Protest Through Theatre in Zimbabwe
Harare Zimbabwe - Oct 2007
For artists, Zimbabwe is now a lot more interesting than the early days of Independence in the 1980s when the big narrative was pretty clear. Then, it was blacks trying to co-exist with the former white oppressors. For budding black script writers and actors, the focus was on enunciating the spirit of reconciliation as espoused by Robert Mugabe; the first prime minister of post colonial Zimbabwe.
In the staid, if not almost banal presentations, the only really interesting thing was how the story would end. Would it be blacks and whites shaking hands or hugging tearfully? Would the baddies (those who elected to stay on the other side of the fence) be shamed and compelled to say sorry. While these yesteryear questions raised in plots and storylines have largely been answered, the story of Zimbabwe hasn’t really ended. Rather, we have simply entered a new chapter in which theatre and music have taken a new dimension in holding a mirror to society.
The story of the economic collapse and the political logjam has been told by newspapers, TV and web portals to the extent of becoming soporific. But hang on; the crisis has much to offer to theatre-makers. There is greater complexity, more irony, and many contradictions allowing for characters to be less one-dimensionally good or bad. Former heroes of independence can display their feet of clay; one-time villains — the white farmers and their colonists cohorts — their hearts of gold!
Theatre in Zimbabwe has not just evolved predictably like other art genres. It has taken a protest dimension which has not only focused a lens on suffering, poverty, cronyism and shattered dreams, but also given fresh impetus to stage plays which for many years had accepted the inevitable position of being known as television’s poor cousin.
Theatre, then the preserve of the well-healed, performed in air conditioned auditoriums has moved to the streets and to open air venues. Two key homes of theatre have emerged in the country – Theatre in the Park in the capital Harare and Amakhosi in the second city of Bulawayo where audiences have been treated to political satire denouncing repression and intolerance.
Two plays stand out in this regard; ‘Superpatriots and Morons’ produced by Daves Guzha and ‘The Good President’ from Cont Mhlanga’s Amakhosi. The central character in both productions is an intolerant leader who has elevated himself to the level of a deity. There is also another commonality, both plays have been banned by the police under security laws. Says Mhlanga about the banning of his play: “I will not rewrite the play, how can a play based on true historical events and incidents that are public knowledge be unlawful? I did not base my work on fictitious events and incidents, it seems what is unlawful is to speak the truth even if all the facts are there for everybody to see”.
The performers and writers have not gone underground, and they are still penning scripts for plays they know police will immediately ban. In pre-independence Zimbabwe, the white government moved in to ban protest music and censor newspapers. Fast forward 27 years later, police officers sit and monitor auditions for plays and then ban them.