'Theatre of frustration' draws crowds

The ghosts mobbed the dictator and demanded that he return the country to his people. Then they killed him. In white garments, faces caked in ash, they then haunted each of the leader’s henchmen. “What did you do with the people’s money?” asked one. “You bought cars and luxury homes and paid fees for your children in foreign universities.”

In terms of confronting leadership, this is as far as Zimbabweans can push it—an imaginary uprising led by the dead, played out at Theatre in the Park, a cramped, thatched stage in central Harare that is one of the last outposts of free expression.

The play, The Coup, is a gory tale of corpses that rise from a mortuary and stage a bloody coup. In a country in which arrests for “insulting the president” are frequent, playwrights and actors are taking huge risks with this kind of protest theatre, especially with plays this brazen.

But The Coup has been playing to full houses, drawing audiences driven by a thirst for alternative voices.

Producer Daves Guzha said the play, like many that have had a run on the same stage, reflects Zimbabwe today. “We always try to communicate about issues affecting our country through theatre and art in general,” he said.

Stanley Makuwe, who wrote The Coup, used an experience he had as a student at a public hospital as material for the play—a strike by health workers that once left students in charge of the facility.

“During one of my many visits to the mortuary to dump yet another dead body, something struck me. If all these bodies piled up on the floor were to speak, what would they say? Who would they hold responsible for the unfortunate loss of their lives? What action would they take?”

In his play the corpses march on the president’s official residence and kill him. The soul of the murdered president tries to bribe its way into heaven, but is sent to hell where it comes face to face with the souls of those he once oppressed. It finds asylum in “Satan’s palace” but is hunted down and condemned to hell’s flames.

It is all very graphic and rather contrived. But artists are taking advantage of the relative freedom that theatre enjoys to push the boundaries as far as they can, perhaps to compensate for the restricted space elsewhere.

Zanu-PF has shown its determination to maintain a lid on free expression. Recently, the only two radio licences available were issued to the loyalist state newspapers group and a station owned by a Zanu-PF supporter. The state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation remains the only television station.

On the streets, even light banter can land you in trouble. On the day that President Robert Mugabe celebrated his birthday a man was arrested for jokingly asking who had inflated all these balloons for the man.

Last year a member of Parliament was arrested for calling Mugabe a “goblin”. Another man was arrested after he called his brother, during a quarrel on a bus, as “hard-headed as Mugabe”.

Theatre remains one of the few remaining outlets for free speech. A roster of the plays lined up for the coming weeks shows a continuation of protest.

The list includes plays such as the February 32 Movement, probably a spoof of the 21st February Movement that celebrates Mugabe’s birthday, and Protest Revolutionaries.

Another is Changing of the Guard, media activist Takura Zhangazha’s theatre debut.

Zhangazha said the freedom theatre apparently enjoys is just an illusion. As soon as artists try to take politically charged acts on the road, they face arrest. Playwrights also have to scrutinise their scripts, leaving out content that may be deemed offensive and keeping themselves within “safer limits”, he said.

Most producers call their genre “protest theatre”, but Zhangazha speaks of “frustration theatre”.

“That is to say, ‘protest’ is no longer protest at just Zanu-PF, but cuts across the board. And even though it still is embedded in political persuasions, it has reached a stage of frustration at all and sundry.”

But it is this frustration that is driving much of the creativity; there is a sense among some artists that they have nothing to lose.

In one scene from The Coup a henchman cornered by ghosts swearing at his leader threatens: “You will all be burned for saying that about my leader and the revolution.”
They laugh, reminding him that they are dead already. “What more can you do?”

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