Debebe Eshetu (Debebe Eshepetu)
Actor (Ethiopia, 1943)
Debebe Eshetu was born in Ethiopia in 1943, or, according to other sources, in 1942. Eshetu is a household name who has a significant place in Ethiopian art scene. He introduced pantomime art in Ethiopia as early as 1962 and was head of the theater training department at the National Theatre. He could be seen as the spokesperson of Ethiopian and African theatre. Trained at the Budapest School, Hungary, he acted in dozen plays in the National Theatre, Hager Fikir Theater, Ras Theatre. The celebrated actor made his stage debut in Ya Lacha Gabicha (Marriage of Unequals) in 1963. It is worth to mention also Yazawintoch Kibebe (directed and acted), Marriage of Unequals, Telfo Bikessie, The Merchant of Venice, Yekermo Sew, Mother Carriage (Enat Alem Tenu), Nathan The Wise.
With his other African partners, he designed the format and method of theater for development and non-formal education and is one of the few experts in the field. He has presented papers at many American, European and African universities and conferences. He has been honored for his contribution to African Theater by the Boston Community in 1999 and the Atlanta City Counsel in 2002 and was awarded the Tayitu Entertainment prize for his life time contribution to theater again in 2002. Debebe was president of the Union of African Performing Artists, Director of the Training African Actors in Zimbabwe (ACTPA), Editor of World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theater (Unesco Edition), for whom he conducted many workshops, in addition to working for the Rockefeller Foundation and Common Wealth Foundations. He not only left his mark in Ethiopian cultural history but also contributed a lot as teacher and manager. He helped in creating the African Actors Association and served as its chairman. Married with four children, Debebe would later join the democratic movement in Ethiopia in a bid to end the political repression that has gripped the country for years.
He played a significant role as chief of the Public Relations Department of the the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), the opposition that is believed to have defeated the current dictatorial regime of Meles Zenawi at the 2005 polls. Debebe, along with the high-ranking leaders of CUD, were thrown into jail, where they endured nearly two years of imprisonment on bogus charges of treason that the regime lodged to silence its political opponents. Once out of prison due to government amnesty, Debebe has been touring and addressing the Ethiopian Diaspora in North America.
In the international scene he also took part in many films. Debebe was introducted to the West as early as 1971 when he appeared in Shaft in Africa, where he plays as a high-ranking Wassa in a slavery ring that John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) brought to the “motherland” with an idea to break the ring. Debebe starred also on other films, namely The Great Rebellion, The Sailor from Gibraltar, Gouma, The Grave Digger, and recently Red Leaves (Alim Adumim, 2014), in which he played an obstinate Bete Israeli, who sets out on a journey after losing his wife to reconnect with his family: Red Leaves, directed by Israeli Bazi Gete, was awarded with FIPRESCI Prize as Best First Film at Jerusalem Film Festival.
Eshetu acted also in three Italian films. In Italian-French Una stagione all’inferno (A Season in Hell), a biopic of French poet Arthur Rimbaud in his African period, directed by Nelo Risi, he played Menelik, alongside Wogayehu Negatu (Ras Makonnen), Mulu Mesfin (Taitù), Salomon Habtesellassie, and Archie Savage. He played also in two thrillers by Alberto Cavallone filmed in Ethiopia, that is Afrika (1973), featuring also Zawdit Asta, in which he was a police inspector, and Zelda (1974), also starring Halina Kin.
Una stagione all’inferno (Nelo Risi, 1971, ff, act), Afrika (Alberto Cavallone, 1973, ff, act), Zelda (Alberto Cavallone, 1974, ff, act)
Frame taken from:
Una stagione all’inferno. Dir. Nelo Risi. Difnei Cinematografica, Ancinex, Paris, 1971.
Contributors: Leonardo De Franceschi, with Isabella Fabrizi
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