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Well-oiled machine that is Kwathu Drama Group

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ONE OF THE PLAYWRIGHTS — Mabedi

Relevance, that overused term, is, in theatre, a tricky thing to sustain— especially when you, like Kwathu Drama Group, were formed in 1980.

More so because, in the words of spokesperson Bon Kalindo, you, at one point or another, suffer the fate of “cold soup”.

When cold soup is served on a customer in, say, a restaurant or motel or hotel— whatever it be— the customer is likely to be left with the feeling that he or she would have enjoyed it hot had he or she popped up a bit earlier.

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Chances are that the customer may come back or not.

“That is why we try our best to remain relevant, to address the hot issues, to keep to our touch,” he said.

That [remaining relevant, treating no issue as sacred] have meant Kwathu’s fire continues burning.

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But there is more, according to one of Kwathu’s renowned faces Eric Mabedi.

He said camaraderie has meant the group has been through thick and thin and survived.

This spirit is alive in Chaulere, one of Kwathu Drama Group’s brain-children over the course of the 41 years it has been alive and kicking.

Here goes the story:

Anjira , 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, fitting, neat, worn-out clothes, a suggestive dance 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 in the social body, and not something Anjira, without knowing it, imposes on herself.

She has a mental illness, after all.

The gulf between the mentally challenged and the so-called mentally sound people 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 Mabedi and Charles Mphoka’s brains, is as familiar as its script. It does not matter where it is staged— in the Central, South or Northern Region, the issues being raised are universal.

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.

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.

A script creates a story, yes; but Kwathu creates more stories out of the script as it goes along.

The group does this through interaction with audience members in the course of plays. It is a mark of flexibility.

Such reflexivity is a plus, and highlights efforts 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 patrons laugh heartily, or let their faces get washed by a fountain of tears, every time local experiences find their own life in a Kwathu Drama Group play.

In the thick of plays, veterans like Mabedi and Mphoka know pretty well how to behave. Them and other actors ollk ordinary, deliberately or not, and behave like they know places and people through and through.

A good example of this reflexivity came to the fore when Kwathu Drama Group performed at Limbuli Trading Centre in Mulanje District in 2016. There, Kwathu actors referred— of course in passing— to Gawani Village [one of the villages in the district], making it appear as if the actors knew Gawani Village, and whatever happens there, very well.

Patrons could not do otherwise but go in stitches.

In one scene, 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. This is an ongoing project that is not seeing the light of day.

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 not even be able to benefit from the water project, which is meant for people in Blantyre City.

How cruel.

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

At some point in its plays, Kwathu Drama Group has referred to some of the local artists, including Giddes Chalamanda.

In Chaulere, Giddes was referred to as a public figure who had 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 who was referred to as Mayor of Blantyre in the act is, in fact, a musician. The real Blantyre City Mayor at that point was Noel Chalamanda. But they are both Chalamandas.

Today’s incumbent mayor is Wild Ndipo.

Kwathu Drama Group has also tackled the issue of Cashgate, where its actors lamented that those who steal are left scot free. It is an indirect sweep at the powers-that-be.

Cashgate is the plunder of public resources at Capital Hill.

In Chaulere, the issue of harmful cultural practices, most notably Fisi (hyena practice) is 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 arrested and convicted by the courts 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’!

Another thing that has remained constant in Kwathu Drama Group’s plays is that of sitting plan. The actors, sometimes up to eight, are sometimes 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 the 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.

This is likely to continue beyond the 41 years of Kwathu Drama Group’s existence. May the good times roll.

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