Theatre in Zimbabwe

Theatre in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere in Africa, has long roots in community ceremonial dance and praise ceremonies. It is in fact difficult to distinguish between poetry, dance, music, and theatre in its traditional mould. Performance was but a portion of these communal events, participation was as important, and blurred the lines between performers and audience. Nor did performance take place in a vacuum. It was given meaning and place by the cyclic changes in the community.

With independence and its socialist agenda of social transformation and education, the traditional theatre inspired a modern kind of performance, where participation was still an essential feature, but in a setting where the distinction between performer and audience was beginning to be clear. Zimbabwe became one of the testing fields for an ambitious community theatre movement, in which a central figure was Ngugi wa Mirii in exile from Kenya, where together with Ngugi wa Thiong'o he had worked with the Kamarithu theatre, which was closed down by the Kenyan government.

The theatre movement has gone a long way since it started, as Praise Zenenga, who is writing his doctoral thesis at Northwestern University in the US, tells us. Some of the crucial questions are the dependence on NGO funding, the participation of the communities, and the issue of charging for entrance tickets.

The community theatre movement has given rise to some institutional theatre companies, which often perform scripted plays. The best known is Amakhosi from Bulawayo, which under Cont Mhlanga's leadership has been developed into a vibrant, professional group. In 2002, Amakhosi, who had produced many plays critical of social and political developments, accepted an offer to have a weekly show on national TV. Amakhosi rejected all criticism of this decision by saying that they had always clamoured for more mass media exposure for good theatre.

Another professional group is Rooftop theatre in Harare, led by Dave Gutsha. Walter Mapurutsa has been associated with Rooftop, both as actor and director. In 2002 he played a one-man show, called “Rags and Garbage”, where he, as a homeless town fool, was able to put both ZANU-PF and the MDC to task. Setting up a mock interview he asked first president what his story was, and got the answer: Land. And more? More land. Then he turned to Tsangvirai, and asked the same. Change, was the reply. And more? More change.

Norman Takawira (who tragically died in 2003) had a long history of involvement in theatre, and was a writer of several radio plays. He was one of those professionals that every arts sector needs, and could confidently say ìI know how to create jobs, and how to find jobs.

Interviews with:

Zenenga, Praise

Takawira, Norma

Mirii, Ngugi

Maparutsa, Walter

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