Dusty road to vernacular plays, firm success


They take the audience along almost the same path, weaving the same twists and turns into their scripts. But, despite Chichewa and English playwrights adopting the same techniques, Chichewa and foreign language playwrights seem to have taken different routes on their way to earn international acclaim.

The predictable outcome has, unfortunately, been too much paperwork for Chichewa playwrights and producers but little progress to show for it, on one hand, and too much paperwork for English playwrights and relative progress to show for it, on the other hand.

Cases of English playwrights and film producers winning international awards abound. For example, in 2013, Blantyre-based Chimwemwe Mkwezalamba won Best Emerging Director award for her film, ‘The Designer’, at the Silicon Valley African Film Festival held in California, USA.


The feat came after another Malawian, Mwizalero Nyirenda, had won the Sembene Ousmane Award in Zanzibar (Tanzania) after his film, ‘Umunthu’, won the hearts of judges.

Nominations, too, have not been in short supply for Malawian films, including Shemu Joyah’s ‘Seasons of a Life’ and the ‘Last Fishing Boat’— which were nominated several times.

Just recently, Actress Joyce Mhango Chavula won the Best Movie— Southern African category— in the fourth edition of the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards at an event held in Lagos, Nigeria.


Chavula, who won the award for her exploits in the movie tilted ‘Lilongwe’, beat two South African movies which were also nominated in the category. These are ‘Ayanda’ by Sarah Bletcher and ‘Tell Me Sweet Something’ by Akin Omotosho.

Ironically, while English film makers have been making in-roads internationally, the Chichewa film and theatre scene has been silent and still. It is as if Chichewa playwrights and filmmakers are almost innocent of any sense of haste to make it big internationally.

Programmed hesitancy?

Veteran actor, Eric Mabedi, says most Chichewa plays and films are not submitted to international award organisers because playwrights and producers do not think beyond the stage performance.

“In the first place, I have never thought of that [submitting our works to international award organisers]. Secondly, my understanding is that drama is the message and our focus is the Malawian audience. I don’t think our messages may appeal to international audiences and judges,” says Mabedi.

He adds that, to buttress his point that “drama is the message”, he has observed foreign nationals struggling to get the message during Chichewa stage-performances.

“It is not just about costume, choreography – it’s about the message you are passing, or trying to pass, across. I have seen Europeans and Americans patronising our stage performances but, for them to understand the message, they always have someone close by who whispers something to them. This means the message is very important and the other things merely serve to support that message.

“The same thing applies to costume. The producer, in our case Charles Mphoka, ensures that the message tallies with the costume. There has to be no disparity between the message and the costume because it is the message that is very important. So, I think it may not be easy for us to win international awards while using our language,” says Mabedi.

But Solomonic Peacocks director, McArthur Matukuta, observes that language may not always be a barrier.

He, however, observes that some local plays are tailored to specific occasions and may, therefore, not be attractive when presented for consideration in international awards.

“In our case [Solomonic Peacocks], we normally do Chichewa productions for civic education purposes and after achieving our purpose [of civic educating the audience], we cannot submit the same productions for consideration in international awards,” says Matukuta.

He is quick to point out that, while he does not understand why Chichewa playwrights do not submit their works for consideration in international awards, other foreign playwrights who produce plays and films in minority languages have excelled in international competitions.

He cited the case of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known on stage as Molière— one of the French playwrights and actors considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature. He said, apart from producing works such as ‘The Misanthrope’, ‘The School for Wives’, ‘Tartuffe’, ‘The Miser’, ‘The Imaginary Invalid’, and ‘The Bourgeois Gentleman’, most of his works were done in French.

Matukuta also singles out German author, playwright and essayist, Rainald Maria Goetz, who produced a number of plays in his native German, and the plays went on to scoop international awards.

In the meantime, as English playwrights make hay while the sun shines, their Chichewa counterparts could be waiting for a turn that may never come.

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