Wednesday, October 17, 2012

From the Squalor of Shanty Towns Hopley Farm Thespians Theatre Company rises to the Occasion with Tirivangani

Sometime in July 2012, I received a call from Noel Marerwa, a Harare based playwright, inviting me to direct a play he had just penned called Tirivangani. He had given full rights to a squatter camp based theatre group, Hopley Farm Thespians, to perform it and the group had begun rehearsals in earnest. I was reluctant to direct it. Soon I started receiving calls from the leader of the group, Yvonne Bosha, wanting me to see their work in progress. I was still reluctant to be part of the production, less for snobbish reasons than for financial rewards. I finally agreed to a meeting in the CBD with two members of the group and Noel Marerwa. I was touched by the plight of the group and I immediately agreed to work with them for nothing. I only agreed to conduct rehearsals at the University of Zimbabwe Beit Hall if the group could avail itself to that space. I thought the group would give up on me. From the squalor of Hopley Farm, performers were immediately exposed to the splendour of the Beit Hall with its raised stage, wooden floors and glowing lights.

Background to Hopley Farm Thespians Theatre Company
Hopley Farm, where Hopley Thespians reside, was officially designated a settlement area in 2005 to accommodate former residents of Porta Farm who were evicted during Operation Murambatsvina (Restore Order) in May 2005, although a number of people were already living there informally. The operation, which was carried out in winter and against a backdrop of severe food shortages, targeted poor urban and peri-urban areas countrywide. In a critical report released on 22 July 2005 the United Nations (UN) estimated that in the space of approximately six weeks some 700,000 people lost their homes, their livelihoods, or both (AI and ZLHR 2006)

Porta Farm squatter settlement was itself established in 1991. In 1991 thousands of people living in informal settlements around Harare were forcibly evicted by the Harare City Council, acting under the direction of Ministry of Local Government and Housing, and moved to Porta Farm, a plot of unused agricultural land on the outskirts of Harare owned by the City of Harare. The forcible relocation of people to Porta Farm was part of an exercise to “clean up” Harare ahead of a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held between 16 and 21 October 1991. Alfred Musabayana, who plays Tirivangani in the play, was collected from Mbare bus terminus together with his mother when he was a little boy and moved to Porta Farm. Marlene who plays Shandirai/sangoma/housewife was collected from Mafakose while Yvonne Bosha who plays as aunty was collected from Epworth. All of them were children at that time.

Those relocated to Porta Farm were told by Harare City officials that their stay there would be temporary and Harare City Council, with the assistance of central government, would permanently resettle them elsewhere. While some were resettled by government at Dzivarasekwa Extension in 1992/38, the population of Porta Farm grew over the years as new people – many made homeless as a result of other forced evictions around Harare – moved to the area. At the time of its destruction in 2005, Porta Farm, was home to between 6,000 and 10,000 people (AI and ZLHR 2006).

Following the destruction of Porta Farm many community members were forcibly relocated,
first to Caledonia Farm Transit Camp and then to Hopley Farm, where they were left with no shelter and almost no means of accessing food. Initially the government refused to allow the UN and humanitarian organisations to provide assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Hopley Farm.

Sometime in 1999 CHIPAWO, World Vision and Inter-country Aid sponsored an arts festival at Hopley Farm. One of the benefits of the arts festival was the release of a creative vibe which led to the formation of Hopley Farm Thespians in 2004. When formed, its main focus was on the use of applied drama and theatre to solve day to day problems of the Hopley community such as health and sanitation, encouraging children to go to school and some such developmental themes. After scoring a number of successes within the community the group thought of becoming bigger by handling more global themes that would appeal to a wider audience outside their community. For the reason that Hopley Farm Thespians Company has chosen to go global, they can no longer be critiqued through the lens of applied theatre theories. Applied theatre assumes that all theatre originating from an underprivileged community is for social development and, therefore, concerned with rural or community projects with a revolutionary ideological leaning.

Tirivangani followed a different model. It did not follow the travelling theatre approach where a company takes theatre to the people as was the case the universities of Ibadan, Makerere, Nairobi, Malawi, and Zambia. The travelling theatre group might or might not organise workshops for and hold discussions with its audiences; the important point is that the audiences – who are the community – are not involved and do not participate in the playmaking process. It also did not follow ‘the outside team workers approach’ where a group of people goes to a community, stays with that community, listens to and observes the people’s main problems and concerns, exchanges opinions with the people and then goes back to base to make a play on what was seen as the major themes arising out of the discussions and observations. The resulting play is then brought back to the community – written and acted by people from outside. Neither did the theatre company use ‘the participatory approach’ where a theatre group comes to the community and listens to the community’s problems and discusses them. However, instead of moving away from the community to evolve and make a play around the issues arising out of the community, the group stays with the community with whom it makes the plays. A much higher level of community participation is when the community itself takes the initiative to create theatre and invites people outside their community as was the case in Kenya with the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre (KCECC).

Hopley Farm Theatre Company simply operated within tough commercial framework of urban economies by hiring a professional director (who however, discharged his duties free of charge) and a professional playwright. The UZ department of theatre arts did not charge the group for using its facilities in order to encourage more of these synergies in future. The reasons for these choices are several. It was hoped that performers would see immense possibilities while working in a relatively modern and complex production facility such as the UZ Beit Hall. The show was performed to an intellectual audience at the University of Zimbabwe on 26, 27, 28 September 2012 in the evening and 2 October 2012 at 1pm and 7pm. After every performance there was a post-performance discussion with a predominately theatre trained audience. The cast was appreciated generously and this served as a confidence booster to a cast with a shanty town background.

On the 1st of October, the ZBC News crew caught the performance of Tirivangani live at the Beit Hall and conducted interviews with cast members and the director. On the 8th and 9th of October 2012 Tirivangani was on the headlines of arts and culture news on ZTV and radio. This is the kind of exposure that the theatre group would not have achieved had they worked in their Hopley farm habitat.

Tirivangani is set somewhere on the Zimbabwean plateau in the 1890s. The story unfolds by following the exploits of a local hero called Tirivangani, played by Alfred Musabayana. He is a gifted hunter and warrior who is well known for commanding his impi to defeat neighbouring warriors who occasionally stray into his territory to steal animals trapped on his snares. Like the biblical David, he has killed a lion, a leopard and occasionally killed buffalos for food. His strong indigenous belief is tested by the arrival of a white missionary played by Morgan. In his first encounter with the missionary he refuses to be proselytised and defends his traditional religion with much wisdom. However, news reaches his aunt, played by Susan Sibanda, that he had an encounter with a foreign religion. She comes to give him comfort and to encourage him to marry a woman, as this would give him even more courage during battles, since he would be fighting to return home to be with his family. He finally marries Shandirai, played by Marlene Mazodza.

When it becomes obvious that Tirivangani might defect to Christianity, a territorial spirit, (mhondoro), again played by Marlene Mazodza, comes in style, charging Tirivangani never to letdown his people by converting to Christianity. The mondoro performs a ritual where she sprinkles Tirivangani with a concoction to fortify him against any temptation. This supernatural encounter is supposed to consummate with the ritual murder of the first person Tirivangani encounters on his way through the forest. Interestingly, the first person he meets is his biological mother. He makes three attempts at her life with each attempt ending in hesitation. Because of the pressure of this possibly horrendous murder, Tirivangani collapses. When he gains consciousness, he is confronted by the same missionary with the same message of repentance. At the moment of agreeing to be converted, her aunt arrives just on time to dissuade him from Christianisation. A duel between the missionary and aunt ensues with each calling Tirivangani to Christianity and traditionalism respectively. This conflict is played in dance form until Tirivangani again collapses without making a decision. The play ended with a thunderous applause from the audience.

Although the theme of tradition versus modernity is archetypal and somewhat tired, Hopley Thespians had a fresh take to it. Instead of relying on the dominance of the spoken word as other dramas have tended to do, their nucleus of performance was the body. The body was the main carrier of the message through a combination of dance like movements, dance, stage combat and elements of physical theatre. The performance was therefore symbolic as opposed to realism.

Even though the play is set in Zimbabwe of the 1890s, nothing in the setting or costume realistically depicts these given facts. The performers wore brown skin tights and had their faces painted with ethnic colours. The stage was bare suggesting that meaning was to be conveyed through the body rather than realistic detail. What is encouraging is that the audience was able to follow the story from the beginning to the end. This is, perhaps, the new direction that Zimbabwean theatre is taking. The play will go to Theatre in the Park on  a date to be announced and will thereafter start a tour of universities and colleges in and around Harare before going national. I would give it a rating of four stars!

 Samuel Ravengai