It is not often that actors, bursting with unbridled energy, decide to take on the modern world tooling an old act— especially when every modern producer and director’s goal is to take on the world and establish a new order.
However, as if taking one step backward in order to mobilise a giant sprint forward, Zangaphee Chimombo has done just that. Chimombo has created a Chichewa version of Steve Chimombo’s play, ‘The Rainmaker’. The Chichewa version is titled ‘M’matsakamula’.
The development comes at a time when adapting foreign plays has become an in-thing in Malawi, and gives rise to the question: Is Malawi ready to adapt local English plays into Chichewa?
National Theatre Association of Malawi (NTAM) president, Manasseh Chisiza, says local theatre groups and playwrights have never expressed reservations over the idea of adapting English plays written by Malawians, but the challenge has been funding.
“There is no shortage of characters on which to peg plays in Malawi literature but the cost of producing plays that serve as adaptations of our literature is high. This is why a number of theatre groups prefer to adapt foreign plays,” says Chisiza.
Chisiza adds that some local playwrights have fallen into the habit of adapting foreign plays because of the availability of financiers.
“Organisations that engage local theatre groups in adapting foreign plays fund the exercise and, so, local theatre groups lose little, in terms of finances, when they adapt such plays. This is the reason we have witnessed a number of groups adopting the practice,” says Chisiza.
Local is lekker
As if setting the stage for local adaptations, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre on Thursday premiered ‘M’matsakamula’, one of the greatest works of Professor Chimombo the writer, poet, editor and teacher. So good was he at his game that his 1988 Napolo Poems earned him an honourable mention for the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.
Of late, the country has embraced the practice of adapting foreign plays. One of the local theatre groups that have mastered the art is Nanzikambe Arts, which has adapted plays such as La storia della tigre [‘The Story of the Tiger’- a play authored by the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Italian Dario Fo], African Romeo and Juliet, Hendrik Ibsen's Doll's House adaption, Breaking the Pot, among others. In fact, since its inception in 2003, Nanzikambe Arts has done adaptations of several foreign plays.
Another theatre grouping is Solomonic Peacocks, which once staged the adaptation of the French play L’ecole des femme (School of Wives) during the finals of the French Drama Schools Competition.
Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) president, Sambalikagwa Mvona, says he has always been surprised that local playwrights prefer to adapt foreign plays instead of utilising the vast sea of literary material available locally.
Mvona says local writers have published books that tackle various issues, suggesting that playwrights could tap from them.
“The problem with adapting foreign plays is that we are diluting our culture. We are also losing out on the opportunity to advertise our culture through plays because what we are doing is exposing foreign culture,” says Mvona.
However, Solomonic Peacocks director, MacArthur Matukuta, says weaving the writings of a local author into a play is not as easy as others suggest.
“One cannot adapt a play without having an agreement with the author because there are copyright issues involved, and I think this is one of the factors that have contributed to the country having very few adaptations of local plays,” says Matukuta.
Matukuta, who acknowledges that funding is another challenge, hopes that the Cultural Policy may help solve some of the challenges facing theatre groups.
He says local playwrights may find it easy to adapt local plays and other literature works into plays by making use of the Cultural Policy’s funding facility.
Otherwise, he does not see local playwrights falling head over heels with the practice of adapting literary materials into plays.
But Chisiza suggests that all is not lost, but throws the ball into government’s court. Chisiza says the task of ensuring that theatre groups adapt scenes and characters found in local literature into plays hinges on the availability of funding, both public and private.
“In other countries, they have a financing facility for the arts sector. This is why we are pinning our hopes on the cultural policy. That is why we need the Cultural Policy because, without it, we will only depend on political will and experience has shown that there is no political will,” says Chisiza.
He adds: “Otherwise, we have a lot of legends; a lot of literature to be acted upon.”
Matukuta concurs with Chisiza. He says theatre groups fight against countless odds to stay afloat, a development that forces them to shun adaptations of plays from local literature sources.
Says Matukuta: “To begin with, theatre groups have to contend with the fact that they are, virtually, on their own, and that their survival hinges on them generating funds. Secondly, actors themselves have to think of ways of sustaining themselves because the industry has not reached a stage where it can support an individual 100 percent. Definitely, adapting local plays is out of the question because of the expenses involved.
“In addition, there are legal issues to contend with. You cannot just adapt a play published in a book by a local author and hope that you will get everything for free. Agreements have to be made and this is expensive and time-consuming. Again, some of the authors of books that may offer fertile ground for (play) adaptations are not alive, and that is another complication.”
Otherwise, Matukuta sees a fertile ground for adaptations in local literature.