Praise Zenenga

Praise Zenenga. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"Producers always try to balance"

Praise Zenenga was born in Mhondoro Chegutu in1968, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University , Illinois , where he is researching on community theatre in Zimbabwe.

I would like you to comment on the development of the community theatre here in Zimbabwe , because as I understand it, the community theatre in the beginning of the independence was very strong. So what has happened with the community theatre as a concept, and as a practice since then? Is it a label that today covers a lot of different efforts and different directions or is there something of a community theatre that one can say has some kind of common ideological framework?

I think you are right to talk about the many trends that exist in community theatre. It does refer to quite a lot of things. The movement itself also caters for the diversity that exists in terms of the country's population, and as such there have been different organisations catering for different population groups and communities. I also think that you are right to say that community theatre was more vibrant at independence. This was due to the support that it enjoyed from government. If you look at the history of the Zimbabwean Association of Community Theatres, ZACT, I you'll find that it originated from within a government department, it was directly sponsored by the government under what was called ZIMFEP, the Zimbabwean Foundation for Education and Production. So it was quite an important arm for the government to spread its ideology to pass on messages concerning its development programmes, the first five year national development programmes and so on.

Later on, as community theatre developed, and as the ideology of socialism began to fall apart and cooperatives began to fall apart, Government started withdrawing its sponsorship from the arts in the late eighties. From the mid-eighties there was also a proliferation of non-governmental organisations which were also beginning to see the relevance of theatre incommunicating development messages and especially on issues that had to do with women's rights, civil rights, democracy, voter education, civic education, AIDS and other health issues. So there was a sudden influx or a sudden interest in community theatre from some non-governmental organisations that also started sponsoring theatre groups to do plays on certain issues. This also had an impact in the direction in which community theatre was taken, because for an example, if an organisation says we have money for people to do theatre on women's issues or on children's issues or on AIDS, a community theatre group would now abandon taking themes and issues from its community as they had done traditionally. They would favour what would bring money to them.

And also under ZACT there were conscious efforts by Ngugi wa Mirii to commercialise community theatre or to make it more profitable rather than having community theatre being a form of community service with people coming to watch it for free. Only a few groups that have well-trained personnel, mostly those trained through workshops and later on became the best actors and actresses, would do commercially viable performances. There are a few groups that have been doing commercial productions, which are viable. You find that the market has mostly been in schools around Harare and even boarding schools and rural schools. So in the communities themselves, it has been very, very difficult to transform something that has previously been free and just all of a sudden start charging money for that without drastically improving the quality. So the question of sponsorship, the questions of money and survival, sustenance and so on, all these questions have impacted upon the themes that people talk about and also upon the size of the groups.

Are there also different kinds of community theatre?
Yes, there are different trends. There is community theatre as is produced as part of people's lives, I mean ritual ceremonies, dances, festivals, and which have always traditionally been part of certain communities. These are performances that lead people to depict issues as they live them in their communities without anybody from outside coming in to say can we do some performance on certain specific issues. These are folk performances related to issues of community survival such as rainmaking, harvest and marriage ceremonies, initiation ceremonies, war and hunting ceremonies, burial rituals, rites of passage and many others. I think scholars have termed this the organic type of theatre for development or should we call it the endogenous type as opposed to the exogenous type of community theatre. That trend has always been here in Zimbabwe and has always persisted in spite of modernization.

Continuing with this organic approach, another trend now comes in whereby a certain community theatre group may perform and be based in a certain community. These are the people who do research or just decide to do theatre on issues that are of concern to the communities in which they live, and perform to audiences within their communities.

Then we have a third trend where outside groups come into a community to deal with issues or to do productions about issues they think are of concern to that community. There have always been different approaches within this type of community theatre. Other people prefer to flood the area and do research, others prefer to research from newspapers and so on, while others prefer to conduct research and performance workshops with artists from those communities. I think Rooftop theatre and Amakhosi in some of their projects have used these approaches. But the most fruitful approach has been having a theatre company like Rooftop or Amakhosi, going into an area, identifying performers from that area to whom they would impart some theatre skills and do research together with people from that community. They have done this in their anti-abortion, voter education and HIV/AIDS plays or productions that have been funded by U.S. aid and other NGOS like SIDA, NORAD, HIVOS and DANIDA. Amakhosi's first play to use this theatre for community action approach was for the post-abortion care programme that was funded by U.S. aid.

Were their plays really against abortion?
They were not really against abortion. They opened up debate on how to take care of people who become ill after committing backyard abortions using traditional healers and other cheap back-yard methods. Abortion is illegal in Zimbabwe but a lot of people do it clandestinely.

What has happened to the community theatre groups going into the community, involving the community in different ways in the production and in the elaboration of the theme, even maybe in the selection of the theme? Does that happen any longer?
Yes, that is a very important aspect of community theatre and it has been used as one of the features or the aspects that define community theatre to say is this theatre that comes from the community itself or is it theatre that's taken to the community by outsiders. The responses that I get from artists that I have talked to during my research are quite different. A lot of community theatre groups have got individuals who observe certain events in communities and then come up with a story line as individuals, which they then bring to their own groups and then the groups would also add and improvise. There are also other groups that stay in certain communities in which they produce their theatre. So they argue that there is no need for them to interview people about issues their communities because they themselves experience those problems, they live those issues on a daily basis. So these are people who are writing about their own personal experiences, which they argue are typical or are representative of the issues that are of concern to the audiences of their productions.

When you say that there has been a diversity of efforts or profiles or whatever, you mentioned the NGOs coming into the picture, what kind of different tendencies do you see? Can you group them at all?
As far as NGOs are concerned, there are NGOs that are really, really concerned about the development of grassroot communities and have made a deliberate effort to reach communities directly, despite being frustrated in their efforts to reach communities by the government bureaucracy and so on. These have been concerned about, for example, the provision of sanitation, good water systems, provision of wards and so on and also about the spread of AIDS.

These together with institutions like NGOs and such churches, the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Methodist, the Salvation Army and so on, which have all made conscious efforts to use theatre to educate people in certain developmental issues on certain health related issues.

These are NGOs that have been very much concerned about the plight of the very, very grassroot communities and the grassroot people.

We also have NGOs that have been concerned about women's issues. We had women and law theatre project and the wills and inheritance theatre project that were done a few years ago. They were concerned about questions of inheritance, questions of land and property ownership as far as the other feminine gender was concerned. I think these were quite genuine efforts to try and redress certain imbalances that have existed since the colonial era and that was quite a novel idea.

We also have NGOs that are concerned with children's theatres and with the development of culture as far as the younger generations are concerned and we have institutions like CHIPAWO and so on that have been funded to instil and perpetuate certain traditional cultural values through theatre.

Of late we have had certain non-governmental organisations that have been concerned also about questions of democracy, voter education and questions of constitutional and civic rights. These have been funding community theatre groups to do plays on what they call civic education, educating people about the constitution, the right to vote, democracy and so on. But the problems these groups have encountered is that this has not gone well with the government's ideology and position, because they have been appearing to be sponsoring certain ideologies that have been challenging the government itself or the government's own concept of democracy or its own concept of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of association and human rights in general. So these are the NGOs that seem to be clashing head on with the government.

We have had also people like Amani Trust, an NGO that has been sponsoring theatre productions about victims of torture, victims of political violence. They have also worked with the university's theatre department and some other community theatre groups to do productions about that and to try and educate people on political violence, rehabilitation, human rights and so on, and they have gone on a head on collision or clash with the government. These are trends that have been seen to be challenging the government directly and these NGOs are under attack from the government and are being threatened with closure or dismissal or banning orders to bar them from what they are saying.

So the government has since also realised on the other hand that theatre is also a powerful weapon to use in spreading certain political ideas. So on the other hand they are also sponsoring their own community theatre groups to justify land acquisition programmes and the so-called land reform programmes and also their own concept of democracy that has been seen to vary with those of other NGOs and civic societies that they are clashing with.

Could you just give some examples of these clashes? Has there been anything like the clampdown that people like Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ngugi Mirii once experienced in Kenya where they were forbidden to perform and they were in the end even bulldozed the theatre?
I think the clash has not been similar to the Kenyan clashes involving the government clampdown on community theatre groups but here it has mostly been in the form of censorship and surveillance. For example, Amakhosi performed a certain play with some actors and actresses wearing police uniform, and the Bulawayo Police Commissioner had to send some police officers to stop that play. The reason given was that military and police uniforms cannot be worn by ordinary citizens under any circumstances.

There have also been a production by Rooftop, called “Dare/Ekundleni/Forum” about political tolerance and voter education where the actors, actresses and producers have been called and questioned about their objectives, The state has indicated and sent warnings that such productions risk being banned. The relevant ministry of information has vowed to censure all NGOs that are seen to be working against the government. Also with Walter Mapurutsa's recent production, "Rags and Garbage”, there was a lot of surveillance from government agencies, and so on. They just come to observe and question producers and artists, a lot about their objectives.

Producers always try to balance, to seem to be balancing what the opposition party stands for and what the ruling party stands for. They are ridiculing all parties almost to the same extent so that the play appears to be neutral. But what has not gone down well with some of these productions has been the mention of real names of actual government officials, and also some of the songs that are chanted by opposition parties in some productions.

I should also mention that the other way out for the government has been to assimilate those seemingly threatening community theatre groups like Amakhosi theatre in Bulawayo. They have all of a sudden shown an interest in funding Amakhosi's productions on national television and also sponsoring Amakhosi to do certain productions for the Unity Day Cultural Gala, the ZANU (PF) mayoral campaign, and then some by-election campaigns. The Amakhosi people just would respond saying: "We are business people, we take money from anybody who gives us business".

I think there is a very subtle way in which the government is assimilating and funding those groups that they see as threats. They are trying to replace the NGO efforts in funding and using those same groups to send out their own propaganda. It is similar to what is happening to musicians. Government is sponsoring productions of certain musicians and of certain songs that they see as furthering their own interests and their own ideologies.

There is also another play that coming up, called "Madame Speaker Sir". From my understanding, the Minister of Information had a certain interest in the play, it's all about the functions and dysfunctions of the Zimbabwean parliament. The cast consists of some ex-Rooftop theatre artists working under the name Sunset productions. The sate is embarking on a whole process in terms of assimilating and also showing an interest in community theatre groups that have no funding from anywhere else, and who with sponsorship would want to talk about government's land reform activities and all the activities that they are doing.

[Interview in Harare on 4th November 2002]

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