Harare Theatre Scene for Dummies.. by a dummy

by Andy Kozlov

I must confess I do not know much about theatre in Zimbabwe. In fact I don’t know much about it in general. And my only visit to a theatre performance in Harare was to Reps half a year ago. It was then and there that fists flew when the Big House met the Small House in a play called “Married versus Single.” Just couldn’t resist the title. And true: it WAS fun. With HIFA rocking Harare this month, I realized I should learn more about theatre. (See HIFA’s 2011 engagements with Zimbabwean community)

“Married versus Single” (image courtesy of Zimbojam)

Searching the net about Zimbabwe doesn’t give you much compared to theatre scenes in other English-speaking countries. Yet at the end of last year, Stephen Chifunyise, Zimbabwe’s well-known playwright and culture analyst, published a comprehensive survey in The Herald. Reflecting on the achievements in 2011 he wrote:

The first major success highlight of the 2011 theatre season which demonstrated the potential for a vibrant and viable theatre industry in Zimbabwe were the more than 25 new plays which were world premiered during the year. Those plays that have been included in this impressive list of new plays are those whose productions were reported in the media. Therefore, if one includes those new plays presented by community theatre groups, colleges and schools but were not reported by the media, our 2011 theatre production may even reach a 40 plays mark.

According to his UNESCO profile, Chifunyise is an arts, culture and education consultant and the Principal of the Zimbabwe Academy of Arts Education for Development.

He is currently the Chairman of several organisations in Zimbabwe that deal notably with cultural diversity, publishing, performing arts and intangible heritage. (See What the world’s only active Somali archaeologist has in common with the Iraqi-British winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize)

He has broad knowledge of theatre issues and has facilitated numerous theatre-for-development and theatre-skills workshops in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Cameroon. (See How culture contributes to development: an UNESCO indicator suite)

Siyaya arts group from Makokoba township in Bulawayo was featured in-style in the first issue of the Inspiration Avenue magazine, a Zimbabwean lifestyle publication

Over the past 25 years, Mr Chifunyise has been involved in cultural policy formulation and evaluation in Africa. He contributed in particular to the evaluation of cultural policies in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mauritius and is a founding member of the Observatory on Cultural Policies in Africa. (See Popular narratives of Gaborone in Africa’s Switzerland and beyond)

He played a prominent role in the development of the Southern African Development Community Arts and Culture Festivals from 1994 to 2000 and chaired the Southern African Film Festival (1990-1996). (See What some Zimbabweans know and those that don’t can learn from other nations’ film industries) Chifunyise facilitated the review and classification of the culture sector and the formulation of the National Action Plan for the Culture Sector in Botswana in 2004-2008.

In his article in The Herald, Chifunyise listed a number of successful premiers. Among those, he mentioned his own “365”and Blessing Hungwe‘s “Burn Mukwerekwere Burn.”

At this stage, I wanted to find out a bit more of the behind-the-scenes story of theatre production in Zimbabwe’s capital. I spoke to Blessing Hungwe, one of the protagonists of Harare theatre. I first met him at a regular meeting of the re-vitalized Zimbabwe Writer’s Association back in March. A week later, we were sitting on a stone bench in the Harare Gardens chatting about Blessing’s work. (See Every nation needs an international festival II: Harare vs Cape Town? and Zimbabwean hospitality)

AK: When did you first discover your passion for theatre?

BH: As early as high school when I was studying in Gweru. Then I moved to Harare where I met Stanley Mambo who was a big theatre practitioner back then before he moved to Malawi. He was into physical theatre. In 2007, I started my own small independent production company.

Reps Theatre in Harare (image courtesy of twinarts.co.zw)

AK: How would you describe the theatre scene in Harare?

BH: Harare is sort of split into two theatre movements: there’s the Reps crew, which is mostly into repertory production. They just re-do old-school productions and reinvent them for the Harare scene. They keep theatre alive throughout the whole year. Then we have Theatre in the Park, which is another venue just by the Harare Gardens. They stage contemporary Zimbabwean works. That’s where we mostly stage our plays.

AK: And what are your works about?

BH: I mostly deal with socio-economic issues in my plays. My last major play “Burn Mukwerekwere Burn” is about xenophobia.

AK: What are you working on now?

BH: In the play that I am preparing for HIFA [the interview took place in March 2012], I deal with the girl-child trafficking in Zimbabwe. It’s very rife these days. Girls are being trafficked from the rural areas to Harare. They are being trafficked from Harare to South Africa and all over Southern Africa. Zimbabwe has become a kind of hub for the trafficking.

AK: What creative techniques do you use when you work on a play?

BH: When I write, I usually try to run away from facts. What often happens in Zimbabwean productions is our plays become highly rhetorical. We sort of blurt out the facts from the stage. We should try to make it subtle to let our viewers enjoy unravelling the play.

AK: What do you expect from HIFA this year?

BH: For me, HIFA is the major platform to premier my work. Most of my works are artistic. So they need an artistic audience to appreciate them. I prefer premiering my work at HIFA, seeking a discerning audience against whom I can then measure myself. And, from the experience, the plays that are shown at HIFA are bound to travel outside Zimbabwe. By doing this, Zimbabwean productions can benefit from and contribute to the development of other countries’ creative industries.

AK: What are some of the challenges facing Zimbabwean theatre internationally?

BH: We have been protesting through theatre in the last decade to the extent that for the international audience it has become a stereotypical image of Zimbabwean theatre community. We are not only about protest theatre. The international media needs to understand that it’s a cliché now to descibe us this way. We have different genres within the local context. [Check out Siyaya arts group from Makokoba in Bulawayo and their show Zambezi Express that traveled across the world] (See The Perks of Traveling by Rail in Zimbabwe (if any) and Urban rail in Africa: Whether “freedom trains” will solve Zimbabwe’s traffic jam problems, more attention should be paid to what happens when you board at A and get off at B. And don’t forget the bike!)

Blessing Hungwe

AK: I know that you also work in other media like film and television. How does that kind of work inspire your theatrical creativity? [Blessing used to work on film projects with the Afriwood‘s Stephen Chigorimbo] (See From Zimbabwe to Australia: Stephen Chigorimbo on the International Public Television event and My North Korean film classes in humanity and creativity)

BH: Actually, when we were working on a TV series, I was in the midst of writing “Burn Mukwerekwere Burn”. You write at night, while shooting the drama during the day. You get stuck sometimes when you are writing. I got stuck on a piece – didn’t know what to do with a certain character. And it was during the shoot one of those days that I realized how to introduce a character in my play that I had long struggled to. That’s how I broke into that character. (See Afriwood to participate in 2012 Ukrainian Content Market)

Our conversation ends and in parting Blessing tells me that his company received an award from National Arts Merit Awards this year. He also shares his plans to train young residents of Chitungwiza to help them become professionals both in theatre and television.

Who knows, maybe in 20 years some other dummy will be unravelling the behind-the scenes stories helped by Blessing’s students in the run up to HIFA. Sitting on the same stone bench in the autumnal Harare Gardens.

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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