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.
However, veteran actor Frank Patani Mwase still believes that the sweet path once-trodden by the likes of Du Chizisa Jnr., Mwase himself, Kamdoni Nyasulu, Chris Kamlongera, Edge Kanyongolo, among others, can be re-tarred.
“The problem we have,” says Mwase, “is that 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.”
Now, the tragedy with ignoring talent and quality is, to quote inspirational author Adam Smith, that “Unless those few…happen to be placed is some very particular situations, their great abilities, though honourable to themselves, may contribute very little to the good government or happiness of their society”.
The other problem, ironically, is theatre for development (TfD. Mwase says TfD should not be mixed up with other forms of theatre as, “by promoting functional literacy at a very basic level, creativity loses out”.
Then, there is the issue of great artists having nothing to show for their sweat and lack of proper venues.
“After 48 years of independence, Blantyre still has no suitable theatre venue. With due respect, Robin’s Park is good, but it was not built with the artist in mind. The place should have proper lights, curtains, and exit points.”
After all these, brain-drain will see fine arts’ graduates from the university scrambling for financial opportunities elsewhere- leaving this enormous hole of blackness in Malawi’s theatre orbs.
“Piracy is another facet. People freely pirate artists’ work and, then, laugh when the artist dies poor,” he says.
The way it begun
Mwase’s theatre interest started at four years during in an Easter play co-acted with his brother. He, then, got baptized into theatre when he attended an Association for Teaching English in Malawi (Atem) festival at Blantyre Teachers College (BTC).
He liked Dr. James Ng’ombe production ‘The King’s Spiral’, as presented by Chichiri Secondary School students. Then, between 1981 and 1982, Mwase found himself testing the drama ropes when he acted in HHI’s ‘Servant of two masters’.
But the defining moment came when, while in Form One, he met Waliko Makhala- then a member of H.H.I.’s drama club. Makhala was rehearsing for ‘The deceased’s attack’.
“I was a silent member of that cast. That is when I met the late Du Chisiza Jnr.,” he says.
‘The deceased’s attack’ eventually won the Atem festival.
That is how Wakhumbata Workshop Theatre was formed. Du left for further studies, Mwase became chairperson of the group, and, with Waliko, toured districts such as Karonga and Mzuzu.
Drawing the audience
The French Cultural Centre (FCC) then joined the fray, with ‘That scoundrel Moliere’ production in 1983 becoming FCC’s debut production. The late Jika Mkolokosa and Paul Paseli were part of the cast.
In 1984, Mwase acted in FCC’s ‘That would be gentleman’. The play was directed by Kamdoni Nyasulu. He also acted in ‘Chauta’s wrath’, directed by Nyasulu but scripted by Chris Kamlongera.
“In the formative years, only the ‘cultural afternoon’- a mixed event that featured poetry, music, drama- drew multitudes,” he says.
After Wakhumbata Workshop Theatre came groups such as the FCC Theatre, later renamed Cultural Advancement Theatre. That is how Paul Paseli production, ‘Mine by convenience’, came to grace the local theatre stage.
In 1987, Mwase and Du joined up again to form Malawi Professional Theatre Company. The group later paved way for Tiwuke Performing Arts, whose benefactor was Bazuka Mhango.
It is Tiwuke that turned into Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre (Wet).
“It was not easy to attract a huge audience in 1987 because Chichewa plays were popular.
“However, the auditorium was full during our first performance. Of course, it was a small auditorium- accommodating 245 people,” he says.
Mwase says, due to the restrictive political situation of the time, “drama was more than entertainment; it was more figurative”.
“Our productions were political in nature and we could tackle issues we cannot tackle now. We did a lot of marketing, and the performances used to be hectic that we could do six performances in four days.
“Eventually, we became popular and could disrupt normal classes at secondary schools,” Mwase says.
The problem with mentoring
Why, then, after embracing great artists such as Viphwa Harawa, Edge Kanyongolo, Mwase himself, continuity seems to be a major problem?
“Mentoring is a difficult thing to do in the Malawian set up because it is not instutionalised. There are no programmes meant to nurture talent.”
Mwase also says mentoring the new generation has been a challenge because “we were ahead of our time”.
“So, as they say, in the absence of wise men, even fools can rule.”
He says economic factors have also drawn most veterans away from the stage.
“You can be a very famous person but, economically, you are not progressing and, at the end of the day, you go back to your poverty. If life cannot be found in art, you go elsewhere,” he says.
Mwase also draws stark differences between modern-day Atem and the Atem of old.
“It has to do with the quality of what we are doing. In those days, Atem enjoyed the support of politicians and administrators such that politically-intonated plays such as ‘The deceased attack’ could be performed before Member of Parliament after scooping Atem awards.
“These days, if you go to watch an Atem play, you must be a parent to one of the students,” he says.
Intellectual discourse versus stage act
He adds that, in the past, the academia and arts groups had strong relations, and this contributed to the theatre boom.
Mwase says Chancellor College Travelling Theatre also promoted fine arts. And that is how names such as Lupenga Mphande and Mupa Shumba- figures associated with establishment of Chanco’s fine arts department- quickly come to mind.
The names Mphande and Shumba spearheaded quality among Atem contestants, and artists wrote plays with the knowledge that their scripts would pass through the critical eyes and minds of Chanco lecturers at the back of their minds.
“The level of judgement and analysis in Atem festivals was top level. While patrons waited for results, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre could perform.
“Even if you were not at Chanco, you could mingle with these people and read top notch books. We could read such books as Wole Soyinka’s ‘The swamp dwellers’. Malawi was going through a cultural renaissance and this is the time the Wokomaatani Malungas were coming to light,” Mwase says.
This bond between the academia and performing arts was strategic: Chanco offered courses in performing art while arts groups offered the graduates the stage to perfect their game.
The calling past
Mwase denies that he has retired from the game.
“Good memories are better than a current disaster. However, we have been working behind the scenes with some of the veterans. We want to come back before the end of the year,’ he says.
This means that theatre-goers will be entertained to plays such as the 1989 production, ‘The Fragments’. The Times of 1989 praised Mwase’s performance, but rated other actors’ performance poorly.
Mwase chooses to differ. “’The fragments’, initially, was not understood because people were used to experimental theatre and wanted straight plays. Actually, we were supposed to perform ‘The me nobody knows’, a Du Chisiza production that was dealing with the sensitive subject of incest, but that play was banned by the Censorship Board.”
In the play, Mwase played more than 10 characters. In one instance, he was ‘Mbale’, in the other he played a prophetic role, then an unborn baby in its mother’s womb, a standup comedian, a street smart character from Blantyre Ndirande township, and so on.
By coming back, he says, the veterans want “go back to that basic understanding of theatre as a movement and rekindle the spirit of old to ensure that we export quality”.
Only then, may be, can the theatre ball fall on the nation with equal violence, giving it the potent of staying power, again.