Theatre is powerful. It is one art discipline which has been used by theatre practitioners to entertain and tackle issues affecting society.
A lot has been said about theatre in the country failing to make progress and many look back to the times of Chancellor College Travelling Theatre, when it was vibrant then, featuring actors such as Edge Kanyongolo, the late Du Chisiza Jr, who used to pull huge audiences with Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre (Wet), the times of the late Gertrude Webster Kamkwatira and not forgetting the times of fallen comedians Izeki ndi Jakobo (John Nyanga and Eric Mabedi).
Some theatre lovers speak highly of the past and some have gone further to say that they have no time to watch present-day theatre performances.
But there will always be changes in life in any field. While theatre had great actors and playwrights, there are players who have shown potential and have created plays worth watching in this present day.
Theatre practitioners in this present day have gone on to connect, creating projects together, and there are drama groups in the country that have worked on projects together with drama groups from Europe.
At Jacaranda Cultural Centre in Blantyre, theatre has manifested itself through Theatre in Mandala curated by actor and playwright Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera and so many drama groups have embraced this stage with plays.
Apart from this, there are actors and playwrights that have showed the beauty of theatre and the potential of drama in Malawi by taking part in theatre performances outside the country.
Actors such as Mbene Mbunga Mwambene and Thoko Kapiri have represented the country outside, showing their talents in theatre, with the latest being Misheck Mzumara, a drama lecturer at Mzuzu University.
Mzumara is c in United States of America, where he is pursuing theatre studies.
His presence in United States of America has seen him engaging various players and staging performances.
Mzumara, who has casted in several productions at home, has performed Tales of A Migrant, a solo performance written by Kapiri, and has directed Sizwe Bansi is Dead which was staged recently.
And now Mzumara is into another project of a play titled Sweat, which explores themes of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and labour relations in a deeply human way.
According to an article on www.liberalart.vt.edu, Mzumara has been part of The Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts presentation of Lynn Nottage’s award-winning Sweat for eight performances. The performances opened on Tuesday in Squires Studio Theatre.
Centred on the working class of Reading, Pennsylvania, Sweat tells the story of a group of friends who have spent their lives sharing drinks, secrets, and laughs while working together on the factory floor. When layoffs and picket lines begin to chip away at their trust, the friends find themselves pitted against each other in a fight to stay afloat.
When American playwright and screenwriter Nottage won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Sweat in 2017, she became the first and only woman to have won the prize twice, having also won it for Ruined in 2009.
On the origins of Sweat, Nottage said: “I really set about to figure out how poverty and economic stagnation was really shifting the American narrative.
One of the reasons that I wanted to write Sweat is that I really wanted to put this very fractured city — a city in which everyone was hurting in isolation — I wanted to put those people into dialogue so they all recognised that they all shared this one central narrative.”
Mzumara is excited to be part of the production and also representing Malawi in United States of America.
“In this play, there has been voice coaching on my part because the role required someone with an African American accent,” he said.
He said working in this production has helped him learn new styles of theatre and the at same time share his skills in the piece.
“It’s a powerful production that tackles issues, affecting society not only here in United States of America but the whole world and this play can even fit back home. We have had plays looking into all these issues questioning people in authority,” Mzumara said.
He said he was hoping that such performances would help him build more networks and have connections, even back home, to raise the profile of theatre.
“There is more that actors are doing back home; what they need are platforms and resources,” Mzumara said.
Nottage said Sweat is the American story and that it tells the story of Reading, Pennsylvania, but this could be any place, “it could be any post-industrial city across the landscape.”
According to the article, Nottage has given people an extraordinary story of a community of individuals whose stories “we don’t get to hear, never mind embody, very often”.
Susanna Rinehart, an associate professor of performance, who is directing the play at Virginia Tech, says working with this diverse cast of student actors to climb inside the story has been a gift.
“She has created exactly the ensemble piece she set out to create — empathetic, searching, searing, honest, and full of humanity — and I found exactly the same qualities in this cast as we have worked together. The resonance and relevance is immediate, as we rehearsed throughout what has come to be called Striketober 2021. I hope a lot of people enjoy it,” Rinehart said.
Nottage says her dream is that audience members, after seeing the play, will be inspired to sit down and talk to someone with whom they have never had a conversation.
“I hope that they will ask really tough questions, not just of themselves but of the legislators and the people who are in power,” she said. “I also hope that they will understand the power of art and be more willing to engage with storytelling.”