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Botched divorce: Mwase remembered after death

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PERFORMED WITH MWASE— Makhala

Death can, when used as one of the themes in theatre, be tolerated, but only for the duration of a play or work of art.

In real life, no one is willing to spare space, even if a little, for it.

This was the reality at Blantyre Sports Club on January 15 this year— which happened to be John Chilembwe Day— as people from all walks of life descended on the sports venue to remember the life of one Frank Patani Mwase who made theatre lovers merry for decades.

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The departed playwright and actor is one of the people that ensured that English theatre, hitherto a passive hobby in the early 1970s, attained the status of a key thing between 1981 and 1994.

It is not coincidental that it is during this time that Malawi was dotted with accomplished actors.

Those were the days when Mwase, Waliko Makhala, Du Chizisa Jnr., Gertrude Kamkwatira, Kamudoni Nyasulu, Chris Kamlongera, Edge Kanyongolo, among others, were on song.

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Mwase developed interest in theatre at the age of four in an Easter play co-acted with his brother.

He, then, got baptised into theatre when he attended an Association for Teaching English in Malawi (Atem) festival at Blantyre Teachers College.

He liked Dr James Ng’ombe’s production The King’s Spiral, as presented by Chichiri Secondary School students.

Then, between 1981 and 1982, Mwase found himself testing the drama ropes when he acted in Henry Henderson Institute (HHI)’s Servant of Two Masters.

But the defining moment came when, while in form one at HHI, he encountered Makhala— then a member of HHI’s drama club.

Makhala was rehearsing for The Deceased’s Attack.

“I was a silent member of that cast. That is when I met the late Du Chisiza Jnr.,” Mwase once told me.

The Deceased’s Attack eventually won the coveted prize at Atem festival.

Coincidentally, that triumph in Atem culminated in the birth of Wakhumbata Workshop Theatre.

Du left to pursue further studies in the United States, paving the way for Mwase to become chairperson for the group and, with Waliko and other creatives, toured districts such as Karonga and cities such as Mzuzu.

Due to growing interest in English, new groups and plays were birthed.

French Cultural Centre (FCC) Theatre, for example, joined the party with the That Scoundrel Moliere production in 1983.

That is how That Scoundrel Moliere will, forever, be known as FCC’s debut production. Some of the faces that became synonymous with the production are the late Jika Nkolokosa and Paul Paseli, who, as part of the cast, mesmerised people that turned up for the theatre party.

By and by, FCC started attracting the interest of Mwase who, in 1984, acted in FCC’s That Would-be Gentleman play. It was directed by Nyasulu.

Mwase acted in Chauta’s Wrath as well. Nyasulu directed the play, which Chris Kamlongera scripted.

Not to be outdone, Paseli concocted his own play, titled Mine by Convenience.

“In the formative years, only the ‘cultural afternoon’— a mixed event that featured poetry, music and drama—drew multitudes,” Mwase told me in our last interview before he succumbed to Covid-related complication last year.

That means Wakhumbata Workshop Theatre influenced the formation of FCC Theatre, which later adopted the name Cultural Advancement Theatre.

Of course, some groups have always been there to advance the interests of both English and Chichewa language plays, most notably Chancellor College Travelling Theatre.

At the mention of Chancellor College Travelling Theatre, names such as Lupenga Mphande and Mupa Shumba— people associated with the establishment of Chanco’s Fine Arts Department— come to mind.

Mphande and Shumba promoted quality among Atem contestants, and artists wrote plays with the knowledge that their scripts would pass through the critical eyes and minds of Chancellor College lecturers at the back of their minds.

“The level of judgement and analysis in Atem festivals was top level. While patrons waited for results, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre could perform.

“Even if you were not at Chanco, you could mingle with these people and read top-notch books. We could read such books as Wole Soyinka’s The Swamp Dwellers. Malawi was going through a cultural renaissance and this is the time the Benedicto Malungas were coming to light,” Mwase once told me.

There is one more point to remember, though: The bond between the academia and performing arts was strategic: Chancellor College offered courses in performing art while arts groups offered the graduates the stage to perfect their game.

When time for Du to return home came, the big reunion happened.

In 1987, Mwase and Du joined up again to form Malawi Professional Theatre Company. The group later paved the way for Tiwuke Performing Arts, whose benefactor was Bazuka Mhango.

It is Tiwuke that turned into Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre.

“It was not easy to attract a huge audience in 1987 because Chichewa plays were popular.

“However, the auditorium was full during our first performance. Of course, it was a small auditorium— accommodating 245 people,” Mwase told me.

The likes of Mwase, Paseli and Du had to be at their creative best to come up with political plays that escaped the attention of rulers of the time.

“Of course, due to the restrictive political situation of the time, drama was more than entertainment; it was figurative.

“Our productions were political in nature and we could tackle issues we cannot tackle now. We did a lot of marketing, and the performances used to be hectic that we could do six performances in four days. Eventually, we became popular and could disrupt normal classes in secondary schools,” Mwase indicated.

In later years, Mwase abhorred the extent to which business was eclipsing creativity.

“Commercialisation has taken the quality out of theatre in that the artist does not benefit, while quality and talent are disregarded by those who benefit from the process.”

He might have been in the process of reversing the situation when he died in the first month of 2021 when death, the coward, divorced him from us.

Coincidentally, at Blantyre Sports Club Saturday, patrons, who included Mwase’s widow Patricia, were treated to a play Mwase wrote in his haydays: The Divorce.

Death might have, physically, divorced him from us; something it will not do to our memories.

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