Norman Takawira

Norman Takawira. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"So where to?"

Norman Takawira has been working with theatre since high school, and has been a playwright, director and actor. He was born in Lusaka, Zambia in 1964 of Zimbabwean parents, and died in Harare on 5 September 2003. Even before he finished secondary school he wrote and put up a play. He moved with his parents to Bulawayo where he formed a drama group in Nube High School.

In 1987 he formed the Young Warriors Theatre together with some other school leavers. In 1988 the group toured Zimbabwe. With Takawira as director the group produced several plays and musicals, for stage and for radio, often reflecting social and political issues. His play Sokwedlula dealt with the largely silenced issue of the sufferings of families during the conflict in Matebeleland in the mid 1980s.

From 1994 he worked with the Zimbabwe Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ZACTYP), and in 1998 arranged a successful international festival in Zimbabwe. He was appointed field officer of ZACTYP with responsibility for 118 schools and clubs. At the time of his death he was the Director of Zim Arts, a company he had set up to sell production and staging of performing arts.

Can you try to sketch your career as an artist?
It is a long journey. I was born and brought up in Zambia , which is a neighbouring country. I really never thought of being a theatre artist until I went to secondary school and I joined what used to be known as cadets. As cadets we used to undergo military training at school level.

This was still in Zambia?
Yes. In 1982 I met the friend who was a theatre performer and who said to me, "Why don't you join us?" and he invited me to his performance. I saw the performance and thought it was beautiful, so I joined his group. I was doing my Form 2 at that time. I became so hooked up and wrote a play that I called the Headmaster. It was about headmasters who abuse schoolgirls. The English teacher volunteered to play the role as headmaster and he did it brilliantly. In Zambia there used to be a competition that used to go from the district to the provincial level and further to the national level. My first production won the first prize at the district level. It went also to the provincial level and came second, and third at the national level, so I thought: “Ah, I'm there.” Later I joined a community theatre group and I think that is where I got the best discipline in the arts. The director in that group said to me and my colleagues: "You guys will start rehearsals at 3.30 and I expect you to be here. I will not take any explanation, any reason, I want you here." I used to knock off at school at 3 o'clock, which meant that I had 30 minutes to get to the rehearsals, and I had to make sure that I was not punished. From that time I became very conscious and very addicted to the arts, it really got into my bloodstream. In 1984 I left school and I was at my father's farm, so I did not do a lot of theatre activity, but in 1985 I crossed over to Zimbabwe.

Why did you go to Zimbabwe?
Because I am a Zimbabwean, but I was not born in this country. I came and continued my secondary school education. I went to this school where again I found a most challenging situation. There was no drama group and no dance group in the school, so I said: "Ah, I'll start a drama group" and the first thing the headmaster did was he said: "I will give you 30 minutes per day; between 12 and 12.30 will be our change-over session." The school had what was known as hot seating, you have people there in the morning and in the afternoon. One session went on from 8 to 12 and another started at 12.30 and continued until 5 in the afternoon.

The headmaster gave me a classroom and the drama group grew and became very dynamic, but the headmaster didn't appreciate it. It didn't make sense to him and he said: "Ah, you are making noise, go and do your theatre in the football pitch”. We performed our play on a parents' day and everyone said: "Good that there is a theatre group" and the neighbourhood headmasters even started inviting us to perform at their schools in Bulawayo . In 1987 I left school and formed a theatre group known as the Young Warriors Theatre Group. That was the theatre group that I ran from 1987 until 1997. It was a good period. I worked with a lot of people and I was involved in training youth in the schools and in the community. We travelled also extensively within the region and we went to England , Germany , and Wales . In 1994 I was appointed to a Board of Students Theatre, Zimbabwe Association of Theatre for Children and Young People. This association was a member of Assitage International. Assitage is the French acronym for International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People

Have you tried to explain to yourself why you ended up in the arts?
It was not the monetary part of it, because during that time—that is, from 1985 up till 1988, 1989—performing arts was not paying, but that was the time when we put a lot of efforts into the development of the arts. That was the period when arts grew. We spent weeks rehearsing a play, making sure it was perfect. Performing it would make very little money, but we never gave up. What kept us up was the enthusiasm of communicating a message: "Listen to this message that we have," but we also felt that one day it would maybe bear fruits. That is what really got me into arts. I really did admire what other people were doing. The strength of theatre, of performing arts is that it is not stereotype, it is not something that you do one day, over and over and over. There is a wider scope, you travel, you meet new people, you create new plays, and you create new business. There is a lot of scope for development, innovation, creation, and discovery.

When I left school I went and worked in a factory for a year and every time I had to ask my boss if I could attend a theatre workshop or a performance. He asked me to decide whether I wanted to stay in the factory for good or go to the theatre for good. I said: “Give me a year.” At the end of the year I knocked on his door and said: "Sir, thank you very much for the year, but I'm going back to my industry." I resigned. My family said: "Well, you yourself decide what you want, we support whatever you want to do," so I got into theatre. My brother and sister, who were always very close to me, said: "Oh ja, let's help him, go for it," but my mother was very sceptical about it. When I moved out, she said: "You are going to starve." Also my brother moved out. I said: "Let me go out, if I starve I will come back and ask for food, if I don't come back, then you will know things are working out for me." Again, it is this position I had to take and eventually I went to my mother and said: "Mama, next week I'm going to England with my theatre." She replied: "Oh, so it can take you that far?" Eventually the family began to support. However, people are very sceptical about you being in the arts because it is not very secure.

I have been in the arts and I do survive because I know how to create jobs and how to find jobs. I want to give you an example. In Bulawayo , way back in the late 1980s, I brought together a group of young guys, who were between 7–11 years. I brought these youngsters together and said: "Let's work together in the arts." They didn't understand what they were getting into, but they used to come every afternoon for rehearsals and they would dance, sing and beat drums. They remained together and now they are a full-time theatre group. If you get to Bulawayo and meet them there, you will find that they are a dynamic group and they are surviving on that. Today they call themselves Umkathi.

It has been argued that people have been spoilt to think that whenever there is art, one should not have to pay for it, and that this attitude has been partly fostered by foreign NGOs and maybe also by domestic NGOs. They say, "Make a play on AIDS," adding, “Of course, we don't want people to have to pay to see it. Everybody should see it.” Do you find that this is a real problem or only an artificial one?
Well, it is not an artificial problem, but to me it is on two folds. Traditionally performing arts was meant for entertainment. Going back to the village where entertainment is provided, the people don't have to pay for that, but coming to town, performers said: “Let me get into this full time so that it is my job, and let people pay for it.” That transition period was very difficult. But let us come to the donors now. They say: "Yes, we want you to perform because this is information that you want to disseminate. You cannot discriminate those who don't have money. Perform for everyone and we will pay you." The only problem was that the donors then would decide how much they wanted to pay me. They said: "Oh you are five, we will give you R500. You can share, R100 each." The position we are in now is that I am able to go to the donor, or the donor can come to me and say: "I want you to produce a play." I will tell them: "There are productions costs, there is blah, blah, blah, there is my phone, my computer, so I need R85,000 for my production." I don't think we are in a situation where a donor can come to me and say: "I have got 25 dollars, can you do this performance?" If I think it is enough, I will do it, but if it is not enough, I will tell him to find a tree and hang himself. There are also people who are starting; those who have come in today, you can easily rip them off. But there are also those who are mature, who have been doing it for years and they know what they want.

I would like to hear something about your plays and what they comment on.
My first political play was called “My Struggle”. It looked at the plight of the ex-combatants: what happened when they were demobilised, when there were no proper jobs, no good food. "My Struggle" became very popular and I became very unpopular with the security people. Eventually some attention was given to the war veterans, the ex-combatants. They got compensation, they got paid, and I would sit down and say: "Maybe my play played a part in transforming the leaders into appreciating these people."

I also did a play called: "Who's adjusting whom?" It was about a structural adjustment programme. It was a very popular play and it went round in schools. I did also a play called "Under the Desk". It is a simple script that looks at the behaviour of school children viz a viz the HIV / AIDS-approach these days. People are saying: "Abstain," full stop. Okay? What do we do with those who do not abstain? I did more than 40 productions for radio, and a lot of commissioned plays for different programmes. My latest production, "Behind the Scenes" was produced last year. It is about artists, who are good at reflecting on other people's shortcomings, but “Behind the Scenes “ reflects on the artists themselves. It portrays a theatre group, trying to make a play. However, they cannot put their heads together because they are all going in different directions. The director says this, the actors say that, someone slams the door, the other one comes in. The first part of the play is all this chaos that you find in rehearsals. In the second part, I have put the changing room on stage and the performers backstage. Every time we go to a theatre to see a show, we see the actors on stage, but we don't know what is happening in the changing rooms. I have therefore changed the play around. I am in love with the second part of the play, people coming with one pair of shoes, forgetting the other one at home, forgetting the lines, some quitting the show half-way, you know, all these things that happen in the changing-room.

What about the present crisis and culture in Zimbabwe ? Do you relate to these issues in your plays?
I have written a play called "So Where To?" In that production I'm saying way back in the early 1990s, late 1980s that people in this country forced themselves on the towns. They were called squatters and they were victims. The same people are today being told to go on the farms, so this person is saying: "Six or seven years ago I was called a squatter for being on a town and today I'm being asked to go onto that farm" and "if I go onto that farm there are again some who five months later are told: "No, no, no, move, go back", “so where to?” Where do they go finally? I think as writers we also need to look at the scenario that we are going through, from both the positive and the negative angle and come up with something that is useful to society.

Are you an African playwright, a Zimbabwean playwright, or a Shona playwright, or there could be other labels. How do you react to this kind of labels?
Well, I don't think I want to be called a Zimbabwean playwright or an African playwright. I have taken my plays to Europe, to Asia, to Southern Africa, West Africa and have been equally accepted, so I would not really want to bind myself by saying that I am an African writer because this label has got it is own versions. An African writer as an African or an African writer writing for Africans. If I am to be described as “an African writer as an African,” oh ja, I am an African. But if I were to be described as “an African writer writing for Africans,” I would say that I don't write for Africans, I write for people. In my country there are people who are not Africans but they watch my plays. To say that you are an African writer is just to put boundaries, which are amiss.

Does it matter that you mainly do your plays in English?
I always say to my actors "don't act like Shakespeare!" The African actors per sé are very expressive. They talk with their bodies; their mouths are accompanying their communication. If I took my English play to the countryside, as a play director, I should be able to judge whether the play would have an impact in the countryside? If not, would I need to translate it into this language? If not, how could I make it acceptable.

So language has not been a problem?
No, no, no! I have been watching so many performances in Swedish and sitting there enjoying myself, saying "that is a good play," so to me the body language really is more important than the verbal part of it.

What is the difference between African and European theatre?
In a European theatre, you can do a play about the camera and really evolve around that camera. You can do a play about flowers. Here it is more serious because they talk about social issues, political issues, and community issues. So here theatre is more of a reflection of society, why there is unemployment, for example. So sometimes you do a good play that really hits hard on the people and they walk home more miserable. I did a play and in the play there was a song, which was saying "I used to have this son of mine, the only child and this child was taken away, the child died." In the play there were three girls and they would sing this song. One day during the rehearsal, this girl just burst out and started crying. I was very angry with her: "What is your problem? And she just walked out of the rehearsal and sat outside. So I came back to my senses and said: "Come, let's sit, what is your problem? Have you got any problems at home?" She said: "No, this song, my daughter died and every time we sing this song it reminds me of my daughter and it really hurts me." I told the girl: “As a director, I like this song, but you can be excused from the play, get someone else who will not feel offended.” But up to now I think the song has got a heavy impact on her.

This is what I am saying, some of the things we do, really have a great social impact on people. Some will even fight over your play: "This character was wrong, this character was good," because they are taking sides. They say: "Oh, I agree with this character, because this is in line with what I think and how I see society." "This woman should not have done this, she cannot put poison for the husband." "No, the husband was beating her up." All these debates go on, that is why I am saying that our theatre is more like a mirror of society, it is reflecting on some things that are very serious. People become emotional because it is not just a story. It is life that has been put on paper and now we read it and again it is hitting back on us, and literally you react viciously sometimes.

[Interview held in X in 19xx]

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