ethiopian Film Festival; the France order of arts and letters. “Eregnaye,” TV series drama was also written last year with two other female professionals and will be shown on ARTS TV starting November 2019.
I use my platform and position to advocate justice for women. I bring young girls onboard into my network as I understand women and beginners face challenges men do not. They are asked for sexual favors when seeking opportunities to advance their careers in the industry. I mentor young women to have a dream and a purpose in life and to pursue their dreams. It requires ambition and hard work. We cannot afford to procrastinate if we want to make a difference in life.
What do they say about Azeb?
Colleagues and friends describe Azeb as a one-of-a-kind person who balances professional and family life magnificently. She is a woman with a strong work ethic and commitment, which many find contagious. Azeb is open, inclusive and accessible, charming, and reliable. As a colleague she is uniquely humble unlike many other artists who have big egos. She is someone who can make you feel at ease.
Azeb is a feminist and an activist who advocates for women’s right place in society. She promotes authentic female leadership with humor and grace. There is nobody in the media who has worked like her to bring about systemic change in challenging stereotypes of women.
Azeb is an institution on her own.