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.
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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.
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