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.