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My Edinburgh Experience

My Edinburgh Experience

Edinburgh, August 23rd 2017 | Gideon Jeph Wabvuta
 


 

In February of 2017, I was informed I had been selected as one of the ten fellows of the inaugural Georgetown Lab of Politics and Performance. This lab is comprised of ten fellows from all over the world: Cambodia, Palestine, Syria, Colombia, USA, UK, and Zimbabwe. The vision of the lab is to support us fellow in our work and help us find ways to collaborate amongst ourselves in the realm of politics and performance.

The highlight of the lab experience thus far has been the meet-up at the Edinburgh Festival this August. The festival was our first meeting amongst the fellows and we were teamed up with another group who were global cultural fellows from the University of Edinburgh. The eight days I spent there were the most eye opening as the group contained doctors, artists, economists, administrators, etc., all there were there to delve into various topics. It was fascinating to see how people in different professions viewed performances differently and how they understood the shows.

Outside of the circle of the conference, we spent time watching as many shows as possible, some brilliant and some that left more to be desired, which led to some fascinating discussions. One thing that will definitely stay with me forever is the scale of the festival. I could not have imagined how big an arts festival could get even if someone had told me what to expect. The shows are literally happening everywhere; in churches, bars, open spaces—everywhere around us, there was art being made! What strikes you the most is the vibe- it’s almost palpable and you can sense the excitement as the streets are filled with people handing out posters and fliers to their shows.

I can safely say the Edinburgh Festival is one experience that will stay with me for a long time, and through the lab, I got the opportunity to meet a group of amazing and intelligent people who I hope to collaborate with in the future. I am grateful to Almasi for giving me the opportunity to come to USC, which helped me gain the skills that got me into the Lab in the first place! There is already a buzz about the lab fellows collaborating on a show that will be at the festival in 2018. Who knows, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope it happens, but with the help of these great collaborators and my Almasi team, I know it will be a wonderful growing experience for me as an artist.

 
 

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I Learned to Quiet My Fears

I Learned to Quiet My Fears

Harare, August 5th 2017 | Elizabeth Zaza Muchemwa
 


 

Directing the staged reading of Widows was a satisfactory process for me. My understanding of the play grew the more time I spent in the rehearsal room, seeing the play in the actors’ eyes as they engaged with the theme and issues dealt with in the play. Choosing to work on Widows was not an easy decision to make. In this multi-layered dramatic piece whose issues are as universal as they are specific to a particular part of the world, I worried about the possibilities of leaning too close to the experience of others in my community especially in the post reading discussions and whether I was equipped with the skills on how to navigate such a delicate terrain.

However, with each rehearsal day, as the actors shared ideas and new discoveries were made, I learned to quiet my fears. What struck me the most about Widows was Sofia’s strength and the collective power the women found in speaking with one voice in a society that was ruled by brute force. Using symbolism and representation, the playwright unpacks war, exile, inequality, militarism and totalitarianism. And through this effort enabled the play to speak of brutalized childhood, the endlessness of time, the uneasy relationship people have with peace post a brutal conflict and the cyclical nature of injustice when not addressed.

While the play tells one about human suffering and the dehumanization of a society by war, it serves as a beacon of hope for people still living in societies governed by fear.

 
 

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Give Us Space!

Give Us Space!

Harare, March 19th 2017 | Gideon Jeph Wabvuta
 

 

The story of Mbare dreams began two years ago when Robert Egan came to Zimbabwe to conduct the first ever Almasi African Playwrights Festival (AAPF). Little did I know that two years later I would be performing my original play in Albuquerque New Mexico at the Revolutions festival. I didn’t think much of it when Juli Hendren, the Artistic Director of the Revolutions Festival, approached me and expressed interest in me participating in the festival this year.

However, a few months after our meeting, Juli emailed me again to my surprise, and thus the real conversation to bring Mbare Dreams to the festival began. Robert Egan, my director, was roped in and in no time we were at work rewriting the show, readying it for the festival. It was a struggle to say the least to be back on stage as for the past two years I had been focusing on just writing and directing. The pressures of grad school didn’t make it any easier but we pushed on.

Monday the 13th of March, we landed in Albuquerque and went straight to rehearsal. That became the routine, rehearsal from 10am to 5pm, then home, where I would take a brief rest only to resume rehearsal the next day. I can safely say it was one of the toughest jobs I have ever done. The support I had from my director Robert Egan, Michelle Joyner, the wonderful staff at Revolution, Kevin, Eddie, Star, Alexis, Barbara, all of them were a constant support throughout these three days. It would be a lie to say I didn’t question my abilities whilst going through this process because I did, as day and night I was destroyed both physically and emotionally.

Thursday, 16th of March was the first performance and I found myself going through my paces before the show and always feeling overwhelmed- here is a boy who a few years ago would never have imagined being here. The show went well and afterwards the love that was showered on me by the festival itself will forever remain with me. The comradery with all the young practitioners from Uganda, Sudan and all over the US will always stick with me. I left the festival on a Sunday and all I could think about was: when you give us space to tell our stories, we will tell them and tell them well.

My gratitude goes to a lot of people and organizations, namely Almasi Arts for its constant support and for sending me as its representative at the TCG conference. If I hadn’t participated in the conference, I would never have gotten this chance. As always, I am in such debt to Robert Egan for being my fearless director and never giving up on me. Juli Hendren for inviting me into the Revolutions family and lastly the whole Tricklock Family- for making me believe fun and arts do exist in the same sentence #ReptilianLounge.”

 
 

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Directing Venus

Directing Venus

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.

 
 

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Gideon: My American Journey

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.

 
 

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Directing Ama Ata Aidoo’s Anowa

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”.

 
 

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