Wednesday, May 21, 2014

No Good Friday takes off with Auditions at the Wits School of Arts

Samuel Ravengai 2014
Auditions for the Athol Fugard play, No Good Friday, kicked off Tuesday the 13th of May under the watchful eye of the director, Samuel Ravengai. It is envisaged that rehearsals will begin on 21 July 2014, the opening day of the second semester until the opening night on 23 September. Students started preparing for the auditions since Monday the 5th of May. They have auditioned for 11 roles which the director delineated as follows:

Rebecca is a black female in her early twenties. She has been living in with Willie for four years. She is a patient and hopeful lady; very adroit in conversation and comforting to friends in distress, including Willie. By the end of the story, she is sick and tired of Willie, but deeply in love. She is morally upright

Guy is a black township musician who is able to play the saxophone or pen-whistle and is extremely talented. He is a loyal friend of Willie, given to counselling him and laying off his burdens on Willie’s girlfriend, Rebecca. He is focussed on job hunting and is a man of sober habits; in his mid-twenties.

Watson is a township politician, who can be black or coloured. He is in his early thirties. He is an obscure character who leads a strong trade union, although he doesn’t seem to have a job. He believes in making sacrifices for the good of all, but has not been seen in street demonstrations. No one, including his friends, knows how he makes a living. He is always carrying a briefcase and smartly dressed.

Willie is an educated black young man in his early 30s. He is a BA correspondent, very smart and independent in thinking. This independence which inheres in him makes him seek more solitude than communal engagement. He is a hater of blackness and all that it represents. He has despaired on life, is hopeless and deflates the hope that tends to grow in others. He knows his rights and is courageous, even in the face of death.

The only white character in the play is Father Higgins who is a catholic with liberal views. For that reason he is a lover of blacks and has become a local celebrity.

Tobias can be described as rustic. He has a strong rural background. Physically, he is always blanket-clad, is ‘unsophisticated’, but intelligent in all matters relating to his rural world. He is in his late thirties.

Another interesting character is Pinkie, a Sophiatown backyard boy, who is in his early 20s. He is given to drinking and womanising. Has a quick temper which easily degenerates into hysteria. He is a volatile character, but without courage. Lily-livered boy!

Peter, another backyard character, is simple, but philosophical in some kind of way. He is a good listener, given to less talking. His concentration levels are very high.

Moses is the eldest character in the play. He is a 50 year old blind man more like Tobias. He has been living in the city for 10 years, but has a solid country background. He is an ardent listener, a family man who lives away from his family. He earns a living from begging on the pavements of Sophiatown.

Shark, in his mid-30s, is the most feared character in the play. He is a coloured/black township gangster. He is the rational side of Harry, his accomplice. He tries to moralise everything in order to appear better than Harry. An arrogant and egoistic character who cannot be pushed by anyone. He has a network of criminals that includes the police.

Harry deputises Shark and is a black/coloured who is about 20 years old. He is Shark’s accomplice and can be described as representing the impulsive and irrational side of Shark. He is a man of action and few words.

The eleventh character is a nameless thug in his 20s. He is a vicious transient character; the killing machine of the gang.

No Good Friday was first performed in Johannesburg in 1958 at what was then called the Bantu Men’s Social Centre. Athol Fugard played the character, Father Higgins, using an undercover name, Hal Lannigan, to evade police detection. He also directed it. When the play moved to a segregated theatre, Brooke Theatre, on 17 September 1958, the cast had to be all-black and Lewis Nkosi played Father Higgins. Since then, it has been performed several times. The Division of Drama of the Wits School of Arts wants to bring back this 1950s play and see how it is going to be received in the New South Africa.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review of Jane Plastow’s African Theatre and Politics: The Evolution of theatre in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – a comparative study


Samuel Ravengai – 2013

To date, nine books have been written on Zimbabwean theatre or some aspects of it. Four of them were written before independence: Charles Taylor (1968), George Maxwell Jackson (1974), George Kahari (1975) and Robert Cary (1975) while the last five books: Ranga Zinyemba (1986), Jane Plastow (1996), Robert Kavanagh (1997), Dale Byam (1999) and Martin Rohmer (1999) were written after independence. To my knowledge, two journal articles on Zimbabwean theatre were written before independence by Daniel Pearce (1977) and Christopher Wortham (1969). In this review, I want to focus on Jane Plastow’s African Theatre and Politics (1996), but focusing on her coverage of Zimbabwean theatre.

In this book Plastow chronicles productions of theatre from pre-colonial times to about 1992. This is an enormous task which while rich in history runs the risk of giving skeletal analysis of plays. Her analysis is not focused on a few selected plays for purposes of achieving depth, but on every play she could lay her hands on. The result is that she gives an excellent historical account, sometimes substantiated with dates of performance and theatre companies that performed such plays.

The focus of the book is the seminal relationship between theatre, society and politics. The development of theatre and drama is seen against the background of centuries of cultural evolution and interaction, from pre-colonial times, through phases of African and European imperialism, to the liberation struggles and newly won independence of the present.

All books on Zimbabwean theatre and performance, with the exception of Kahari (1975), written before independence, employ colonialist criticism. Colonialist criticism refers to a critical fashion by mostly Euro-Americans and their African protégés where western illusionistic theatre is used as the standard of evaluating African theatre. It is racially inflected and displays supremacist arrogance. Colonialist criticism views African theatre from an evolutionary perspective where it is developing towards a state of perfection – western dramatic theatre. Plastow is one of the first white scholars on Zimbabwean theatre and performance to abandon this critical form and to employ the socio-historical approach. This is commendable and will influence many generations to come. Plastow delves into the cultural history of Zimbabwe and links it to cultural production especially in the field of theatre. The book avoids the overly formalist approach of Ranga Zinyemba in his, Zimbabwean Drama (1986). While its strengths are many, it has a few grey areas that future theatre analysts and historians may need to address.

 A fair analysis of a book can be achieved by critiquing it against its set objectives.  Jane Plastow pursues four objectives. First, she seeks to study Zimbabwean theatre and performance by avoiding overwhelmingly literature-based analysis as other studies have tended to do. She does not entirely succeed on this objective as she was unable to watch any performance to allow any meaningful performance based analysis to take place.

Second, Plastow celebrates the introduction of European cultural forms as the most significant intervention in the development of contemporary performance art in Africa. She, therefore, sets out to research on the process of western cultural invasion and to explore the way in which links between indigenous performance forms and western drama had subsequently developed. She succeeds on a thematic level, but avoids other areas of performance.

She deploys a socio-historical approach which borders on the dominant thesis paradigm. The assumption of this approach is that structure has the capacity to shape and modify agents within its sphere and it denies the power of the agents to refuse structuring. The notion of resistance, ambivalence, ambiguity in the mechanics of performance is therefore left unexplored.

Third, realizing that after independence, the Zimbabwean government publicly declared the importance of culture to socialist and nationalist development, Plastow intends to examine how this rhetoric is transposed into the reality of plays and performances. This endeavour succeeds on a thematic level, but as before ignores the performative aspects.

Fourth, Plastow castigates foreign academics for studying African texts in isolation from the cultures in question and sets out as one her objectives to study both the texts and the cultural contexts. Here she succeeds and her work has to be credited for introducing the socio-historical approach to theatre and performance analysis in Zimbabwe.

Following the dominant thesis paradigm Plastow enumerates pre-colonial forms of drama depending on the findings of Thompson Tsodzo (1988) and then demonstrates how these were in turn suppressed and annihilated by both the state and the church which was, according to Plastow, an adjunct of the state. Depending on the Marxist writings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1981), Plastow portrays western imperialism as a ‘cultural bomb’ whose effect was to annihilate African languages, cultural environment, heritage, unity, capacities and potentialities. This suggests a dominant thesis paradigm which negates the resistance of the colonised. We know that Rhodesian discourse was only able to close out of the site of white people a black discourse, which however continued on the rural areas and African townships. This dominant thesis paradigm is similar to that of Flora Veit-Wild (1993) in Zimbabwean literature in English and Emmanuel Chiwome (2002) in Shona literature. When talking about Zimbabwean theatre between 1965 and 1980, Plastow observes that most published plays imitated the western dramatic canon. She argues that music and dance by blacks was heavily censored by the colonial state. Thus western culture and imperialism are portrayed as the chief makers and shapers of African theatre. Indeed, the colonial state exerted heavy censorship on all cultural production and also promoted western illusionistic theatre as the theatre, but the story does not end there. Where there is oppression and suppression there is struggle and resistance in the equation. Cultural imperialism was not absolute; it was resisted in various forms at various times. While Plastow recognises the role of liberation war theatre how this resistance was played artistically in Zimbabwean theatre is not adequately theorised in the book.

Plastow also applies the dominant thesis paradigm to the new theatre that emerged in post-independence Zimbabwe. A new discourse underpinned by traditionalism and socialist (Marxist) rhetoric emerged. Although Plastow realises that this new discourse was moderated by contradictory policies such as a capitalist economy and a reconciliation discourse, she does not investigate how these contradictions impacted on theatre production. What we tend to get is the success of socialist theatre through the efforts of the Ministry of culture, ZIMFEP, ZACT and other arms of the state. But we also know that some groups from Bulawayo numbering about thirty formed an alternative association (Bulawayo Association of Drama Groups) which was affiliated to the National Theatre Organisation, a ZACT rival. These did not practise socialist theatre.

While a number educated Africans had indeed lost their African culture during the colonial period, lower class Africans and peasants continued practising their ancestral heritage (see Tabona Shoko). Plastow takes the nationalist discourse, which encouraged Africans to recuperate their culture, as evidence of the erosion of African culture. This erosion of African culture could only have been true to urban black middle class people (the African elites) who had a penchant for western culture (see Ravengai 2010). The lower class Africans always transported their cultural dances to the city which they performed at beer halls and tea parties, sometimes in a bastardised form (see Ravengai 2010). For the rural folk, they were only too pleased to openly dance at night pungwes (during the liberation struggle), a tradition that they had continued within their private homesteads when doing ceremonies, rituals, storytelling, rites and so on. It is not entirely correct therefore to suggest that indigenous culture was manufactured in the liberation camps in Mozambique and reintroduced in the rural areas back in Zimbabwe. It is the peasant guerrillas who carried culture with them to Mozambique and appropriated it for the struggle. Most, if not all, of the songs were already known to the peasants through tradition and Christian churches and they were only too happy to carry on with their indigenous practices, perhaps even happier because the young combatants were in the lead in perpetuating their performative culture.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Nkala’s Theatre of Trauma and Testimony – Enacting The Crossing

Samuel Ravengai
When Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala left Zimbabwe in 2002 for South Africa, he was a nonentity in the arts circles. He wasn’t a consecrated artist. Indeed, he spent a lot of time playing with his friend, Jacob (now late), reading old newspapers, daydreaming, fetching firewood, fasting and praying in the outskirt woodlands of Kwekwe. In the evenings, he taught himself playing a guitar made from wood, twine and used oil cans. He could play this homemade guitar all night to soothe himself from the pains and trauma of the Zimbabwean crisis. This was the greatest cultural capital that Nkala possessed, which was based on the Mbizo playing culture. He could sing, dance and play a variety of musical instruments. He learnt these skills not from school, but by observing and copying one another in the township and even participation in church praise and worship sessions. The play which he eventually wrote, The Crossing, is characterized by a number of church choruses and songs. Although he was poor and unemployed, he was rich in embodied knowledge, his greatest asset when he crossed illegally into South Africa in 2002.
 
When Jonathan Nkala returned to Zimbabwe in 2009, he was an instant celebrity. He had written his first one person play, The Crossing, which he brought to the 2009 Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA). He performed the play under the direction of the renowned South African director, Bo Petersen. All The Crossing shows were fully booked and each performance normally ended with a standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience across the racial divide.
 
Due to public demand, the performance had another life after the official closure of HIFA on the 30th of April 2009. The performance moved to Mbira Centre in Harare, from 8 to 10 May 2009, where it was equally well received.
 
Before coming to HIFA, The Crossing had been in existence for three years, during which period Nkala performed it at The Garage Theatre, Hout Bay, in Cape Town in 2006 under its first title, The Journey. It returned to The Garage Theatre two times in May 2007 and September 2008 for a single performance. Between 2009 and 2010, The Crossing featured at seven arts festivals; Infecting the City Festival in January 2009, HIFA in April 2009, Grahamstown National Arts Festival in July 2009, ECC Festival in October 2009, Ikwezi Festival in March 2010, Out the Box Festival in March 2010 and Global Dancefest, New Mexico in the USA in 2010.
 
Today, Jonathan Nkala is an accomplished playwright, performer and screen actor. He published his play with Junkets Press, which includes two other one person plays, The Bicycle Thief and Faith in Love. The new collection is titled Cockroach: A Trilogy of Plays. When it became necessary to pursue acting at a professional level, Nkala hooked up with Bo Petersen who both coached and directed him. A combination of Nkala’s playing culture and the new psychological acting technique produced a brand of performance that has made Nkala who is today. Nkala has since appeared in at least one television commercial and two international films; Disgrace and String Caesar. Jonathan Nkala joins Bart Wolffe in the fold of one-person show playwrights, making the trio the only Zimbabwean published one-person show specialists.
 
How did Nkala become a successful artist? Nkala’s accomplishment is a story of suffering, a story of trauma and the testimony of that tragedy. It is a story of his problems while travelling from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
 
Most plays that give testimonies do not necessarily involve the actual persons who were involved in the tragedy (survivors). Cont Mhlanga’s Dabulap, for example, is a narrative involving fictional characters, but handling a real life problem of border jumping into South Africa. Blessing Hungwe’s Burn Mukwerekwere Burn explores the life of two Zimbabweans while living in the Western Cape during the 2008 xenophobic attacks. Of course, the characters are fictional, but living through a historically verifiable period. The same could be said about Thabani Moyo’s Immigrants which premiered at HIFA 2013. A closely related story to that of The Crossing is a European documentary play called Aalst, played by two actors, but based on court transcriptions of the trial of two parents who murdered their two children in a hotel room. While the documentary story is based on a real life event, it is performed by actors.
 
The Crossing is a story with a difference. The performer is the same person who experienced the events of the story. Jonathan Nkala is a survivor of a series of traumatic events. He is therefore a primary witness of the things he saw, noted, heard, observed and touched. He bore witness to the tragic events and is now testifying before the audience on what happened. The audience becomes second-order witnesses. Thus what is framed as theatre is actually not theatre, but reality that has been recreated by a survivor. This is a moment of ruin, of dematerialization where the actor ceases to exist and there is the presence of the the real person who experienced the events – what seemingly is dramatic fraud indeed! While this may be taken as dramatic cheating, Antjie Krog thinks that the performance is fiction:
So the story you tell is of somebody, it’s not you. It’s based on a lot of the experiences you have had – but you made choices of things you leave out and how to structure it, etc… This isn’t you… (Cited in Flockemann 2009: 217).
Nkala did not want to be an actor or writer; he wanted to make money selling wire and bead artefacts. When resources permitted he wanted to try his luck singing and performing music to his future audience. The Crossing came about because of a chance meeting between Nkala and an unnamed South African millionaire who wanted to commit suicide because of a pending divorce and problems with his business. When the millionaire saw how happy Nkala was while performing a skit to advertise his merchandise, he wondered how such a poor fellow could manage his life. He called Nkala aside and Nkala described his sojourn from Zimbabwe and how he had decided to celebrate the little joys of life instead of brooding over life’s challenges. The millionaire asked Nkala to write him this story so that he could refer to it if he felt like committing suicide. The Crossing came into being – to save someone’s life.
 
In the play Jonathan Nkala and Jacob, his friend, both Kwekwe residents, decide to cross the border into South Africa. After lying to their parents that they were going for prayers and then bring back firewood, they hitchhike to Beit Bridge. After disembarking at Beit Bridge, they gang up with 15 to 20 other border jumpers and travel for about 200 kilometres in soaring temperatures to a place called Chivara, where they thought it was safer to cross into South Africa. They are intercepted by local thugs called maguma-guma who steal money and other valuables from them at knife point. On crossing the Limpopo River in a makeshift boat, nicknamed the Titanic, Jacob falls off and perishes in the crocodile infested river. Another unnamed border jumper perishes the same way.
 
 
By the time Nkala is on the South African side, he no longer has shoes, shirt or trousers and, more tragically, his closest friend, Jacob. Nkala weeps bitterly. After a one week piece job at a tomato farm, Nkala proceeds to Johannesburg, but is dumped by a tomato truck driver at a gas station in Louis Trichardt without any more money. After walking for a long time, a Good Samaritan truck driver offers him a lift to Germiston and gives him money to catch a train to Johannesburg. There, he lives like a nomad with no fixed abode, surviving only on mulberries. Each time he knocks at a house, he is told ‘sorry we already have someone working for us’. The suffering continues until he meets one Margaret, whom he calls the ‘guardian angel’. She feeds him, pays him and gives him a place to sleep and opportunities for ‘networking’.
 
All this time, Nkala doesn’t have papers authorising him to stay in South Africa. He then decides to proceed to Cape Town in order to escape from Johannesburg Home Affairs officials who demand ‘a little something’ to process papers. On his way to Cape Town all hell breaks loose! A truck driver who initially accepts R50 as adequate transport fee parks the truck in the middle of nowhere and pulls out a gun. He threatens to kill Nkala if he doesn’t top up by an extra R30. The trucker swears at Nkala for a long time with Nkala equal to the task of pleading for mercy. They proceed with the journey with Nkala crouching on the cabin floor as punishment for having insufficient money. The trucker then throws Nkala out into the cold night when he decides to take a nap, while two other passengers enjoy a night’s rest on the cabin seats. On resuming the journey the abuse replays itself. On disembarking in Cape Town, Nkala is threatened with death by the trucker if he doesn’t call him back to offset the balance.  When he gets the papers from the home affairs office legalising his stay in South Africa, the South African police arrest him possibly to get ‘a little something’ to release him.
 
While all this sounds like a victimhood narrative, it is actually not at all. In between these sad stories Nkala throws jokes, humour and laughter. For example, while lying on the floor of the cabin almost being roasted by the heat from the engine, he listens to a conversation between the trucker and two other passengers and laughs at their jokes. In the midst of abuse, there is something pleasurable that Nkala chooses to focus on. This issue of humour is consistently present throughout the performance making Nkala a champion of fighting the enactment power by a happy insurrection. Thus Nkala’s frictions of encounter with other people are some kind of crucible which both burns and hardens, but purifying to his character. It is out of these difficulties that the best out of Nkala can be achieved. He is now a playwright, performer, singer and screen actor.
Send feedback to rvnsam001@yahoo.com
 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Zimbabwe’s cultural heritage gift: Chiwoniso Maraire

Stephen Chifunyise

When CHIPAWO staff and arts educators went to the funeral wake for Chiwoniso Maraire at her home in the Bluff Hill area of Harare, they paid their tribute to the mbira legend with a short performance of music and dance. This was a special tribute to Chiwoniso who became a member of CHIPAWO Youth Group briefly in the early 90s when she had already mastered from her father and mother the art of playing marimba and mbira and had already perfected her singing like someone who had spent many years as a professional performing arts practitioner.

The CHIPAWO tribute with music and dance was also rendered as recognition of Chiwoniso’s understanding of the importance of intergenerational transmission of performing arts heritage by ensuring that her children participated in performing arts education programmes that sharpen their inherently inborn talent. Chiwoniso made sure that her daughter Chiedza was enrolled into CHIPAWO arts education for development programme at Masaisai School’s CHIPAWO Centre where she was under the tutorship a traditional dance master, Enock Majeza, who performed a shangara dance to “nhemamusasa” mbira song at the funeral as a member of the CHIPAWO group that performed the classic “nhemamusasa” made popular by Chiwoniso, as well as amabhiza and mbakumba dances and CHIPAWO songs.

 
Chiwoniso in her short but rich musical career became an epitome of national cultural heritage itself. She performed the most distinctive performing arts heritage of the Shona people clearly as a disciplined and appointed custodian of a mbira heritage with a mature handling of its intricate spiritual elements while projecting an incredibly elderly respect of the essential aesthetics of mbira where the impact of her creative genius was ever evident.
 
Chiwoniso was a consistent messenger of her late father, Dr. Dumi Maraire’s passion and respect for mbira as one of the most significant symbol of our indigenous creativity. When the late Dumi Maraire returned home from the United States of America, he joined the then Ministry of Youth Sports and Culture, as my deputy in the Department of Arts and Crafts with a responsibility of promoting the performing arts industry. In his mbira promotion workshops with cultural officers in the ministry, Dumi Maraire advocated for Zimbabweans to take mbira music and instrument as a unique cultural heritage that would be a major identifying characteristic of Zimbabwe’s music industry.
 
In her stage performances, Chiwoniso not only cherished her late father’s passion for mbira music but also his respect for that cultural heritage which she rejuvenated  using English, in many cases, in order to accommodate a wider audience base while consistently echoing the feeling of indigenous mbira sounds. The many young Zimbabwean musicians who have appreciated the lucrative potential in the mbira music renaissance are a vivid representation of the repository of the benefits of Chiwoniso’s passion for mbira and her versatile adoption of that traditional music genre into a viable cultural industry product that remains emblematic of our rich cultural heritage.
 
It is very easy to take it for granted that Chiwoniso’s father, the late Dumi Maraire, Thomas Mapfumo, Stella Chiweshe, the late Sekuru Gora, Oliver Mtukudzi and David Gweshe, just to mention a few, as elderly musicians would naturally romance mbira music, but when a young person with western education becomes a robust exponent of our traditions entrenched in mbira aesthetics, we marvel at the rarity of such ingenious youth. Chiwoniso was an embodiment of that ingenious youth that possess abundant knowledge and value of a cultural heritage bequeathed to them.  Chiwoniso became one of the most respected custodians of the mbira music genre, on one hand and a consistent promoter of the cultural heritage she was safeguarding, on the other hand.
 
Chiwoniso demonstrated  how a singing voice that is well grounded in uniquely indigenous vocal texture and potency can be innovatively  utilized to rend songs in English or other foreign languages and musical instruments to produce a clearly identifiable Zimbabwean sound that remains authentic even when handled with  a creativity that benefitted from  wide contacts with other music of the world.
 
She was a great composer who created meaningful music and songs that carried the message that was intended to be articulated by feature films such as Everyone’s Child and More Time and documentaries made Zimbabwean film makers. It is the intelligence and maturity which she projected in her composition which seemed as if produced by a person who spent many years at colleges, academies or universities of music.
 
Chiwoniso was a brilliant analyst of mbira music, its cultural and historical context and its uniqueness as a most expressive art of the spiritual dimensions of our performing arts heritage. In her speeches about mbira music and the mbira instrument, she exhibited an incredibly rich knowledge of its functions and value in the traditional Shona society as well as what mbira music meant to her and what role she was playing in promoting its mastery and processes of safeguarding that cultural heritage.  She was a gifted music educator whose major strength was her ability to demonstrate accurately, the skills to be acquired. As a master who had benefitted from observing her father and mother as a member of Mhuri yekwaMaraire, she appreciated the value of clarity in demonstrating a performing arts skill.
 
Chiwoniso was a well-briefed, obedient and eloquent ambassador of Zimbabwean culture in general and of mbira music in particular, to many countries where she participated in numerous cultural festivals, arts workshops and in music collaborations with musicians of diverse musical backgrounds.
 
Having listened for five days to several messages of condolence from both the young and the old, which were conveyed on our six radio stations and different social media and contained in several articles in all our newspapers, there is no doubt that all these were vivid and passionate expressions of the fact that Chiwoniso Maraire was a hero of our ongoing struggle for continued respect for and viable exploitation of our rich diversity of cultural expressions.
 
Cultural legends of this quality are celebrated not just for the value of what they have created but also for leaving behind works that will for generations show the way. Chiwoniso has effectively played her cultural heritage promotion role. She leaves us with the task of continuing where she has left. May her soul rest in peace.
Feedback:Stephen.chifunyise@gmail.com

 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The State of Theatre in Masvingo (Zimbabwe) through the Eyes of David Dzatsunga - Siya Cultural Theatre

After travelling through Mashonaland East and Manicaland provinces Grace Maguri and I finally reached Masvingo late at night on the 8th of January 2008. Early the next morning on the 9th of January 2008 we hooked up with David Dzatsunga, director of Siya Cultural Theatre.

“And obviously the thing that has to happen is change; political change. If there’s a change in our political dispensation, if we have a new way of looking at life, a new way of looking at ourselves as a people, a new way of appreciating diversity of opinion, until that happens, I don’t see that being easy for us to build a vibrant culture of theatre” (Dzatsunga, 2008)

Samuel Ravengai:       Obviously theatre is not as vibrant as it was in the yesteryears. Tell me how it was in the yesteryears and how it is like today.

David Dzatsunga:        In the yester years, we are talking about the late 80s and the bulk of the 90s. It was possible to run a club. You could go out and hold performances in schools, colleges and other institutions. You could also get funding from NGOs. You could be commissioned to do productions. Some NGOs involved in some outreach work, and even government departments, used to hire us for Theatre in Education campaigns like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, family planning and things like that. So really, there was a diverse source of funding which made it possible for us to maintain a full time theatre arrangement where we all pay our actors and actress. They were reasonably happy and did not see any need to seek alternative employment. And, then of course, we could perform anywhere we felt like. Basically, that was the environment that we operated in then prior to the period that I was talking about.

SR:       What went wrong?

DD:      Probably the umbrella word is politics. With all these development to do with the land reform, the advent of the vibrant opposition party, the MDC, and the various pieces of legislation that have been described as rather draconic. The environment in fact, immediately became rather stifling for theatre practitioners. There was POSA where you were saying now you couldn’t just automatically find yourself with a gathering of people without explanation to the authorities. There was AIPPA sometimes we were told that our plays needed to be censored and the relevant ministry needed to know what was in our plays. And then the schools themselves were not very open. They could not independently give our groups slots to perform to the students. They needed some clearance either from the National Arts Council or the regional directors, or such authorities. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to access institutions which used to sustain theatre clubs. For some time, we went off the bill because the problem now had to do with the NGOs Bill which I think had provisions that regulated the funding of organizations. So it became very difficult really, to access these NGOs and as a result we discovered that we could not get out productions commissioned by them. Resultantly, we could not pay actors as constantly or remunerate them meaningfully, and so we did not run rehearsals. Actors increasingly became hungry, and with the hunger we had a lot of conflicts within the actors or among the actors as a result of misunderstanding of the cause of our distress. It was like the blame game where we are now saying, like what has been happening in certain political situations where you blame this tribe B for your poverty. It’s all politics. So we ended up having all these conflicts in the groups, and naturally, the groups disintegrated. All actors started moving away from the town going to South Africa. Like in our particular kind of place, you have South Africa as a lure for most young people. So we have quite a number of our actors just migrating to that country. Others tried to go into chikorokoza, as we call it, so they would just come into town spend the whole day in a queue, buy some sugar for resale and things like that. And in our case also we have Harare-Beitbridge highway which is quite lucrative for some youths who have the energy to go out there at night and probably buy fuel from long distance haulage trucks and things like that. Foreign currency deals. Some of them made it as a result of that. They became better off than they were as theatre artists, and it has become very difficult to bring them back into theatre because there really is nothing on the ground to show that there’s hope for theatre in this particular place.

SR:       Now that’s why you come to the conclusion that theatre is not as vibrant as it was in the 80s or early 90s so to speak?

DD:      Yes, largely because there were many theatre clubs competing for a name. In this town alone, small as it is, you could have five or four theatre clubs, and there were always theatre clubs sometimes mushrooming and dying. But there was a vibrant theatre industry to the extent that you could actually say unionise. At some time we thought we could unionise theatre as artists in order for us to be able to bargain meaningfully with the other stakeholders for example, those who were commissioning us and those who were giving us jobs.

SR:       Now, you raised a very important issue which wasn’t an issue in the 80s and 90s, the rise of a vibrant opposition political party. And you are saying it has got a bearing on this death of theatre in Masvingo and probably at national level. Would you like to explain how that brings about that scenario?

DD:      I believe that with the rise of that development, what the ruling party, or the government rather, I think became paranoid because this party had a lot of urban support. And as a consequence, there was need to legislate against any perceived support or activities that may be deemed to support this opposition party. Government now wanted to control information dissemination because it was not going to be possible now to simply write what you think, put it on stage and perform it to an audience. And it became increasingly important to government to make sure that the content and movement of information was in their control. So I believe again that’s where AIPPA comes in, that’s where POSA comes in, that’s where all these other instruments that have been legislated come in to control the movement of information. Or even the NGOs bill, government was now of the perception that most NGOs had their sympathies with the opposition, and most of the NGOs that supported theatre were in one way or the other involved in governance.  And theatre as a tool for information dissemination naturally requires that you gather people, and gathering people becomes something that is threatening to the government.

SR: Now, would you like to be more particular, especially as it regards to Masvingo or theatre groups that you know that were directly affected by these pieces of legislation? Do you have any particular examples?

DD:      An immediate example would be our own club, SIYA Cultural Theatre Club. Our thrust as a club, and my thrust as a writer, has always been protest theatre. We are saying ‘okay we have plays that try, from our own perspective, to mirror the society as we saw it and to probably put across what could be considered controversial issues’. We deal with things to do with corruption, elements to do with land and all these things that concern people’s lives and which people talk a lot about with regards to their own rights. We have times when we worked with the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organisation. We had a play that we had done, Tafi, which is short for Tafirenyika. That was in 1999 where we were looking at the plight of the ex-combatants before they became aligned to the ruling party. But we were simply looking at the fact that there was neglect of ex-fighters, and some of them had actually degenerated into hoodlums of the city and most of them were victims of corruption in high places where you find that the leaders in power were deliberately neglecting them. We are simply looking at neo-colonialism per se. So in that play we were commissioned by ZimRights to perform that play. We took it around the province then in 1999. I remember during those days we always had the CIOs as guests of our performances. They were always around, following us around.

SR:       Did they in any way physically, directly or indirectly try to stifle you?

DD:      No! They were just there. You would feel that their presence was not welcome because it was intrusive. And you could tell that they were trying to intimidate us by simply being present in their dark glasses, quite conspicuous all the times. So you wouldn’t feel comfortable in that kind of situation, especially if you were knowledgeable about their track record.

SR:       We all know what they were doing, particularly during the 80s early 90s.

DD:      Ya, ya! Personally, I also happen to have had that kind of experience. I happen to have been arrested by them at some time. During the days of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, I was perceived to have probably campaigned in a class room. I was taken to their offices, close by here. I spent about three days in there. I was interrogated intimidated, humiliated and so forth. But I’m saying I have that prior experience. But I continue writing because writing is a dream, so you cannot censor yourself. The moment you want to be insincere, you find yourself failing to really bring out the artist in you.

SR:       Let’s come to your writing. Apart from Tafi which you did in 1999, what else did you do?

DD:      Voice which we did in 1992. It dealt with disability awareness. But it was political as well, the politics of disability if you like. I wrote the one titled Sungai Dzibate. It had to do with the ESAP, the whole question of ESAP where the president was urging us to tighten our belts.

SR: Anything else?

DD:      In 1993 I did one that entered for National Winter Festival, under the auspices of Masvingo Drama Circle, titled Nhamo/Troubles. We were collaborating. My school was collaborating with Masvingo Drama Circle and I’m sure we won the Dominic Convent Trophy for developing Zimbabwean theatre.  The National Winter Festival as you would know was mainly an elite festival, mostly for the whites. We entered it as a community theatre production that was then adapted to a proscenium arch stage.

SR:       Now, you seem to be silent about 2000 to 2008. Could what you’ve been talking about partly influenced that lack of vibrancy, liveliness of theatre?

DD:      Ya! From 2000 onwards it became very difficult to bring actors together, that was the major impediment.

SR:       So can we say for you it’s a dry patch, 2000 to 2008?

DD:      Ya, it’s a dry patch. I did a bit 2000. I’ve done a few works here and there but really, it’s the lowest ebb of my career.

Grace: After Nhamo/Troubles what other productions do you have?

DD:      There are quite a number. I do have scripts for some, but some were just improvised by the actors when they were on stage. I can write them anytime, whenever I want to script them. I did one which is Idler’s Corner. Idler’s Corner is based on the days when we had the Daily News and The Herald. It’s looking at media polarisation, and the politics that is being played in the media.  You have characters on both sides of the political divide, each trying to justify their own, why they support this side and not that side.

SR:       Now, have you performed this?

DD:      We performed it here at the Charles Austin Theatre, again at the National Winter Festival. We were asked by the Drama Circle to come and perform as guests. But we have also performed it for audiences here, in and around Masvingo, mostly between 2000 and 2001. ... I have also done Matroubles which is looking at the youths and HIV/AIDS.

Grace Maguri:            (interjecting)   Can I ask about other drama groups that you know? You now are talking about your personal experiences. But what have you also seen about other drama groups? Are they any drama groups that the establishment has used?

DD:      Not that I know of. I know there have been drama clubs, but mostly the establishment does not like using drama clubs. They would rather use dance clubs. ...So when you try to perform at their events as a drama club, they are not comfortable. But if you are going we have Heroes Theatre Company here.  I wouldn’t say they support the establishment, but what we have discovered is that because they dance Imbube and other dances. They are from Bulawayo actually, but they came and settled here.  They do get jobs to perform at national events and for the establishment here and there, simply because they sing and dance. But for those of us who have a mind and who would like to say things, it’s not easy to then find a stand to perform on these events. So that’s what I can say. I can’t think of a drama club that has really endeared itself to the political leadership of the province on the ruling party side.

Grace: What’s your way forward?

DD:      Personally, it’s very difficult to see under the current environment how best we can go forward. I know it will really take a lot to bring actors back to the rehearsal room and back onto the stage, because really unless there’s funding coming from elsewhere, not really to believe that can be channelled towards an effort to build an audience, until that is done. I don’t see theatre really reviving out of the efforts of the artists here on their own. The artists need some help, they need a helping hand. They need to be brought back on to the stage.  There are there. Even today, if you were going to say you want a production and you want us to do some work for you, it wouldn’t take me a day to gather artist who are rotting in the townships there and come up with a production. It’s not a problem as long as there is an incentive. It’s a question of saying you guys there’s so much money for you, let’s do this. So really, I believe that the only possibility for the revival of theatre especially in this town lies in some Good Samaritan probably coming down here to fund some activities. That may then convince artists that there’s life.

SR:       Or probably when the economy improves.

DD:      And obviously the thing that has to happen is change: political change. If there’s a change in our political dispensation, if we have a new way of looking at life, a new way of looking at ourselves as a people, a new way of appreciating diversity of opinion, until that happens, I don’t see that being easy for us to build a vibrant culture of theatre.

Samuel Ravengai (Interview inside my car: Masvingo CBD)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Maninzi Kwatshube Shocks Zimbabwean Theatre Audiences with Mabaso’s Black Threat

Samuel Ravengai
A second year University of Cape Town drama student, Maninzi Kwatshube, brought a moving piece of theatre to the Savanna Trust hosted festival, Protest Arts International Festival (PAIF). This is the fourth edition of the festival and it ran under the theme ‘Imagining and Re-Inventing the Future’. When Maninzi heard about PAIF, she thought there was no better opportunity to protest against African notions of beauty.

Maninzi collaborated with Nkule Mabaso, a fellow UCT Fine art student, who made the braids (which Maninzi used as part of the props) for her BA project. Maninzi took it upon herself to create a performance using the material that Mabaso had provided. Maninzi played Rapunzel, a character who represents Nkule Mabaso. Rapunzel is trapped in a desolate and unforgiving environment. She explores the female experience of the city, negotiating the fragile balance of fear and survival, of wanting to be desired and the fear of being desirable.

Zimbabwean audiences are ‘haunted’ by the ghost of previous performances at Theatre in the Park. All performances that come to this venue, with a few possible exceptions, use dialogue together with other performance forms such as dance, mime and song. On 27 October 2012, Zimbabwean audiences brought with them the residue memory of those previous performances, which they obviously wanted to use to appreciate a new performance coming from South Africa, Black Threat. However, they had a rude awakening when they were confronted by a performance that began and ended without a single word spoken. Maninzi, playing Rapunzel, never mimed, danced or sang. She chose to be a slave to the properties that adorned the set.

Black Threat proposed new distinctive conventions, that is rules imposed by the performance itself and hence unknown to the audience. The beauty of distinctive conventions is that they add a new experiential memory for future use. In this new theatre, at least to Zimbabwe, it is no longer the story/plot/action, but the ‘game’ that becomes the generative matrix. In Black Threat, the game involves applying makeup, wearing a wig of braids and playing with it till it infuriates Rapunzel. The audience left with a number of questions. What was it they had just seen? Was it theatre or not? What kind of theatre? Can theatre take place without recourse to the spoken word?

In the performance Rapunzel’s hair represents all the repressive elements that hinder her femininity on the one hand and on the other hand, the hair functions as the gross bodily extension that is meant to increase her attractiveness. The hair also functions as a tower of conceit and self-hatred from which she must escape as her hair keeps her imprisoned in a cycle of self-hatred and ill-confidence.

When the audience got into the venue, the performance had already begun, contrary to tradition where a performance begins after the audience has settled. Rapunzel, played by Maninzi was sitting on an African reed mat applying makeup on her lips, eyes, face, body and legs. Faint warmers illuminated this figure in the centre of a theatre in the round.

The door leading to the set was made of plaited braids. Each member of the audience touched these braids as they entered the space, giving the braids a ritualistic significance quite unsettling for religious audiences. The braids extended to the ground and wound around an opened makeup box revealing all the paraphernalia, from which Maninzi occasionally drew more makeup.

There was a pre-recorded audio playing from a computer which was visible on set and operated by a person visible to the audience. It was a chat between Nkule and Nkanyisile which was recorded in one of the University of Cape Town residences. They were talking about African and Coloured identities as they were defined in the 1950 Population Registration Act. What came out was the segregation amongst Coloured communities. The standard preferred identity was the Coloured with straight long hair typical of population groups with Malay blood. Coloureds with black parents were ‘othered’ in both Coloured and Black communities. Nkule and Nkanyisile laughed, cried, complained, despaired and celebrated in the background. No visuals were used.

While the audio chat was going on, Maninzi pursued action of a different type, not based on satisfying a want, but playing a game with braids and pants hung on the line. When her figure was fully illuminated, she set facing the entrance and applying more makeup. She knelt down, head on the ground, in what seemed like a prayerful gesture and began to worship the braids. She did it a few more times and ended the routine with a burst of energy which loosened a loop and released the braids from the door.

 The rest of the performance centres around Rapunzel fashioning The Black Threat (title of the mass of artificial dreadlocks) into a dress that she climbs into and lounge around in, and admires her beauty and desirability until she realizes that is she is trapped and needs to escape but there is no escape, and so she exhausts herself fighting the towering dress she has built until she is free but only to start all over again in different spaces that represent different ills. The things that make a city more familiar and less alien are not the concrete or other physical markers, but the relationships and the people and the associations we make with that place.

It was an excruciating experience where an object of adornment turned into an object of horror and torture. A member of the audience sitting just above me couldn’t hide his exasperation and shouted ‘women are in trouble!’ I felt the urge to stand up and relieve her of the weight she was carrying, but remembered it was a performance. At that moment, another shocking experience happened. Maninzi decided to take off the cloth wound around her body. This revealed her whole body with only a brown tight pant covering the essentials. This was quite unsettling for a conservative Zimbabwean audience. The closest, a performer came to nudity was when Tinopona Katsande took off her g-string and threw it on the floor as she maintained her position inside the blankets, while playing in Noel Marerwa’s Hot Water Bottle. Maninzi dressed up in pink bra and pants in full view of the audience. She put on a leopard skin coloured trousers and matching high heeled shoes. She started modelling in this costume nearly falling on several occasions. She seemed to attack all symbols of African feminine beauty. Hair and its connection to attractiveness plays a large part of how black women project themselves out to the world and into the future. The underlying implications of the fake hairs that they adorn and the unconscious or conscious desire to resemble white women in order to be seen as attractive and socially acceptable is problematised.

Maninzi finally decided to put on a matching top, but with each attempt, the long braids prevented her from wearing what she wanted to. She tried several times and realising the futility of the exercise, she started stripping again violently. She turned the makeup box upside down scattering its contents all over the set. She removed the braids and threw them in a heap together with the high heeled shoes. She wound a cloth with ethnic colours around her head leaving the top part revealing her trimmed African hair. The blouse could now fit her body. The audience sensed the end and clapped hands bringing closure to the show.

The idea was to refocus on the ‘traditional’ ideas of beauty and its construction; how black women define their attractiveness through foreign standards which effectively ‘other’ them.  Was this theatre, the audience wondered? Mabaso calls her piece ‘contemporary performance’, while others call it ‘live art’ or ‘performance art’. Theatre of a physical nature has been taken as ‘contemporary dance’ and relegated to dance spaces such as 7 Arts in Avondale. This has limited its scope of penetration in Zimbabwe. Lloyd Nyikadzino is now involved in various workshops to train Zimbabwean theatre makers in the art of physical theatre. Stanley Mambo, through Conquered Plans has attempted to mainstream physical theatre. Ravengai has already directed Tirivangani and is currently deconstructing Magwa’s Njuzu [Merman] to create theatre of a physical nature. Maninzi’s Black Threat has introduced a new creative vibe that could see Zimbabwean theatre moving into a fundamentally new direction.