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
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.