By Michelina Andreucci
THEATRE, an art form at least 2 500 years old, is as varied as the cultures in which it has been practised.
Like many other artistic disciplines, theatre seeks to record and re-examine patterns of human experience for the enlightenment of mankind.
For thousands of years, theatre has been a powerful medium of human expression and exploration, offering communities a deeper understanding of themselves, both as individuals and as a collective construct, through a synthesis of entertainment and teaching.
The art of theatre offers societies the opportunity to develop a powerful insight into the nature of human relationships and interpersonal dynamics; develop powerful imaginations, become keen observers, and generate valuable insights into the complexities of human nature.
Indigenous African theatre was deeply rooted in day-to-day activities.
African modes of expression, such as theatre, provided holistic participation and discovery of the collective African humanity. Theatre was, in fact, a vital part of the very nerve centre of the social organism of indigenous African people.
The richness of theatre in Africa lies in the interaction of all aspects of the performance.
It was a communal activity and part and parcel of the whole conception of existence.
Traditional ceremonies, ritual performances and children’s games had numerous theatrical elements within them.
In the African context, performances include ritual activities at places of worship which are today the re-enactments of the initial effort to relate with God by their ancestors.
Other dramatic performances include masquerade performances such as the nyau gule wamkulu, traditional music and dance, folklore sessions especially at jenaguru — moonlit festivals, biras and other ceremonies.
Regrettably, however, it is an indisputable fact that the collision of cultures and the ensuing cultural colonisation that resulted from the influx of imperial forces struck a blow to indigenous African theatre.
African modes of theatre were deliberately being, and still are, subjectively subverted by the West; especially Western cultural aid agencies and NGOs.
Most traditional cultural activities, such as theatre, have lamentably succumbed to Western agendas and have in some instances been expunged.
Some traditions, however, have withstood the destructive effects of modernity and still stand firm as testimonies of the existence of theatre in Africa.
According to Dr Tony Monda: “External developmental aid in all sectors of (the) African economy has been a bone of contention for African governments and its people since the 1980s for Zimbabwe and long before that for other African and Third World countries.”
In Zimbabwe today, there are over 30 cultural and developmental funding bodies who have made the performing and visual arts their playfield and dictate to the artistes what they should perform or create.
Now that theatre forms an important part of our new Zimbabwean curriculum, it is important to orient our teachers and lecturers to the sensitivity and social impact of theatre on our ideologically vulnerable school children.
It is important to view theatre in its creative complexity and socio-cultural orientation.
The act of gathering people together as an audience is potent, potentially even dangerous.
The idea of artistes driving change is a powerful one and had particular appeal during a time when even across Europe the right was on the rise.
The potential role of artistes as change agentsin Zimbabwe has not been overlooked by the NGOs. From the mid-1980s onwards, they sponsored programmes such as ‘Theatre for Development’, which used theatre positively to educate rural people on issues such as agriculture, family planning and conservation practices, among others.
This noble cause was soon hijacked by Western agendas and political lobbyists who sought to promote Western interests, targeting the rural, and lately the urban populace in Zimbabwe, to engineer what they define as grassroots regime change.
While a play, however angry, urgent and edgy, is unlikely to bring about social change on its own, at the grassroots level, theatre-makers can enable communities to unite socially and articulate mis-guided NGOs ambitions. NGO-sponsored plays further the interests of the Western home governments from where the NGOs emanate.
In Zimbabwe, potential playwrights, artistes and actors are given a prescriptive NGO template of the subjects they should tackle in order to receive funding.
These sponsored actors and playwrights are merely pawnies in a game.
Those with a propensity to denigrate the state, its leaders and other patriotic Zimbabweans, following an NGO-prescribed template are given first preference for funding.
Real theatre has been reduced to well-orchestrated ‘one-liners’, with no aesthetic merit or guiding philosophy, except the conviction of speech.
They deliver persuasive, yet fictitious accounts of the Zimbabwean situation.
This technique in which stages are minimal, lighting poor and props almost non-existent is purposely designed for a vulnerable audience to retain a message.
Theatre, as a form of art, has given way to trivial, yet potentially explosive sentiments that can be detrimental and incite discontent among the youthful audiences who attend these plays.
Why is it that every NGO-sponsored play is anti-Government; anti-indigenous public opinion and anti-African values such as hunhu/ubuntu?
Similarly, the audiences generally comprise so-called liberal whites, with a heavy NGO presence and a sprinkling of ‘with-it’ urbanite ‘masalads’, filling their gullible minds with what they want to hear — always the failures, never the triumphs.
Western aid in Africa is often distributed in a manner that exploits African people and governments, manipulating the recipients to ‘tow-the-line’ to the extent that aid-agencies and NGO’s dictate how, where and/or when to spend the money, what to spend it on and who to spend it on.
But the funding is never used for sustainable projects.
What is the motivation for sponsoring and producing these plays that are reactive and could cause civil unrest?
The more pressing question is: How long will the arts, in this particular case theatre and stand-up comedy, be used as an NGO carrot to coerce and corrupt impressionable youths of Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular?
What is more painful is that most of these youngsters were born in a free post-colonial Zimbabwe.
NGO-sponsored theatre playwrights have a ready audience with much of the advertising being done on line; the goal is to buoy a particular NGO area of interest such as gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, the girl-child, other gender issues and the meaningless regime change programmes.
The NGO sponsors and their governments are aware that culture is the soul of a nation; by deliberately corrupting the culture of a nation it leaves the youths spiritually corrupt and morally threadbare.
Through theatre, Western NGOs have found a means of challenging the dominant culture and established ways of thinking by stirring negative activism through theatre productions.
In Shona they say: ‘Vanosara vakashama, vakafumuka’ – they are left naked and vulnerable, bereft of any guiding principle, applies well in this case.
Such people are easily persuaded to turn against their own mothers, fathers and the nation.
The new Zimbabwe school curriculum should explore the inventive use of both traditional and modern forms of theatrical entertainment to empower the students.
Zimbabwe needs to re-discover and re-cover in contemporary times the essence of African-centred patriotic and constructive theatre, which ideally should begin with the children in the classrooms.
Theatre and activism are excellent bedfellows, more dangerous together than apart.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org