Wegayehu Negatu, one of the brightest stars to come out of the Ethiopian Theatrical scene, was born on June 1944 in Qebenna, Addis Ababa, to an educated family. His father, Ato Negatu Bezuneh, was an alumnus of Teferi Makonnen School and one of the first to pursue higher education in France, whereas W/o Amsale Beyene had a respected presence in the Ethiopian Church. He was to later inherit his strict vegetarian diet from his father.

Being an only child, Wegayehu was encouraged early in his life to delve into the wonderful world of books. He was an avid reader - a habit he retained until his death. He attended the Swedish Evangelical Mission School and he went on to complete his secondary education at Teferi Makonnen. There, he was known for his humor and comic portrayal of film characters, especially during the numerous outings of the Boy Scouts. Soon after graduation, he joined the Haile Sellassie I University's Creative Arts & Theatre Program in 1963, where he studied the art of plays, stage production and make-up and costume for two years. It was there that he first displayed his talents in plays such as "Romeo and Juliet", Samuel Becket's "Waiting for God" and Menghistu Lemma's "Marriage among Unequals" and "Marirage by Abduction".


Thereafter, he went to Budapest, Hungary, for two years of studies in theatre, culminating in a well-received performance of Hungarian plays at The Madaç Theatre in Budapest. Years later, the President of Hungary, on hearing the death of Wegayehu, was to remark on the merits of this Ethiopian actor who had captivated the Hungarian people in 1967 while performing ‘Pantomim’ in their own language. After a year of unsuccessful attempts back home at finding a job in the Arts, Wegayehu went back to the Creative Arts & Theatre Center, this time working as the Programs Director in Theatre until 1970.

He then served as an actor in 'Hager Fikir' Theatre for a year, thereupon joining the Radio and Television department of the Ministry of Information. Tuners to the airwaves during those years were to witness the highly creative touch of Wegayehu in the scores of advertisements and plays that were beginning to be prevalent and, with his help, popular. One also remembers his pioneering work in popularizing the art of miming on TV. It was also at the end of 1970 that Wegayehu got married to AmsaleGenet Yimer, an employee at the Press Ministry. They had three children, and were later to cooperate on several plays with AmsaleGenet as producer.


AmsaleGenet Yimer was born near Debre Tabor, Gondar and after attending Princess Tenagnework School, she came to Addis Ababa to pursue her secondary education. She later studied Journalism at HSI University and she joined the Ministry of Information in 1968 and served there for 10 years as a Sales officer and accountant. Consequently she joined Ethiopian Television, where she began as News producer and moved up to become one of the first female Program Directors, a position she retained until she left ETV in 1996 and came to the US.



In her distinguished career at ETV, she has produced a total of around 50 television plays, and several variety shows and music videos, among some of the plays, ‘Hanna’ and ‘Enat Nesh’ (Mother), a play that traveled around Ethiopia during the famine of 1984 featuring Wegayehu as the lead character. A perfectionist like her husband, she has had further training on TV production in Germany, Korea and the US and is currently working on establishing a Video Production Company in her husband’s name to help document the careers of several artists in Ethiopia

During the 1970s, Wegayehu was involved in plays such as Tsegaye GebreMedhin's 'yeKermo Sew' (Here to stay), 'Petros Yachin Saat' (Petros at that hour) and Yilma Manaye's 'Zerray Deresse'. While performing Zerray Derrese in Asmara, his portrayal was so convincing that the hero's older brother, Blata TesfaTsion Derrese, would not let Wegayehu out of his sight for two weeks, talking to him as if conversing with Zerray. This response was to be typical as Wegayehu continued to mature in his art, and traveled to Lagos and Algiers representing Ethiopia at the stage.

From 1974 to the day of his untimely death in December of 1989, Wegayehu was to have yet another distinguished career as an actor and an inspiring teacher at the National Theater. A majority of the total 30 theatrical plays he performed in life were staged during these years. Among them were Berhanu Zerihun's 'Moresh', and Tsegaye GebreMedhin’s ‘Ha-hu be Sidist Wer’ (ABC in six months). Ha-hu be Sidist Wer was to be among one of Wegayehu’s best performances but, sadly, while on the set, he caught severe pneumonia, which led to his death after years of ill health.

Fellow artists remember how serious and thorough Wegayehu was while preparing for a play. Wegisho (as most used to call him), would completely immerse into his character minutes before performance and while on the stage, he would literally control the heartbeat of his audience. They jeered at the Count in ‘Wanaw Teqotatari’, suffered with the distraught farmer in ‘Enat Nesh’, cried for Jilu Moro in ‘Enat Alem Tenu’. This people’s actor was ever modest, downplaying his talent and always striving to give his best to the audience that had given him due honor.

In the last 10 years of his life, he played a vital role in immortalizing the written word by single handedly reaching out to a much wider audience of Ethiopians, literate and illiterate, through his masterly narration of books like Hadis Alemayehu’s ‘Fiker eske Mekabir’ (Love to the Grave) and Berhanu Zerihun’s ‘Ma’ibel’ (Flood). Listeners, to this day, remember being glued to the radio every week at 7 in the morning just to hear the characters being brought to life by this amazing artist.

Like most artists in Ethiopia’s history, sadly, the memory of Wegayehu’s work is slowly fading. Young people of this generation have not had the privilege of witnessing his talents either on the stage or TV. Nowadays, with a new generation of Ethiopians raised abroad, one also begins to see a gap growing due to the language barrier, since most of Wegayehu’s works are in Amharic. Nevertheless, especially with his early works on miming, one hopes that there will be an upsurge of interest among the youth abroad.

 
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