'Artists fail to produce hard-hitting plays'

HARARE - Local theatre artists have in recent years failed to effectively use their art form to probe Zimbabwe’s leadership on the deteriorating living standards in the country, amid growing disgruntlement among the people.

In the past, theatre artists were known to provide the sole platform for robust debates with government through the Board of Censors banning several plays.

With the current political, social and economic crisis taking centre stage, theatre artists should be spoilt for choice on which subjects to tackle but little is coming out of the sector to satisfy a thirsty audience.

The country has in the past witnessed hard-hitting plays that include; The Good President by Bulawayo-based theatre veteran Cont Mhlanga which was banned.

Mhlanga’s High Court challenge against the police action stopping the performances was unsuccessful.

The play entitled Final Push by Silvanos Mudzvova had its actors arrested and forced to perform it a dozen times while in custody in front of police and intelligence officers. Its title refers to protest marches organised by the MDC in 2003, which were violently dispersed by the police.

In February 2011, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) fought on behalf of Rooftop Promotions and obtained an interdict from Bulawayo Magistrate Rose Dube barring the police from prohibiting the theatre production group from staging a theatre performance entitled Rituals.This was after the police at Bulawayo Central Police had banned the public performance of Rituals. The play was stopped and the cast locked in police cells on two different nights.

Another play, Super Patriots and Morons produced by veteran theatre practitioner Daves Guzha was also banned as it had rattled the ruling party and its former president, Robert Mugabe.

In September 2011, ZLHR also successfully challenged the police ban of the Gwanda-based Jahunda Community Theatre play entitled 1983, The Years Before and After, a play on the past disturbances seeking to establish true national healing, true peace and true reconciliation.

The play No Voice No Choice — a production by two community theatre groups, Edzai Isu Theatre Arts Project and Zvido Zvevanhu Arts Ensemble, written by prominent theatre practitioner Tafadzwa Muzondo was also blacklisted by the country’s Board of Censors.

But in recent years we have seen little activity in the theatre industry; what could be the problem?

Playwright (Cont) Mhlanga said like all other sectors of the economy, the theatre industry has slowed down considerably since the year 2000 due to political and economic challenges that the country is going through.

“Theatre activities remain low, far apart and centred on festivals. There are no theatre runs, seasons and national tours, a clear sign that the theatre industry is going through difficult times.

“I see nothing major for the local theatre industry to celebrate. It’s all about just celebrating a day and not celebrating any substance,” said Mhlanga.

Actor and filmmaker Obrian Mudyiwenyama said there are fewer theatre plays being produced due do the dwindling resource base.

“Very few production houses have funding to make new plays making it very difficult to produce new works. As I always say the arts sector has been affected by the lack of government support.

“Foreign funding agencies have sustained the arts for so long and it is greatly appreciated. However, local government should be the main funder of the sector.

“So currently most of the artists in theatre are grappling with the day-to-day challenges of life in Zimbabwe than writing or producing plays. We are just trying to survive,” said Mudyiwenyama.

However, he added that there are some production houses doing amazing initiatives under difficult conditions. “These include Savanna Trust, Rooftop promotions, Patsime, Almasi Collaborative Arts, Masvingo Drama

Circle and luminaries such as Memory Kumbota, Raisedon Baya, Zenzo Nyati, Lloyd nyikadzino among others.

“These Thespians continue to do works to make sure that at least theatre lives to fight another day.”

Producer Mthabisi Phili said the theatre industry is definitely a shadow of what it used to be. “Not as much productions as we used to have mainly because of the economy. Theatre practitioners have to pursue the passion while they sustain their income with money from another profession.

“There is audience fatigue and donor fatigue but donor fatigue is the main issue that has been affecting creativity looking at the past five years.”

Phili added that the support from various embassies that used to support art is no longer there as some like the Norwegian Embassy which closed down, reduced their support for the arts.

“Culture Fund doesn’t have as many grants as it used to have and this has seen a migration from the arts to basic industries or just artists leaving the country all together.”

Actor (Daves) Guzha believes though that the theatre industry is showing signs of recovery.

“Prospects are good. What’s left is for practitioners to apply shoulder to the wheel. Days of talking are over. These are the days of doing.”

Arts practitioner Josh Nyapimbi said the theatre sector is polarised, lacking structure and in need of new approaches to tell our stories, we are too reliant on a handful of playwrights who only write on a commission basis.

“Our standard must rise as the competition with digital media continues to outpace our current innovation and creativity.

“Audiences are there for quality and properly marketed work because Hifa theatre shows and Reps are often sold out,” said Nyapimbi.

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