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Remaking Russian Anton Shekov, making of a Malawian director

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A boy harbours secret love ambitions for a long time.

The opportunity to express his feelings to his child-hood love avails itself.

However, his immediate response is ambiguity that borders on fear— most likely, fear of the unknown. It is as if further delaying the opportunity will make the love disappear.

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It does not.

In the Malawian sense, the protagonist’s fear leads him to rekindle buried disputes but, to his dismay, his sense of loss of direction does not iron out his love for the woman. It, rather, serves as a barrier between his wish to marry and what he calls his ‘principle’ not to give up on what is truly his— land— even if it means losing the girl of his heart.

Consequently, until he meets his secret love, the protagonist’s love life is cast as a struggle against self-doubt, disguised as the efforts of a principled man trying to hold on to what belongs to him; which happens to be the piece of land that borders that of the girl’s parents.

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All these dynamics were at play when actors Mwandidalitsa Topola, Alfred Kaambakadzanja, Owen Sandramu and Fletcher Chelewani starred in ‘The Marriage Proposal’, an adapted play directed by former University of Malawi (Unima) student, Bright Phumayo Chayachaya.

It is a simple play, in terms of stage work, as well as characters at play. Featuring four characters, it did not require any changes on stage and, on that point, organisers Chanco Travelling Theatre and International Alliance for University Theatre scored a point.

Mwandidalitsa played Hazel Kaponda, the girl being proposed to; Owen Sandram played Steven Kaponda, Hazel’s father; Alfred played Martin Katsache, the boy who was proposing; and Fletcher Chelewani played Chikongwe, Martin’s uncle.

This is ‘The Marriage Proposal’, a renowned play written by Anton Chekhov, Russian physician, renowned short story author and playwright.

However, since Chekhov — who was born in 1860 and died in 1904 — has been 112 years dead and can nolonger represent himself in person —it had to be someone else adapting and directing ‘The Marriage Proposal’, and staging it with a cast local of Malawians, before a Malawian audience.

And, so, it happened on Thursday that, in its adapted sense, Chekhov’s original ‘The Marriage Proposal’ moves beyond Russian borders, beyond Chekhov’s grave, beyond the oceans, even beyond the collective sense of Russian nationalism, into the wider creative sphere where art is universal.

Director in the making

‘The Marriage Proposal’ director, Chayachaya, is a second-born in a family of three.

While Chayachaya, the holder of a Bachelor’s Degree [Communication and Cultural Studies] from Unima’s Chancellor College, could on the scale of public opinion be far from getting into the thick of things in terms of play directing, he seems to be a quick learner.

After all, barely ten years have elapsed since he developed interest in drama. That came 102 years after Chekhov was last seen walking on earth.

“Interest in drama developed in 2006, after I watched some productions while in secondary school but, I might say, I have been thrilled by story-telling since I was young. And I feel drama is unique and a powerful tool that can be used to retell the story of Malawi,” Chayachaya says.

It is not clear whether, by saying “young”, he is referring to the time he did his primary school at Bangwe Catholic, before proceeding to Matandani Secondary School, where he sat Junior Certificate of Education examinations, and Phwezi Boys, where he sat Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations.

What is clear, though, is that the interest he developed in drama in 2006 has kindled a deep desire to turn professional.

“Currently, I am working on establishing a theatre group, The International Alliance for University Theatre, with the help of Chancellor College former student, Nehemiah Jere, who also founded the group but is working somewhere,” Chayachaya explains.

However, Chayachaya has quickly learned that life in the arts industry revolves around appreciating what others have done, identifying aspects that can be emulated, and learning fresh things every passing day and night.

And ‘The Marriage Proposal’ adaptation seems to have been part of the learning bend for Chayachaya, who peppers over the labours of adapting something foreign into the Malawian contest by saying the cast was manageable, hence there were no serious challenges faced during rehearsal.

“It was easy to have a cast of four. One, most of the actors are in school and, so, scheduling for rehearsals was easy and it was easy to note the mistakes each actor made for proper directions. And, when it comes to travelling, it is even cheap to provide transport and accommodation to such a small number.

“I would say the only challenge that we faced was that when one actor missed rehearsals, it meant we would not be able to move forward because, since this was a one act, all actors had to be available for rehearsals each day for us to be productive. Roselyn dzanja helped so much as our productions manager,” Chayachaya adds.

However, while patrons who thronged the Little Theatre at Chancellor College saw only four characters on stage, as the director and productions manager remained buried in the obscurity of the patrons’ minds, Chayachaya was seeing other invisible people at play on the stage. These are the individuals who have shaped him.

As such, the affable producer, who stays in Zomba but traces his roots to Dedza, is quick to attribute his ability to recreate the work of a dead artist to people who have shaped him into an actor and, as it turns out, director.

“Innocent Katsache inspires me quite a lot. He has helped me grow both as an actor and director. He has a unique way of defining things and I have borrowed a leaf from [him],” Chayachaya says.

If other family members in the Chayachaya family could come across the Innocent Katsaches of this world, they would, surely, also be directing and acting. Just like Chayachaya.

But, as it were, he remains the lone family member to have developed interest in expressive arts. Of course, his sister studied drama during her first year in college, but has allowed that glow of interest in drama to die down in her pursuit for the meanings of other things in life.

For him, though, the journey continues.

“After ‘The Marriage Proposal’, we have [lined up] several productions that are in their infancy stage. [Productions] like ‘Woza Albert’ by Percy Mtwa, and we are planning to do ‘Smoldering Charcoal’, but this depends on the availability of funds. Expect a lot [of productions] from me and International Alliance for University Theatre,” Chayachaya adds.

Knowing Anton Chekhov

Chekhov the Russian was not always a straight-forward individual, maybe because, as physician, short story author and playwright, he had so many caps fitting his single head.

And this influenced Chayachaya’s choice of he [Chekhov] whose head fits many caps.

After all, and as Chayachaya puts it, Chekhov’s “Often ambiguous, at times humorous, gritty, haunting, ironic, anecdotal, facetious, lyrical, apathetic, bizarre, passionate and tragic works explore the entire range of the human spirit”.

Chayachaya puts this into perspective: “Through his use of such Chekhovian elements as subjective observation, stream of consciousness, character epiphanies, and juxtapositions of pessimism and humour, we are immersed in the lives of Chekhov’s complex characters. He spurned the more traditional story as moral lesson found in the style of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“He wanted his works to ask the reader questions, not to provide answers. While he started out with more comedic sketches and doggerel published under pseudonyms such as Antosha Chekhonte, Chekov went on to write dozens of stories, many [of which are] critically acclaimed as fine exemplars of the craft and [some are] still studied today,” he points out.

Indeed, Chekhov’s autobiographical journey, as seen through the eyes of a child ‘The Steppe’, earned him the Pushkin Prize in 1888, with countless contemporary authors and playwrights referring to Chekhov’s head-of-many-caps as a source of inspiration at one point or another.

But this does not mean Chayachaya and Dzanja had to parrot every word from the creative works of Shekhov, who some claim to be second best in stage popularity only to William Shakespeare.

“’The Love Proposal’ itself is a play that had to be adapted so as to bring it closer to the Malawian audience,” Chayachaya, who directed several plays while in college, points out.

In the final analysis, Martin Katsache might have negotiated the bend of procrastination by fainting, coming to, and finding himself in the arms of the woman he had secretly admired in ‘The Love Proposal’, but Chayachaya is yet to negotiate the real bends in Malawi’s real arts industry.

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