Friday, May 11, 2012

HIFA Theatre Signs off with Miller’s I Have Sinned (2012).

Samuel Ravengai
Peace Mukwara, the director of I have Sinned
Of course Arthur Miller never wrote a play with the same title. I Have Sinned was penned by Zimbabwean young and upcoming playwright, Patrick Miller, who is currently a BA theatre arts honours second year student at the University of Zimbabwe. Its last performance at HIFA 2012 kicked off at 1540 on Sunday 6 May at the Standard Theatre and ended an hour later to a thunderous applause from the audience. I Have Sinned was directed by Peace Mukwara, who has just rejoined the University of Zimbabwe Theatre Arts Department as a masters student. It was not by accident that the director chose performers whom he had previous interface with. He cast Tatenda Mangosho, his ex-classmate, as William and Chiedza Chinhanu, a fellow student at the UZ, as Natasha.
The story centres on an as yet undisclosed source of distress in the family. William is mourning and in depression, in what used to be RJ’s bedroom, comprising a single bed with white bedding, a single cabinet and chair. When the lights illuminate this first acting area, they reveal a young man, William, with long Afro hair mourning and sulking after his cousin RJ commits suicide in suspicious circumstances. Family members, his father Neil, his mother, Lear, and his sister, Natasha, come to persuade him to let go of the past and move on with his life through much prayer and counselling. This is not helpful at all since William would like to get to the bottom of things to find out the reasons for RJ’s debt and his suicide. William digs through heaps of paper and discovers that his late cousin RJ had received a loan of $16,000 which he is unable to link to any source.
Patrick Miller, the playwright of I have Sinned
The playwright, Patrick Miller, is successful in creating suspense in the sense that he does not disclose the information, but only reveals what is vital to move the story forward. When the lights fade from the first acting area, another set of light hits the second acting area comprising a floral couch covered with a coffee velvet cloth, a pine coffee table and a chair. This is the family living room. Here family members argue over the best way to help William out of this depression. Neil, who is also a pastor of the local church, challenges his wife Lear to reveal where she was getting the money to sponsor the late RJ. Lear does not want to reveal this information as she was stealing the money from church coffers where both of them were pastors. Lear’s position is that she was paying RJ to keep quiet about what we get to learn later that Neil sexually molested him. Mark, the church congregant, is the only sober person in the family. As a family friend and loyal member of the church he is steadfast about the importance of prayer to help William deal with his depression. The only dark spot in Mark’s life is that he knows Lear was paying RJ, but couldn’t reveal this piece of information to William, except when William proves that Lear has revealed it to him. All this information is revealed by the playwright in bits and pieces keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

The only problem with the story is that it does not move away from the folkloric and religious tendency to moralise at the end of the story. Most Zimbabwean plays of the 1970s and 1980s, especially those written in African languages, end with a characteristic didactic ending. Our modern audiences require making their own choices and don’t want to be given a readymade solution that is moral and didactic.

The director had a logical understanding of space. Although there was an open space between William’s room and the family living room, the director created non-diegetic space where the performers walked through the imagined corridor and obeyed its conventions throughout the performance. The depth, breadth and length of the house were made clear through movement which respected established boundaries.

Although the director clearly understood the importance of tempo and rhythm to his production, he concentrated on acoustic rhythm and paid less attention on visual rhythm. There was a clear sense of blocking revealing motivated movements, but everybody moved slowly like they were dragging weights on their feet. This slow movement was consistent to every performer and gave the performance a dull visual rhythm. Still on the same subject, some beats were far too long and did not require the time that they were accorded since they did not add anything to the story. The ending of the performance, for example, has family members praying and speaking in tongues. This needed cutting and tightening to give the performance pace.

Acting was believable and psychological. Performers worked on elocution and did not depend on microphones like the previous production of Bonnie and Clyde from Manchester, United Kingdom in the same intimate theatre. Perhaps Africans have a natural ability to project their voices without the aid of technology. Charles Matare came across as a seasoned performer. He had depth and handled the part of Neil convincingly. Matare comes from the community theatre tradition of the early 90s and that experience came to his aid in handling the part he played. Lear, Neil’s wife, was played by Sarah Masike whose acting career began with training at Reps Theatre. Her most convincing performance was when she played the seduction of Mark, played by Derek Nzinyakwi, who received his training from Theory X, an offshoot of Over The Edge Theatre Company. Derek was equal to the task of playing ‘holy’ against the most appetising temptation. He played stiff when aroused by Lear, but at the same time remained sensitive to the feelings of his lady pastor to protect her from embarrassment. While William played his depression convincingly, the director allowed him to play on two notes – high and low. In that regard, he was not able to play the various permutations of depression that his role demanded. This could have been his failure to clearly delineate the various beats in his speeches or the director did not point to the problem early enough in the process. Chiedza Chinhanu played the minor character, Natasha, and did it just good enough. Perhaps, in future she needs a more challenging role.

While all other areas of performance could pass on any stage in the world, the area of relationships needed more attention and was the least successful. The audience stretched their imaginations too far to accept the director’s proposals. The cast needed to analyse these relationships and find ways of playing them visually.

Despite this setback, this show was well produced and the audience got value for their money. I had the opportunity of reading some of the comments in the feedback journal and found that most audience members enjoyed the show. The British Council should continue to support such new works.