Theatre, that soft conceit, has finally, and rightly so, emerged as the most palatable form of regional unity.
More so because issues bordering on regional blocs, such as the Southern African Development Community— to which Malawi is a member— are unifying but lack a sense of purpose, and appeal less to the average citizen, when accompanied by a good cut of official-language-meat.
At the same time, finding common ground in a region replete with cultural and socio-economic differences is a very tricky thing and it is the rare individual who can carry it off.
Playwright and University of Malawi drama lecturer Smith Likongwe has just done that. He seems to have the knack for carrying such tricky tasks as unifying efforts with ease, if his latest offer, in the form of Southern African Plays 11, is anything to go by.
If Likongwe ever thought about something at night and discarded it during the day, 2020 is definitely not the year it happened.
This is because Likongwe has just actualised the idea that crossed his mind in 2020 and is back with Southern African Plays 11. Why back?
Well, Southern African Plays 11 is an anthology, the continuation of Southern African Plays 1, which is basically the initial idea he hatched one day and never discarded the next one.
Published by Pan African Publishers Limited, the second anthology marks the continuation of an initiative aimed at identifying, preserving and promoting dramatic literature from this part of Africa.
Southern African Plays 1, the first anthology, saw the light of day in 2018 and has five plays straight from the brains of playwrights from four countries of Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
However, the second anthology has gone a step farther, accommodating seven plays from playwrights based in the six countries of Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana.
What distinguishes the plays from any other plays is that the bulk of them are award-winning scripts or productions.
The seven plays in the book are When Angels Weep by Blessing Hungwe from Zimbabwe. The play won the award of Most Outstanding Theatrical Production in the National Arts Merits Awards for Zimbabwe in 2013.
Similarly, Stanley Makuwe’s play Chimbwido-Girl of War won the Most Outstanding Theatrical Production for Zimbabwe’s Nama Awards of 2016.
Then, there is Stanley Makuwe, the New Zealand-based playwright well known for the play Black Lover.
Other plays are The Chosen One by Dr Cheela Chilala from the University of Zambia; from South Africa, Palesa Mazamisa presents Shoes and Coups: A Paradox of the Absurd. Namibia has not been left behind, with Battered by Donald Matthys making it into the anthology.
Michael Mmoloki Tebogo is representing Botswana with Profound Secrets while Malawi’s offering comes in the form of Likongwe’s Mzansi Hopes.
That is how the scythe that is Southern African Plays 11 is cutting through colonial boundaries to, again, present Southern Africa inhabitants as, not peoples but, people!
And the “people’ are not just people; they are award-winners.
When Angels Weep, for example, won the award of Most Outstanding Theatrical Production in the National Arts Merits (Nama) Awards for Zimbabwe in 2013.
Likewise, Chimbwido-Girl of War won the Most Outstanding Theatrical Production for Zimbabwe’s Nama Awards of 2016.
As for Makuwe the individual— who is based in New Zealand— he was in the news in Auckland recently with Black Lover play, a historical play depicting Sir Garfield Todd, former Rhodesian prime minister, in a gripping drama about war, politics and colonialism.
The Chosen One play, to its credit, won the accolade of the Most Outstanding Script for 2019 in Zambia’s annual Ngoma Awards. And this had nothing to do with the fact that the playwright has links to the University of Zambia.
In terms of Shoes and Coups: A Paradox of the Absurd, it scooped the Best New South African Script for 2019 in the annual Naledi Theatre Awards.
Battered was, itself, nominated for Best Original Script in Namibia for 2019 while Profound Secrets is not new to awards in Botswana, where the playwright Tebogo’s plays have won Botswana’s President’s Day Awards six times.
Surely, Southern African Plays 11 is not a collection of plays from far and wide; it is a meeting place.