By Richard Chirombo
So long a road.
This road where potholes are different,
And the hole in the road is not the problem.
This strange road,
A barren, bald-surfaced road where-
If the truth be spelled-
The potholes are the worn-out memories
Deserted stage peaks,
And worn out actors and actresses of old.
This strange road with strange:
Unoccupied stage peaks,
Sullen actors and actresses
And a place so hollow it does not exist
- Is the path Malawi theatre embraced.
And, now, what?
You get me there!
It is the path Malawi theatre so self-feelingly took.
A long water-way, one may say-
This waterway taken by the explorer in a small boat:
The waves raged,
Against his defenseless paddle,
The sun did on the explorer's bald-head scorchingly bite,
His hair, into dry grass whipping
And this senselessness bringing.
The sailor did, over the boat, lose abidance,
As the seas under him escaped
To get so lost in the sea,
And the shore after the sea,
Fail to see,
Or with the lost waves plead.
So long for now!
The self-issued Malawi Theatre Death Certificate is about to be denounced.
Malawi’s golden generation of theatre performers has just revealed their plans to recoup the clout once held by the local English theatre industry.
Theatre goers, especially those of the first and second post-independence generation, remember the time French Cultural Centre Theatre, Malawi Professional Theatre Company, Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre, Force Theatre, Alabama Theatre, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre, United Artists Drama Group which featured the likes of Sunduzwayo and Dingiswayo Madise, Paulendo Drama Group of Eliah Kamphinda Banda, among others, constantly released must watch productions.
One moment they are bubbling with life and, in no time, they are as inactive as in death.
Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre’s (Wet) manager Khumbo Mhango, former Wet actor and Force Theatre founder Frank Patani Mwase, and Mkumbira Arts Theatre director, who is also a former Wet actor and current National Theatre Association of Malawi’s (Ntam) vice-president, Henry Ntalika, have revealed their intent to let Malawians recapture the olden days ‘live’ on stage in separate interviews.
Recalling the past
Most of the people who left a mark on the face of local theatre trace their roots to the Association for Teaching of English in Malawi (Atem), and this includes the venerated late Du Chisiza Jnr. Du along with the likes of Mwase, Waliko Makhala, are all linked to Henry Henderson Institute’s drama club.
While tracing their background to Atem festivals, a number of theatre performers also trace their prowess to starring with Du in Wet. These include Ntalika, Mwase and Twaya Sanudi (founder of Alabama Theatre).
Ntalika, who formed Mkumbira Arts in 1991, while still performing with Wet, dispelled assertions that local English theatre was on its death bed following the hibernation of once-vibrant groups.
“While it is true that once prominent groups are not as active as they used to be, that does not translate into the end of local theatre. It is wrong to pronounce that local theatre is dead simply because the groups that were there in the 80s or 90s are not there,” Ntalika argued.
Ntalika - the brains behind productions such as ‘Village Conflicts’, which was once featured in Steve Chimombo’s Wasi Magazine; Nyifwa, a Tumbuka-sounding though Chichewa production, and; ‘Emotional Judgement’ - said Malawians may as well take it on the chin that some of the groups that entertained the nation may never come back.
“What is important is not the names of the groups but the availability of talent in Malawi. The country has a lot of talented actors and actresses, but what has been lacking is motivation and the platform to express themselves through theatre. I think the media have also not helped, as they focus more on the negatives than the positives, and do not report extensively on developments taking place in the industry,” Ntalika said.
He, however, said the vibrancy of the companies that put theatre on the map could not be attributed to the availability of theatre organisations.
“The great theatre companies thrived under unfavourable conditions because the Southern Region Drama Association, whose first chairperson was Lali Lubani Jnr, with Charles Layman Kachitsa as secretary, was established as recently as 1990. Ntam, on the other hand, was established in 2001. The most important thing is to have the platform,” he said.
Ntalika cited Tiwaonere National Drama Trophy, introduced by drama enthusiast Steven Mcheka- who also owned Tiwaonere Drama Group, as one of the initiatives that promoted local theatre. The sad thing is that after the inaugural trophy, scooped by Upile Drama Group, who were seconded by Nkumbira, Mcheka never came back with another national trophy.
One of the reasons behind the success of yester-year theatre could be the lack of platforms. With the platform restricted to the stage, theatre goers had no choice but visit the auditorium.
The Ntam vice-president said, however, the modern-day stage actor is pitted against unfavourable circumstances.
“The coming in of free-to-air Digital Satellite Television, which has prompted others to start producing movies; the proliferation of radio theatre; the proliferation of Nigerian films, and the quest for money, now threaten the dominance of stage theatre.
“But it is technology that has, actually, stolen that unique state and fun out of theatre,” Ntalika observed.
Facing the future
Ntalika, in his capacity as Ntam Vice-President, says, however, that “the best is not past us; the best is yet to come”.
“You can take my own example. I have been acting since 1986, and am still in the industry. What has happened is not the death of theatre per se, but actors in the industry have found other means of showing their talent.
“Actors and actresses are now hired to do theatre for development in rural areas. A lot more actors, including myself, are acting through radio and television plays, as opposed to the old way of doing things: stage performances,” Ntalika, who acts the Mfumu Mitekete character in Mbali Yanga soap operas.
Mbali Yanga is a radio play broadcast on a number of local stations.
On his part, Mwase said he has been working underground with other veterans and is billed to hit the stage before year-end.
The veteran actor concurred with Ntalika on the point that it is not about actors using the old, famous names that is the issue; rather, he said, it boils down to the brains behind the production.
“But it is not the name (of the theatre company) that matters. What matters is the name behind the same. So, even if we come back under the name Force Theatre or another name, it will still be a Frank Mwase production.
“In fact, we may even come up with a new name … I don’t know. We will see what happens,” Mwase said.
Wet director, Khumbo Mhango, also said he had been concocting something for theatre lovers.
“We have been working on something with Mwase but we have not finalised our discussions. We are working on modalities for a project,” Mhango said.
A source linked to Alabama Theatre, while maintaining that the group was not defunct, attributed the group’s inactivity to Twaya’s move to South Africa.