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Kwathu Drama Group’s reflexivity

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A Njira, who is heavily weighed down by mental illness, looks almost celebratory because she does not know it.

Her costume is mounded together in a life-like manner: piles of plastic bottles, a carton, neat, worn-out clothes, a suggestive dances and an incoherent speech in which the only constant words are ‘Tipange zijazi”.

The action seems relentlessly practical, evidence of careful planning and foresight. In the end, even Anjira’s costume looks merely like molecules of the natural body, and not something Anjira, without knowing it, imposes on herself due to the mental illness.

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The gulf between the mentally disturbed and the so-called sane world stays unabridged, although it is not often that those with mental illness take advantage of the sane, much as the sane take advantage of the mentally disturbed.

The storyline, sharpened by the sharp knife of Eric Mabedi and Charles Mphoka’s brains, is as familiar as its script. It does not matter where it is staged: Mulanje District or Blantyre City.

The protagonist, Chaulere— which happens to be the play’s title— does not change shape or character: Just the same, life-toughened girl who has to find her way into the right man’s heart without knowing the face, let alone name, of her biological mother.

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Surely, Catholic nuns who nurse her into adulthood cannot be biological mothers. But, then, what does one benefit by asking questions without answers? And, so, Chaulere resigns to fate. She has to be contented with the world she is thrown in— if not because it is the only thing that can bring her peace, at least because the Catholic nuns spoil her with their love and caring spirit.

While the storyline does not change, Kwathu Drama Group [playwrights and actors] finds a way of linking local events, places and people to it, making the audience feel involved and engaged.

At Limbuli Trading Centre in Mulanje on Saturday, Kwathu played out of the same Chaulele script, but, somewhere along the way, the actors found a way of incorporating local [meaning, things the people of Mulanje, those from Limbuli in particular, are familiar with] experiences and features.

A script creates a story. Yes. But Kwathu creates more stories out of the script as it goes along.

At Limbuli Trading Centre in Mulanje on Saturday, some actors selectively mirrored and expressed things that are familiar with the people of Mulanje. Of course, the words, like the script, might have been entirely premeditated, but Kwathu made it appear as if it was spontaneous— a spur of the moment.

Such reflexivity is a plus, and highlights efforst in ensuring that the patrons feel like they are encased by their own people, in their own world.

The sheer joy of relating things in a play to real life situations outweighs everything else, which explains why the patrons laughed heartily every time local experiences found life in the play.

Otherwise, you would have heard that— incensed by a supposed raw deal— Mulanje patrons had strung Mabedi and Mphoka from the nearest tree at Limbuli Trading Centre. But the actors were ordinary and behaved like they knew the place and the people through and through.

A good example of this reflexivity came to the fore at Limbuli when Kwathu actors referred— of course in passing— to Gawani Village [one of the villages in the district] making it appear as if the actors know Gawani Village, and whatever happens there, very well.

The patrons could not do otherwise but go in stitches.

In one act, one actor mocked another for dressing in “Tumbini”. Tumbini is a radio station in Mozambique and people always find the accent of some of its presenters funny. They, therefore, pick on them— but in a way that is light-hearted.

Again, in one act, the issue of Blantyre Water Board’s plans to draw water from Mulanje Mountain is raised. In this case, a villager whose house is the only one with iron sheets in the village stops others from fetching water trapped in the iron sheets’ ridges.

The development means the villagers, who are struggling to access something as basic as water— let alone potable water— will be left at the mercy of natural devices [drinking water from open sources].

The village is, surely, a metaphor for Malawi, where citizens have been struggling to access potable water.

It was a similar case at Blantyre Cultural Centre (BCC) in Blantyre where, apart from making indirect references to the project designed to tap water from Mulanje Mountain, other issues specific to the Blantyre audience came into play.

The other issue is about mayoral ‘appointments’.

That three cities – Mzuzu, Blantyre and Lilongwe— will have mayoral elections in January 2017 is common knowledge. The two-and-a-half years term of the incumbents has expired.

Zomba, Malawi’s other city, will have no elections because the Mayor was elected in September last year.

But Kwathu did not tackle these issues, but only twisted the way mayors are put into their positions. In fact, musician Giddes Chalamanda was brought into the picture, too.

In the play, Giddes was referred to as a public figure who has recently “been appointed Blantyre City Mayor by the President”. Of course, presidents do not appoint, let alone ‘elect’ mayors, and the actor meant to showcase his knowledge of Blantyre and the public officials in charge.

The Giddes Chalamanda being referred to as Mayor of Blantyre in the act is, in fact, a musician. The real Blantyre City Mayor is Noel Chalamanda. But they are both Chalamandas.

Predictably, the audience went into stitches; not because of the actor’s induced ‘ignorance’, but because of the funny way the events unfolded.

It is obvious that the Giddes Chalamanda entry did not feature in the circle of the play’s life at Limbuli in Mulanje.

Maybe the thing both sets of patrons can identify with is that of mental illness.

The other one could be Cashgate, an issue subtly introduced when one actor laments that those who steal are left scot free. It is an indirect sweep at the powers-that-be.

The issue of harmful cultural practices, most notably fisi (hyena practice) was sarcastically introduced through the name given to one of the actors, Aniva, who plays housemaid. A naughty housemaid for that matter.

In real life, Eric Aniva from Nsanje District was recently arrested and convicted for indulging in, or promoting, something anathema to society. He told the BBC he had slept with over a century females.

The irony is that, in Chaulere’s case, Aniva has never married, and may even claim, if we have to stretch the imagination too far, to be a ‘virgin’!

Interaction with the audience is one aspect that features highly, too; indicating that patrons can be participants in a play.

Perhaps the only challenge with Chaulere, both in Mulanje and Blantyre, was the sitting plan. The actors, sometimes up to eight, are seen sitting in a straight line, as if they are youth standing on a circumcision queue.

One only hopes that Kwathu Drama Group continues to leave space in its script; space that may become playground for linking local issues to imaginary life in plays.

References to local events are engaging because they, in a way, break down any sense or feeling of isolation, bringing patrons inside the spinning script and making them part of the gravity.

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