He is fresh from Germany where he toured the country with incredible performances of The Story Of The Tiger, a play authored by the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Italian Dario Fo, and adapted by Nanzikambe Arts.
At best, his lone act as the tiger in the play sets him apart as one of Malawi’s exceptional majority-of-one. He, all alone, executes more than eight roles in the play.
Among other characters, the 26-year-old, pint-sized Mbene Mwambene from Ishalikira village, T/A Mwabulambya, Chitipa, plays the 20 July 2011 demonstrator, in which he is a female, male, old and youthful demonstrator.
He also plays the police officer, the journalist, the tigress, the tiger, the tiger cab, the Chinese martial artist, a bunch of kids, three different politicians, and the environment.
Of course, another dramatist, Max DC has ever done the same in the past, becoming Malawi’s other majority-of-one for his solo acts. And at some point, Du Chisiza Jr also staged a one-man act.
But what drives Mbene to effectively stage scene after scene in The Story Of A Tiger for close to one hour?
“What I like about the play is that it serves as a personal motivation. I realised that, when 20 demonstrators were gunned down in July 2011, I had no powers to convene a meeting, or take any action. Art is the only channel through which to express myself,” he explains.
In the play, which Fo adopted from an ancient Chinese folktale about a wounded and abandoned soldier who was healed by a tigress, Mbene does not advocate for a revolution, as Fo attempted to do. But he still manages to turn it into a socio-political critique.
“I, specifically, enjoy the scene where I am playing the environment. This means I have to react to the environment and, at the same time, be the environment. For example, when I am the mountain, curve, or river, I have to show that I am those things by, for instance, diving to show that I am talking of water,” Mbene says.
Mbene confesses that he has never seen a tiger in his entire life as such he had to research on the behaviour of the animal for him to breathe life into the production.
“I had to subscribe to DSTV and, for three months, I was watching Nat Geo Wild (TV channel). I wanted to see how tigers and tigresses behave, take care of their kids, their eating and walking habits. I also wanted to know how these wild creatures react when angry,” Mbene says.
That is how he got to understand the mythical characters of a tigress, namely, strength, smartness, and respect.
Journey into acting
Mbene started amateur acting in 1995, while at Machona Middle Basic School in Kitwe Copper-belt Province, Zambia. He was born in Zambia because his father had secured employment in one of the copper mines there.
“But I started professional acting in 2007. I first worked for Nanzikambe Theatre Organisation from 2007 to 2008. I, then, joined The Story Workshop, working as Community Mobilisation Officer,” he says.
He is back at Nanzikambe, where he works as Community Arts Club facilitator.
But how did he find himself being identified to feature in ‘The Story Of The Tiger’?
“There is a partnership between Nanzikambe and Konstanz Theatre Company of Germany. When, in 2010, the Germans first came to Malawi, their director Nix noticed the talent I have as we attended some workshops.
“Nix said he liked my talent and physical skill and promised that, once back in Germany, he would send me a book about the story of a tigress written in 1978 by Fo. A month later, he sent the book and asked me to do a one-man play. He asked me to choose a director, and I settled for Thokozani Kapiri,” Mbene discloses.
That is how Kapiri found himself doing the blocking, text analysis, timing, and adaptation of the story to suit the local scenario.
“We had to localise it by bringing in events that happened last year”.
However, Mbene says that contrary to what has been written about the play before, the title is not supposed to be ‘The Story Of The Tiger’ but ‘The Story Of The Tigress’ as the story revolves around a tigress which takes care of a wounded demonstrator in the jungle.
The play can be described as a critique of political leaders who - in pretending to be palsied by the dictates of their followers, feign extraordinary solicitude, thereby flattering citizens’ prejudices as they minister to their (people’s) passions, and soothe their transient opinions - begin to take people for granted.
That is why the play features most recent socio-political developments in Malawi with the July 20 demonstrations being one of the motifs. In factoring in Malawi’s realities, it takes a thinly-veiled swipe at three top officials in the then ruling Democratic Progressive Party administration.
“At best, the play helps us reflect on the ills in our society,” Mbene says.
Memories from Germany
The actor says he learned a lot about theatre in Europe.
“Theatre is a professional industry characterised by high-level organisation. Imagine, during three days of my rehearsals, I had six people working around me: Two technicians, three directors, and one make-up artist.
“I liked the way they marketed our performances. Patronage was good, and people were time-conscious.”
The actors also went to Switzerland, where 30 theatre companies from Germany, Austria, Italy and France took part in a soccer tournament.
“We were the second-worst team. The Italians were really magical. We played the games at Basel’s ground and I, as a Manchester United fan, found the experience fascinating because Basel brought us down in the Champions League. I actually brought one ball home,” he says.