Harare, March 21st 2017 | Elizabeth Zaza Muchemwa
It was a privilege to work on the staged reading of Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks. This feeling comes from the realization that the person on whom the play is based is a prominent figure whose life story shaped important discourses on slavery, sexism, cultural appropriation and racism.
Venus is Suzan-Lori Parks’ play based on the life of the so-called ‘ Hottentot Venus’. In Europe Saartjie Baartman was, due in part to her relatively enormous posterior, exhibited to paying crowds as a side show freak under the appellation of ‘The Hottentot Venus’. In her death she was dismembered for scientific study, the results of which were used to confirm negative stereotypes Europeans had about Africans.
Her skeleton and a plaster cast of her body were displayed in the Musee de L’homme in Paris until 2002 when her remains were returned to South Africa.
In keeping with her unconventional style, Suzan-Lori Parks questions and appropriates history by bringing to the forefront the horrors of slavery, racism, commodification and sexism. The play draws parallels between the objectification of victims and the consumers of these products. In its irreverent manner, the play tackles the complexity of intersectionality as affecting the historically disadvantaged position that is occupied by the black female figure.
It is the conceptions of racialised notions of beauty, the ideation of identity and belonging, and how they affect our individual pursuit of better livelihood that preoccupied our minds in the rehearsal room.
One question an audience member asked was, “Did Saartjie have a voice?” From that question, I kept thinking, how does a voice shine when that voice is held in a vice-like grip by systems of oppression? What can be done to ensure that these voices are heard? Does it begin when we shine a light on the lives of those that history ignores? Saartjie’s remains were eventually returned to her native South Africa, in the process releasing her from being an object of curiosity and commodification. Yet, one could argue that this trade of objectifying women is still going on, and that in that broad spectrum of body politics are the underlying issues of distorted perceptions of African women’s bodies that continue to marginalize individuals that do not fit into prevailing stereotypes.
For me, Venus was an unrelenting exercise in which I found myself in the depths of human despair but also a place where I found beautiful human experiences that opened my mind to endless possibilities.
Gideon: My American Journey
Harare, January 29th 2017 | Gideon Jeph Wabvuta
Plays are some of the most underrated forces of change in the world. When you have to read a number of plays a week, this realization kicks in as you are taken from one world to the next, being immersed in different cultures and different voices. I am constantly trying to tap into that which makes a play still speak to me even though it is seemingly distant from me in culture, language, and so many things. Being a playwright at USC, I came into the program with so many fears: are people going to understand my work? Am I going to live up to what I think I can be? Will I be able to handle the workload? I repeatedly asked myself these questions throughout my first semester in USC’s Dramatic Writing program, which I began the summer of 2016.
Crazy enough, I decided the first play I was going to write was a historical fiction play set in Zimbabwe in 1978. As soon as I finished outlining it, I panicked, realizing how much I was going to have to explain, how much exposition I was going to have to give. My very first class reading made all my fears disappear as I realized that as long as you create three-dimensional beings with real problems, in real situations, everyone will relate. Yes, you might have to explain some things, but people will get it! Indeed, it is a far cry from Zimbabwe where I know I can put as much Shona as I want in my plays and people will get it, and that was a constant battle. How much of my own language do I put in my plays without confusing people? That is an answer I don’t have yet except I just put it whenever I feel it’s necessary, I just let the story lead me and, in no time, I find myself writing a two-page Shona monologue which always leaves me wondering, “who in the heavens is going to read that!”.
It hasn’t been all peaches and cream, it’s a constant struggle to adjust to life in the States and realizing that I am away from home and I need to earn my stay here by constantly giving it my best. It’s a constant struggle trying to maintain my voice amongst a brilliant group of writers with whom I share classes, who have the ability to write circles around me, but the support they are constantly parceling out is of the utmost importance. One actress, I met years ago, told me about how grad school was beyond just being in class and learning, it’s about growth. Growth in your craft and, most of all, growth as a human being, taking in as much as of the world and letting it feed into your work. It feels like you step away from all the bustle of class and just stand in the middle of a freeway and let the noise of the cars fill you up then you go back to your writing having learned something. It’s an experience unlike anything in this world, where tears are common and expected, where breakdowns are met with love and support, where arguments and fights are constant but also met with so much love. I can safely say I have grown as a person by just being around my cohort and reading their work, having them read my work and curling up together when the pressure becomes too much. I love what I do. Yes, I may hate it at times, but I know without a doubt, I am in the right place and thanks to Almasi, I am able to continue this journey for years to come.
Directing Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa
Harare, January 19th 2017 | Sandra Chidawanyika-Goliath
“Ama would have loved this interpretation of her play”, remarked a happy member of the audience during the post-performance discussion, after revealing that she was Ghanaian and a personal friend of the Ghanaian playwright Ama Ata Aidoo.
It was Ama Ata Aidoo’s unique writing style and use of historical facts and African proverbs, to turn an ordinary folktale into a story with a strong message, which attracted me to this play. So vivid was the imagery, I sensed that this writer is passionate about her work and wants to make sure no detail is rearranged or deemed unimportant or missed in delivery.
This beautifully written play set in Ghana 1874, “thirty years after the bond of 1844” is about Anowa, a strong-willed and free-spirited girl who is expected to marry at puberty. For six years she turns all her suitors away until she falls for Kofi Ako; a ‘watery man of all watery men,’ as referred to by Anowa’s mother who knows about his reputation of indolence. In defiance to her mother Abena Badua’s counsel, she walks out on her and her father, Papa Osam to start a new life with Kofi Ako, vowing never to return. Anowa and Kofi Ako enter into the trade business, led by Anowa, and become very successful, but after a few years of marriage, Anowa realizes that her husband is a devil in disguise. A series of events lead to a mentally unstable Anowa, and a tragic end for both.
Anowa represents the modern woman who likes to make her own decisions and live life as she chooses. Though a tribal woman, she has the traits of a city-bred one. Ama Ata Aidoo uses an old couple, known in the play as THE-MOUTH-THAT-EATS-SALT-AND-PEPPER, to present crucial points in the play and give their own views on the events in the play. These two argue and ask that in spite of the world becoming a global village, is it acceptable to just throw our customs and traditions out of the window without costly repercussions? The play forces us to think about universal issues such as gender roles, effects of colonization, childbearing in our different societies and consequences of the lack thereof, and more importantly, the choices we make and how they affect others.
After a not-so-easy task of selecting actors, I set out on my journey as a director to implement a unified vision and humbly lead the experienced team toward its ultimate actualization.
My vision as a director was to identify Ama Ata Aidoo’s voice in the play, in all its rich text and mysterious proverbs, break the text down piece by piece until it was easy for us to take in, add layers to give it our truth as men and women who have been forced to conform to society’s ways in one way or another during our lifetime. We would then use these truths to bring the script to life, making it relatable to our audience.
To implement this effectively, I invited each actor to set and share personal objectives for the week, so that where possible, I could align them to my objectives and thus serve the writer’s intentions as I had interpreted them.
From the first table read, I guided the team in the discovery of the play’s structure and meanings, and in seeking to understand each character and the demands placed upon the actors. This highly creative intercourse contributed to a clearer understanding of the writer’s influences and vision. During this process, I was wary of how this collaboration and my disinclination to impose in the first discussions should not come at the expense of the playwright’s voice and intentions, as it may tend to stifle or change it.
Another result of encouraging the team to own the process was the challenge by one actor through his objective to see if he could use his skills in a physical theater to aid in delivery. With this in mind, we paid special attention to ensuring that the actors understand that in a staged play reading we should not forget the ‘performance’ aspect. Unlike a radio drama, where the listener cannot see the readers, a staged reading demands that we engage as many of the audience’s senses as we could in order not to lose them. Once the team understood the structure and language, as well as the mood and atmosphere of each scene, they were aware to ‘listen actively’ as their characters, understand what was being said and how it affected their character and reacted accordingly. Not a day passed during our rehearsal week when we did not make new discoveries about each character, their relationships with others in the play, and the ways of the people of Ghana during the 1800s.
As most of the actors played two different characters of different ages, we focused largely on the use of voice, posture and minimal movement to show the difference in each character. We also worked on pace and a variation of tempo to ensure that we did not lose the audience as some of the scenes were really long.
By the end of the week, I was confident that we had understood Ama Ata Aidoo’s intentions in this piece and would be able to give life to the text. Did we do enough to push forward the writer’s vision in penning this folktale? Will Anowa one day be mentioned among change-makers in African history? Or will she and others like her continue to be used in tales told in the future of rebels who deserve to be silenced? I do not have the answers, but I do not take for granted this opportunity given to me by Almasi Collaborative Arts to direct this accomplished play.
I would not be doing justice to a living legend if I did not salute the writer’s long-time role as professor, advocate and passionate activist defending women’s rights, which left her vulnerable to damaging censorship and regulation especially in the 1970’s. There is something special about studying the works of a writer as passionate and consistent as Ama Ata Aidoo, but even more special is knowing that you are not alone if as a woman, or a man, you choose defiance rather than to conform, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent”.
Negotiated Spaces in The Politics of Economics, Morality and The Body
Harare, November 19th 2016 | Elizabeth Zaza Muchemwa
Since I started taking part in the Almasi staged reading series, I have realized the kinds of stories I am interested in working on. These are stories of struggle, whether physical or metaphorical, which really depict the human condition and prompt us to think beyond the surface of our everyday. When I first read The Good Woman of Setzuan, I was struck by how Bertolt Brecht brought so many issues to the foreground without prescribing what should be or what can be. Instead, the play asks question after question about economics, morality and political ideology and their contribution to the human condition in western civilizations.
In his time, Brecht realized the power of the theatre and sought to harness that power in bringing pertinent dialogue of his time to the foreground. Yet, I would be remiss if I did not talk about some of the controversies that surrounded the life and work of this brilliant playwright. One of these is the fact that while Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 published collected works do not acknowledge Margarete Selfin as collaborator on The Good Woman of Setzuan, it is believed that she had a large hand in the development of the play. Ruth Berla, a frequent Brecht collaborator, is also believed to have been involved in the play. Produced in 1943, published in 1953, the play has different versions and titles including “Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan”, “The Good person of Szechwan” and “The Good Soul of Szechuan”; a true reflection of Brecht’s practice of rewrites and adaptation. For the Almasi staged reading series, I worked on the Eric Bentley translation, first performed in 1985 in Britain.
In the rehearsal room there was no moment in which I forgot the significance of Brecht’s work on the radical shift of modern theatre’s aesthetics. Holding a Brecht text feels like being in the presence of the master, you become terrified of doing the wrong thing entirely, something that seems inevitable when you have 6 actors for a play that requires a cast numbering more than 10 actors. Yet, tackling the work of this master was a challenge I dared myself to take. It is a challenge that the actors in the rehearsal room took on wholeheartedly. As we read the script and discussed the play, I gained more insight and I knew I was in the right place as I listened to the actors passionately discuss what each character represented and whether they were representations of power or morality and/or economics.
The politics of power, morality and economics; their effect on the female body and female conditions are important in the world of the play as much as they are in the society we live today. The more we talked about the play, about its representations of class and gender, the more I became sensitive to discourses that play out around me in my everyday life and how I had come to accept some things that belittle or undermine women in my society. One example is an incident where a fellow female passenger remarked on a group of passing female police officers in riot gear with a male police officer leading them. She surmised that it was a good thing they were with a man otherwise they were not going to manage the rioters on their own. I asked, “why”’? Then she said, “varume vakashinga”, meaning “men are brave/courageous”. A lot of things ran through my mind, one of them was to chastise the woman, but I didn’t. It got me to thinking about how the female body is subjected to presumptions. How the female form in my society is still representative of weakness, fear, powerlessness and how women, through repressive morality practices, are constantly negotiated into smaller spaces in the society where their position of power and economic strength is limited.
Working on The Good Woman of Setzuan brought sharply into focus topics that I cannot continue to ignore. It is inevitable that society will impose restrictions on a body. After all, for thousands years we have related to each other as human beings by imposing boundaries on thought, movement and being because of our inherited fear of chaos. However, it hardly seems fair that particular bodies are elevated to higher positions of power whilst some constantly have to fight for negotiated spaces of being. It remains to be seen if an advent of a society which accommodates all and preserves space for everyone is possible. Body politics was a topic for discussion that the play ignited for us but which we need to carry forward in our daily dialogues in today’s tempestuous times. If we are to make sense of it all or if we are to accept a status quo or push for the dismantling of oppressive/repressive systems—we must quarrel with these ideas first.
Harare, October 31st 2016 | Kudzai Sevenzo
Reading “Ruined” by Lynn Nottage for the first time, was like a slap on the face. A slap I probably needed. The play, with its powerful yet flawed characters, shook me out of my complacency and shocked me with its brutal portrayal of the effects of war on women and society as a whole. I was challenged as an actress/playwright by the importance of telling pertinent stories from Africa, particularly stories that show how women and girls become so vulnerable in wars. When one member of a community is violated, ultimately the entire community has been violated. Lynn Nottage tells a beautiful yet harrowing story of friendship and war, greed, and compassion, despair, and hope, giving both villain and hero, a vulnerability that unites us all in our humanity.
Rehearsals started Monday, in the middle of a heat wave in Harare with temperatures soaring to a record high. Not ideal weather for rehearsals, but this did not deter the actors at all. We sat around a table and started our first reading of the play. It was refreshing to engage the actors after the reading, as they were very engrossed in the story and came up with some wonderful insights on the rich and sometimes complex characters.
I tried my best to ask more than to tell, and allow each actor to explore their individual characters, including their back stories, which was really exciting! After each scene, we discussed the characters’ objectives, obstacles and how they would achieve these goals. I encouraged actors who were in the same scenes to listen to each other, in order to react rather than to just read in order to be on the same page, which is the temptation with staged readings!
By Wednesday we were now exploring the physicality of different characters as most actors were double cast (some had up to 3 characters). After warming up, actors went on stage and started rehearsals behind music stands, now fully exploring their character’s posture, voice, and accents; which was so much fun! There was something really special about watching actors move away from being seated behind a desk to seeing them engage in movement and play on stage.
Our next challenge was pace; understanding when the pace changed throughout the play, and keeping the momentum in scenes with long dialogues, a task the actors gladly took on, although it was rather grueling.
By the time we had our last rehearsal, I was really pleased with the progress the cast had made. The musical aspect of the play was made richer and uniquely Zimbabwean by choosing the mbira, which Zaza graciously agreed to play whenever it was needed.
We had some great feedback from the audience during the talk back session. I thoroughly enjoyed directing Ruined and working with such passionate actors who are committed to their craft. I learned this one thing; every voice matters in raising awareness on the plight of women and girls whose voices cannot be heard or whose stories don’t make it to the main news.
Arts Management Workshop
Harare, July 18th 2016
In July 2016 Almasi presented an arts management workshop at Alliance Francaise, Harare. Facilitated by Adam Immerwahr the workshop had the participation of 12 professionals from arts organisations, community groups and training institutions. Over the course of the workshop, the group worked on strategic planning and fundraising strategies. They gained a better understanding on how organizational structure and resources are crucial to the planning process, as well as effective ways of fundraising for an organisation.Through Facilitator led sessions, the group made a sample current assessment of the Zimbabwean dramatic arts sector, discussed what an ideal Zimbabwean dramatic arts sector entailed and then discussed strategies on how to get there. They also assessed what sources of funding are there in Zimbabwe.
Among the group’s activities were: practicing “the ask” for funds with each other and the facilitator; working on goals, objectives, action plans and evaluation for their individual organizations; discussing vision, mission, and values statements; SWOT analysis for their organizations; discussing resource analysis; and discussing the Telling-Selling-Consult-Join system.
‘Amazing educational opportunity/training program. Would not mind having a two-week full time workshop.’
‘Almasi you are doing a great job. I enjoyed the training. It was very informative,learnt so much and as a director I’m going to implement what I learnt and will improve much in my Organisation.’
‘Wonderful training that I found practical. Adam presented the concepts in a very accessible and easy manner! This training made me critically look at our organisation and also other aspects of life.’
‘These kinds of workshops are exactly what we need in the arts community of Zimbabwe. It is a way of helping us in the long journey to professionalizing the industry. More of such would be a great benefit to the community and thus Zimbabwe.’