3 Jul 2023
Drama has long been an integral part of cultural expression and storytelling in Malawi. Rooted in the country's rich heritage and traditions, Malawian drama has provided a platform for social commentary, entertainment, and reflection on the human condition. In this essay, esteemed Malawian writer Onjezani Kenani embarks on a poignant exploration of the current state of drama in Malawi. Below are his thoughts..
Is theater a dying art form? The 90s were undoubtedly the golden era for theater in Malawi. We were blessed with comedic geniuses like Izeki and Jakobo who never failed to make us laugh. They drew their jokes from our everyday experiences, and their originality was so remarkable that laughter was inevitable. In addition to their individual acts, these two actors, whose real names were John Nyanga and Eric Mabedi, were also part of the renowned Kwathu Drama Group, which toured the country on various occasions.
For those inclined towards English theater, there was the Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre. Their plays, written and directed by Du Chisiza Jr., left a lasting impression. I remember watching Du for the first time when I was in Standard 8 at the Kasungu Community Hall. To be honest, I struggled to comprehend 80 percent of what he said due to my limited understanding of his refined accent. However, it was during the performance of "Beyond the Barricade" in 1997 or 1998, at The Polytechnic's Main Lecture Theatre, that I finally understood every word. Frank Patani Mwase's portrayal of Dayanga, the Old Man, in that play was truly unforgettable.
On the radio, there was the Theatre of the Air. I eagerly followed their broadcasts every Friday night. Later, during my university days, I found myself writing plays for the program and even acting alongside talented individuals like Noel Chimkwende, Vincent Khonyongwa, Code Sangala, Samuel Kuseka, and Ruth Chikafa. I also avidly tuned in to the Chichewa plays featured on the Nzeru Nkupangwa program on what is now known as MBC Radio 1. In September 1997, one of my plays was showcased on the programme, marking the only Chichewa play I have written in my writing career. This experience led me to forge a friendship with the producer, Hassan Nkata, who encouraged me to continue writing.
Secondary schools nurtured a theater culture through a national competition organized by the Association for the Teaching of English in Malawi (ATEM). Many talented actors, such as Muthi Nhlema and Rocky Kaunda, emerged as stars during the ATEM drama finals, which were skillfully directed by the highly talented English language teacher, Smith Likongwe. His plays consistently claimed the coveted prize whenever they were performed.
Sadly, the first blow to the English theater came with the passing of Du Chisiza Jr. in 1999. Although his long-term colleague at Wakhumbata, Gertrude Kamkwatira, attempted to carry on his legacy, she never quite captured national attention to the same extent as Du did. Nanzikambe Theatre Company also emerged in the early 2000s and impressed audiences with remarkable performances, including their rendition of "African Macbeth." However, when Kate Sfafford and Melissa Eveleigh left Malawi, Nanzikambe also gradually faded away.
Kwathu Drama Group also experienced a decline in activity during the 2000s. The only two actors who continued to perform regularly were Izeki and Jakobo until the untimely passing of John Nyanga. In his final years, John Nyanga became somewhat philosophical. In one of his skits, he remarked, "We Malawians behave as though this country is not ours, as though there is another Malawi somewhere to which we will relocate after we are done destroying this one." As poet W.H. Auden expressed in his famous tribute to W.B. Yeats, "the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living."
Since 2010, theater has dwindled. While there are still groups attempting to keep it alive, none has managed to capture national attention on the same scale as Wakhumbata and Kwathu did in the 90s. Perhaps it is time for a revival? Art not only serves as a mirror through which society can reflect upon itself, but it's also a hammer with which to shape it.