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Theatre industry’s blackout on foreign works

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By Richard Chirombo:

HAVE PLENTY TO OFFER — Malawi’s theatre groups such as Kwathu Drama Group

Two to four years ago, the practice— which sees local artists recount stories that have made Europe and other continents merry for centuries on foreign soil that is Malawi, hundreds of kilometres away from the play wrights’ birth-place— was in full flower.

The act was simple to carry out. All a local playwright, or individual involved in production, needed to do was learn from foreign literature and history books and, then, redeem the accounts through humour on the local theatre stage.

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They—local playwrights and theatre groups—then cultivated fame for something that is not their original work, for it took very little fire to generate the smoke of fame.

And, in the name of doing adaptations for plays created on foreign soil, local theatre groups such as Nanzikambe Arts found it easy to adapt plays such as La storia della tigre ‘The Story of the Tiger’— a play authored by the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Italian Dario Fo— African Romeo and Juliet, Hendrik Ibsen’s Doll’s House adaption, Breaking the Pot, among others.

In fact, since its inception in 2003, Nanzikambe Arts has done adaptations of several foreign plays.

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Solomonic Peacocks, another renowned local theatre group, is also known for staging foreign adaptations of plays, notably the French play L’ecole des femme (School of Wives) at the finals of the French Drama Schools Competition.

While the practice of adapting foreign plays is common in the world of theatre, and some theatre-goers find no problem with the practice, some observers have expressed reservations over the trend.

They argue that, when a country’s theatre industry finds itself in this sort of situation, there is always someone behind the scenes who starts such a ‘game’ in order to win at the original playwright’s expense.

For instance, theatre devotee Bruno Matumbi expresses reservations over the practice, observing, through his Facebook page, thus: “This trend of redoing plays written elsewhere is making me sad. Was Du (Chisiza Jnr.) the last Nyasaland playwright? I loathe adaptations done for no special reason but for lack of (creativity) or laziness of some sort.”

Matumbi says another disappointing aspect is that the quality of original local productions is poor, reiterating Ben Okri’s sentiments that, “African literature gets praise from its content and not quality”.

He observes, for instance, that some plays are created for the sake of it. “A play about Cashgate becomes a good one but (is) without any artistic value. There are activists’ plays and not artistic ones. I am a purist.”

But, then, players in the theatre industry have, countless times, spoken on the issue, with Charles Shemu Joyah of The Last Fishing Boat on record to have said: “The biggest problem I have with the Malawian plays is their quality on one hand and a not too demanding audience on the other.”

Joyah further observes that the problem goes beyond content, “it’s the manner in which the content is presented. A play like Sizwe Bansi is Dead is steeped in anti-apartheid content, but present it a manner that is very artistic in terms of language and imagery.”

Mbene Mbunga Mwambene, who has become the local face of The Story of the Tiger by performing the one-man act in Malawi and abroad, says issues of funding also influence the trend of delving into the world of adaptations.

“There is another practical dimension to explain why we find ourselves doing adaptations. Apart from being just classics with great quality, we are so much influenced by the source of funds. Specific funders only fund specific projects. The artistic freedom is limited. As long as you try to (be artistic and) are out of the area of confinement, the question of getting funding becomes irrelevant,” Mwambene says.

However, there has been a decrease in the number of plays adopted from the outside of Malawi, which must please Dikamawoko Arts director, Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera.

“There are very few theatre groups that do adaptations. Solomonic, Lions, Kwathu, Dikamawoko, Rising Choreos, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre and many others are producing original scripts but perhaps you do not get to see them or to hear about them.

“And, since the death of Du Chisiza, there have been so many plays that have been written and produced. Perhaps they lacked mass appeal for one reason or another, but there have been produced nonetheless,” says Nkhonjera, adding:

“The difficult thing about theatre these days is that it faces so many challenges, one of them being competition with other forms of entertainment, an example being television. The other problem is advertising. Du Chisiza advertised on MBC Radio and in The Daily Times and everyone got the message. These days if we advertise on MBC TV, you could be watching Times TV, or more likely, DSTV. If we advertise in The Daily Times, maybe you only read The Nation. If we advertise on Capital FM, maybe you only listen to Zodiak (Broadcasting Station). If we advertise on Facebook, maybe you are not even in the Theatre Malawi group. There are many challenges.”

Whatever the case, local plays seem to be taking their right place in the arts industry.

That is to say local productions remain a sphere of deep homogeny steeped in their own self-sufficient order; hence, they stand no chance of facing extinction.

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