It was supposed to be a perpetual boom that would carry us on. From a passive hobby before 1980, English theatre rose to the status of a vacation between 1981 and 1994. The country was, then, dotted with accomplished actors.
Then, after 1994, the enthusiasm faltered, and English theatre has been struggling to occupy the position it once held in our hearts.
That was the era of the likes of actor Frank Patani Mwase, effects of whose death are still being felt today; just like the long mourned absence of the late Du Chizisa Jnr.
The likes of Kamdoni Nyasulu, Chris Kamlongera, Edge Kanyongolo, among others, were also on song, then.
Unfortunately, for years now, commercialization has taken the quality out of theatre in that the artist does not benefit, while quality and talent are disregarded by those who benefit from the process.”
The other problem, ironically, is that theatre for development (TfD) is quickly losing its meaning, as it has, within a limited time, been mixed up with other forms of theatre, notably commercial.
Then, there is the issue of great artists having nothing to show for their sweat and lack of proper venues.
After 57 years of independence, Blantyre still has no suitable public theatre venue. The privately owned Robin’s Park could do the trick if it was built with theatre in mind; proper lights, curtains and exit points.”
After all these, brain-drain will see fine arts’ graduates from the university scrambling for financial opportunities elsewhere— taking life out of theatre.
“Piracy is another facet. People freely pirate artists’ work and, then, laugh when the artist dies poor,” observes director for Salima-based Kaputu Theatre Movement, Evalisto Marten Kapwepwe.
The playwright further says those that promote theatre have been getting little support, citing organisers of the Association for Teaching English in Malawi (Atem).
Great minds have contributed to Atem’s cause but the government has never shown enough interest in it.
Just imagine the likes of Dr James Ng’ombe coming up with the production The King’s Spiral and offering it up to students so that they can master their acting skills.
Even English teachers from, say, Henry Henderson Institute (HHI), have done their best, contributing to the cause from as early as the 1970s. Between 1981 and 1982, for instance, they concocted Servant of Two Masters, which shook the country.
Those were the days of HHI Drama Club, where Waliko Makhala and others made a name through plays such as The Deceased’s Attack.
The Deceased’s Attack eventually won the Atem festival.
After the play’s success, some of the actors felt that they had matured in their art. That is how Wakhumbata Workshop Theatre was formed.
Under its banner, actors such as Mwase, Makhala, among others, toured districts such as Karonga and Mzuzu in the Northern Region to preach the message of theatre from Blantyre.
“I watched one of their plays at Karonga Boma and that left a lasting impression on me. I cannot compare theatre in those days to theatre today,” says 80-year-old Gamphani Mhango.
He could be right. He could be wrong.
The truth is that theatre is on course to reclaiming its place in Malawians’ hearts again, if what YDC Theatre, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre [the group has not changed its name despite Chancellor College becoming a stand-alone University of Malawi now] and other groups did at Tumaini Festival in Dowa District two weeks ago.
In the theatre corner, they showed that there is more that theatre can offer to the country. From stage-setting, costume, storyline to, here and there, staged engagement with members of the audience, theatre could be destined for a rebound.
When that happens, theatre-lovers will stop mourning about the demise of theatre groups such as French Cultural Centre, which had plays such as That scoundrel Moliere production in 1983; Wakhumbata Workshop Theatre, Cultural Advancement Theatre, Malawi Professional Theatre Company, Tiwuke Performing Arts, Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre, among others.
Maybe Chancellor College Travelling Theatre, which was there and is still here, will be a symbol of local theatre’s lasting enduring, and inspire the birth of like groups.