Thursday, November 03, 2011

Fes'bhuku, my new play (launched October 2010 at PROTEST ART INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL)

....2011 has seen a flurry of plays coming out of my pen.  The first was opened at HIFA 2011, the hilarious comedy COLOURS OF DREAMS, and the second opened at the PROTEST ART INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL, also in Harare, in October.  The following is an extract from the press statement posted by Leonard Matsa of Savanna Arts, the organization behind PROTEST ART FEST.  This was copied from Facebook..
....However, one of the plays that is certain to leave lasting impressions at the festival is Fes’bhuku performed by Savanna Trust, a play that talks about the impact that social networks such as Facebook have made to communities in Zimbabwe. Until recently, remote areas in Zimbabwe have been insulated from the rest of the world due their inaccessibility and other reasons. With the advent of internet and e-mobile, the rural folks have suddenly found the whole world at the tip of their fingers.

Social networking sites have become as popular as elsewhere in the world giving the hitherto “invisible” rural folks a platform to speak and access world-wide views. Everything is now almost within reach. But it is the social network wave that has taken these remote areas and other places by storm. Such a powerful tool in the hands of anyone and everyone is bound to present interesting questions and scenarios.
The play, Fes’bhuku written by Chris Mlalazi, is based on this new social networking phenomenon. In the absence of specific regulation, how does this platform of expression impact on remote communities that are suddenly fast-tracked into “ownership” of this powerful tool? Or does it even need to be regulated seeing regulating it would be tantamount to crafting what to and not to say for the previously disempowered voices?

The setting is a rural growth point. Marvellous is new on Facebook and his past posts have not be so clean so to speak, well according to his friends and family. His wife has hidden the only record of his profile password to discourage Marvellous’ obsession with Facebook and Marvellous, oblivious of how to recover the password is prepared to lose everything for his password so he can throw an important post. Marvellous will stop at nothing to be heard. Fes’bhuku is a must watch....
I must also add that I have written two other plays for 2012, and this time I am  going for the one man cast, so watch out for them.  I hope the first will premiere at HIFA 2012 if they accept it, but following the success of my 2011 plays, I bet it will be taken...
I have another important announcement to make in the following weeks about my writing career, something has happened, and oh yes it is GOOD!
And those who already know please keep your lips sealed....:)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reflections on my Nordic-Africa Institute 2011 Guest Writer residency

Towards the end of my Villa Aurora creative writing residency in Los Angeles last year, I was already thinking where I could get the next residence where I could try to finish the novel project I had started there. 
I must also comment that it is very challenging for me to write from my home country of  Zimbabwe currently because of the incessant power cuts that we have been experiencing for the past decade or so ever since our politics tottered - my writing relies heavily on the computer and online research and if there is no electricity that becomes a very huge challenge. 
Of course when I started writing seriously all those years back, a solid sixteen of them now, I was using the old fashioned clickety-clack typewriter, but I cannot deny myself the advantages of the advances of modern technology simple because our politicians are failing to get their act right can I?
And so here I was pondering on how and where I could find another residency when I got an email from the Nordic Africa Institute saying they would like to have me over as their 2011 Guest writer for the months of April to June 2011. 
Wow! When I got the email it was around November 2010.  I some way this was an excellent development because I had just started working on the new manuscript and I was writing slowly, but when I got the invitation I was like a cat whose tail has caught fire.  I was galvanised.
I set a target.  I wanted to have the first draft finished in Los Angeles in three months from October to December, and then take a break from the manuscript from January to March 2011, and then go to Sweden in April and immediately start writing from April to June (Another three months) and then get back home, sit down another three months from July to September, and then hopefully work on the manuscript for the last time for another three months – October to December. 
So far everything is on a brilliant schedule, it is mid September right now as I am writing this document and I am just waiting for October to come so that I can get to work on this exciting manuscript again.  Yes the manuscript has got me excited and I can barely hold myself from touching it…
The Nordic Africa Institute is based in the charming university town of Uppsala in Sweden, where everybody seems to ride a bicycle. Almost all the streets of the city are paved, and so clean that the city seemed to me almost surreal.  Of course my city of Bulawayo, which is the second largest one after Harare in Zimbabwe, once held a continental record of cleanliness, and so somehow I was almost at home in Uppsala, almost....
I arrived in Sweden in spring, just as the snow was thawing from what the locals commented had been a very frigid winter.  I do not like the cold and so one can imagine how happy I was at this news as I had just escaped from another winter at home. 
Of course when I arrived I saw the last dregs of snow on the countryside on the way from Stockholm airport, and I think this was good as later I was to see a magical change of the landscapes as the land suddenly blossomed into full spring. 
In Zimbabwe we do not have snow, and so I guess our winters do not have the devastation on the land that snow countries have, and the experience of seeing a seemingly totally vegetation dead landscape suddenly come to green life was so touching.
I had an office at the Institute, but I preferred writing from my hotel room, a habit I have developed over a long time as even in my home country I write from home in the mornings, and then go to my studio at the National Gallery In Bulawayo in the afternoons to do administration – write emails, discuss writing with other writers, and also creativity with visual artists.
I guess there is something about writing in a room that smells of home that is totally different from the scents of an office – at home you feel laid back, and  for me that is the correct stimulant for a good dose of creative output.
Some writers might wonder about what a writing residency really is. 
I remember before I went to one. I always thought it would be all stiff and scholarly - well there is a bit of scholarliness, which from my experience in the USA and Sweden, is about ten percent of residence time, just like a book royalty  - for the rest you are left alone, and literally so – but are given the resources to make your writing time fruitfull – free internet, maybe a stipend (depending on the residence), and lots and lots of private space if you are the lone dog or yoga type.
What you have to do is just make sure that you leave the residency with your writing batteries re-fired.
There are also rigorous application processes to get into a residency, and these are based on your writing record.
As part of the guest writer grant at the Nordic Africa Institute, I was also given the opportunity to attend the Literature Festival in Lillehammer in Norway, another magical city with awe inspiring landscapes, and also World Village in Helsinki (Finland), a two day festival which had about 40 000 people passing through it in on the first day.  Another wow!
In Lillehammer I had a poetry reading, where I met one of my favourite female singers from Zimbabwe I had almost forgotten still existed because of this Diaspora thing.
This was Busi Ncube of the ‘I want True Love’ fame, and she was still singing as brilliantly as I last saw her in Zimbabwe, and if not more.  Watching her sing and dance I had a pang of sadness – will we ever see all these brilliant artists who have fled the country coming back home even if things normalise?  But I was happy for her too, that here she was doing what she knew best, and making people dance and be happy.
At World Vilage in Helsinki I had two talks. And during this time I also visited Berlin where I gave a talk at the Literature House to a packed house which was facilitated by my 2010 hosts in Los Angeles, Villa Aurora, whose office are in Berlin.
So, in summary, I am back home, back in the incessant power cuts and a political climate that is at stalemate, but I am happy to say that my two plays which I wrote during the Nordic Africa Institute residency have both been taken by two different organisations, Savanna Trust and the world renowned  Inkululeko Yabatsha School Of Arts (IYASA). The one for Savana Trust is titled Fes’bhuku, which is a commentary on the impact of Facebook on semi rural life, and the other one for IYASA, a musical, is titled WE CAN ALL DANCE (Dancing For Peace And Reconciliation), and it is the story of a young female dancer who wants to unite the people of her township across all divides through dance and music.
Both plays will be opened before the end of this year, 2011.
Of course there is also the novel, but I am still working on that, the title and names of characters and set have performed so many chameleonic changes, and one never knows when such a project can see the light of day, but all I can say is that I am still excited by the project, and am working hard on it.
Thank you.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Visualising Bulawayo In Paintings

                                                                   Charles Bhebhe on Food Aid

I have recently started a new project with painters from Bulawayo, titled Visualising Bulawayo In Paintings.  This is a series of audioslide documentaries of painters, showing their work plus close interviews on the inspiration or philosophy behind it.

Danisile Ncube on - collage & fractured society

The audioslide shows are three minutes or less in length, which is an ideal format for quick viewing, and can also be used as fillers in between TV programs, or as culture news both on TV or on news websites.

Voti Thebe on The Sprituality of Color

I have found the execution of this project very interesting - it is giving me an insight into paintings which I would not have got had I not involved myself in interviews with the painters, for often for the uninitiated into the fine arts, we often view paintings from a distance without knowing what they mean or reflect, and espeially abstract paintings - and even though we observe them from a distance, we are aware that there migt be some messages or information encoded into them which with our scant knowledge we are unable to decrypt.  This is the enigma of the visual arts - and sometimes too we do not want to decode that message behind the painting, but we want it to remain unknown, so that we can keep coming back to the painting to gaze and ponder on it.

Tafadzwa Gwetai on Grafitti & Existence

It is now my intention to document almost every painter in Bulawayo in this project if I can find them, although I will have a criteria for those who will come into the project for it must have merit. I also hope to create an electronic register of all practising painters in Bulawayo, and hopefully one day or year come up with a national register that can be accessed for research purposes, or can be used for screenings in visual arts workshops.  I have uploaded a few of the audioslide show documentaries on this post for those who want to have a  taste. Enjoy

Allen Sibanda on Follow Your Heart

My journey in theatre so far…

It is every playwrights dream in Zimbabwe to break into the Harare International Festival Of The Arts theatre program,, and more so as this festival is regarded as an international arts platform, and also drawing huge international audiences where one might possible grab international opportunity.

I remember when I wrote my first theatre script sometime back in 1998, which I gave to the now defunct Sadala Amajekete Theatre group.

I must admit that then I didn’t know what HIFA was. I was only aware of Inxusa, the arts festival pioneered by Amakhosi in Bulawayo, and run by Cont Mhlanga, which I also wanted to break into but failed to do so as Inxusa ceased to exist before I was ready. I was only able to break into other Amakhosi Theatre programs later, the National Amateur Theatre program, which is also now no longer in existence, but I will talk about that later.

Why did I write that first play in 1998? Let me try to remember. Then I had been writing prose and poetry for a long long time, and some of it was beginning to appear in our local Sunday Newspaper, and then the artistic director of Sadala Amajeke Theater, the late Clever Biggie Chimwanza, noticed that and he approached me and asked me to try my hand at writing for theatre. Never underestimate the power of your local community newspaper to also throw opportunity your way.

This was the beginning of my long engagement with theatre, which also had its ups and downs like any other human endeavour, which has finally led me to the HIFA stage. Of course there is more ahead in theatre, but I will talk about the now here.

When I wrote that first play in 1998 for Sadalala, I didn’t even know how one structures the play script, for reading and writing are two very different things, and I had to scramble and start re-reading other play scripts, how scenes were divided, and how the storyline is kept unfolding without losing the interest of the audience.

I finally came out with the manuscript THE TIME OF TROUBLE. The play was about the coming of the Ndebele people to present day Matabeleland, and led by Mzilikazi. I must say Sadala Amajeke really let me down on that play. They only managed to put on stage the first scene, which they went around showing as a teaser of their upcoming play by a new playwright going by the name of Christopher Mlalazi. But I must admit that even that one scene caught the attention of theatre lovers – it was as hair-raising as any good play could be.

I waited for many years for Sadala Amajekete Theater to complete and master the whole play and stage it – and they totally failed. They kept telling me that they were still rehearsing, ‘and if you want you can come and watch it.’

I would go to the rehearsals, and find the rehearsal room full, of both actors and people from around the rehearsal centre attracted by the play, for, like I said, the play was a stunner – everybody so much wanted to see the it fully staged. Ishmael Muvingi, one of the greatest actors/singers/dancers from Bulawayo, who is now touring the world with Siyaya Arts, was still with Sadalala Amajekete then, and he was the spine of the rehearsals coming up with breathtaking performances.

Five years later, and nothing had still been done with the play, it was still standing literally with – that one scene that was the talk of town. I must say I had become a disappointed man then. These guys had been holding up my growth in theatre for so long.

And then came another break. Sometime in 2003 Ishmael moved from Sadalala to Umkhathi Theatre, which was a wise move indeed because Sadalala were just wasting people’s time. Umkhathi Theatre is also more professionally run by their Director, Matesu Dube. When Ishmael moved to Umkhathi, he asked me to write a play for his new group along the lines of THE TIME OF TROUBLE, and I quickly scripted THE SOIL OF THE SON for them.

This play told the story of Shaka the King of the Zulu, from his birth to the time he became King, and stops there. Traditional plays fascinated me then, especially political traditional satire, because most of them ran a parallel with the political situation of Zimbabwe, and also had a universal appeal. And this new play was a completely different take from the movie Shaka Zulu starring Henry Cele that was a hit during those days, as it concentrated more on attempting an psycho –analytic investigation of Shaka’s childhood, and the reasons why he became the bloodthirsty conqueror at adulthood. I was reading Sigmund Freud during those times also.

Umkhathi Theatre were fast and efficient, and within a short time the play hit the stage, and became an instant hit in theatre circles in Bulawayo. I remember vividly one performance at Girls College in Bulawayo during their Culture Week, where I had invited Brian Jones and Jane Morris of amaBooks, my present publishers. The play received a standing ovation from the audience, and so too at Bulawayo Theatre. Ishmael Muvingi had directed the play and infused in it traditional music and dances that made it into this stupefying quasi musical drama that transported even me the writer to that bygone era of the Zulu Kingdom.

I became totally hooked into theater.

From there I wrote two plays for the Amakhosi Amateur Theatre program, THE SUN BEFORE, and AS I AM. And then I wrote another one for Umkhathi Theater, titled NKULUMANE, which was another traditional play about Prince Nkulumane, the son of King Mzilikazi of the Ndebele.

At this time I was also active in short story and poetry writing, and both were beginning to be published internationally, but I will not write on my literature exploits here.

And then in 2008 I co-wrote THE CROCODILE OF ZAMBEZI with one of Zimbabwe’s most prolific and award winning playwrights, Raisedon Baya, which was awarded the OXFAM-NOVIB PEN FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AWARD at the Hague. This was my first award in theatre, although I had been mentioned in several in my prose work at that time.

I was now in full gear, a runaway train hurtling along.

In 2010 I opened my first play at HIFA, titled ELECTION DAY. The play went on to be nominated in three categories at the 2011 National Arts Merit Award – Outstanding Theatrical Production, Best Actor, and Best Actress. It finally scooped two awards, the Outstanding Theatrical Production and Best Actor, which was a highly satisfying achievement indeed. The play was directed by Eunice Tava.

Election Day tells the story of a dictator from an unnamed African country who is losing at the polls during Presidential Elections, and all those around him have panicked and want to flee the country, at the forefront his wife and personal advisor, but the dictator is refusing to flee, saying he wants to be buried on the soil of his country. Unknown to everybody, he has an ace up his sleeve.

I first wrote Election Day as a short story which was published in the Edinburgh Review of 2005, and later adapted it into a stage play in 2007, and it got into the stage in 2010.

And now I am back again at the 2011 edition of HIFA with another play titled COLORS OF DREAMS. This play, which I hope will be as exciting to audiences as the writing process was to me, is another socio, economic and political satire. It tells the story of two families, a former money changer and his wife, and a school teacher and his live in girlfriend who is a prostitute. Both couples have been affected by the collapse and removal of the Zimbabwean dollar from the money market, and now a rumour has come into town from the money changers ‘highly placed’ connections. This rumour galvanises these two families into a trail of dreaming about their future and that of the nation.

It is April of 2011 as I am writing this article, COLORS OF DREAMS is under rehearsal at HIFA 2011 right, and I am already thinking of another play for HIFA 2012,for it is said once you start a fire, keep blowing on the flame…

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Reflection on my 2010 Villa Aurora Residency in Los Angeles

It is very difficult to describe how I felt when I first read the email that announced the news that I had been selected to be the 2010 Feuchtwanger Fellow at the Villa Aurora artists’ residency in Los Angeles.

It was in January of 2010 when I read that email, and at that time I was attending the HIFA-DIRECT theatre workshops in Harare where I was preparing my political satire titled Election Day for its world premiere at the 2010 Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA).

It was also my first time to be involved with HIFA after an almost decade long struggle of attempting to breakthrough. It really is tough to make breakthroughs in life, and surprisingly when they come sometimes they come as an avalanche, true to the saying ‘sometimes it does not rain but it pours.’ In 2010 it was pouring for me.

As I am writing this article, it is January of 2011, and I am waiting to go to Sweden where I was selected at the end of 2010 to be the 2011 guest writer by the Nordic-Africa institute, a fellowship that will also allow me to finish off a novel project I started at Villa Aurora, and also give me the opportunity to do book tours of Nordic countries as well as see the countries and its peoples.

So there I was one morning in January of 2010 and I go into the theatre workshop at HIFA-DIRECT and coolly announce to the other participants that on my way to the workshop venue I had passed through an internet shop and there I had received the news that beginning of April to December of 2010 I had been invited to a residency in Los Angeles, and also unfortunately for my play, that I wouldn’t be there to see its premier in April at HIFA as I would be in the USA by then. Of course I can’t keep secrets, and that is one of my biggest weaknesses, and in Ndebele such a person like me is referred to as ‘somebody whose chest was kicked by a Zebra.’ You are always coughing out everything.

Soon I had sent this news to all me email contacts, I had posted it on my blog, and also on my Facebook page. How could I deny myself this glory? This was my moment.

And this also came at a time when I had never been out of Africa – of course I had been to several international writers’ forums in other African countries, in Kenya twice – The Caine Prize Workshop and Kwani Lit Fest, Uganda for Beyond Borders Literature Conference, and Ghana for the Pan African Literary Forum. I had also toured Zambia and Botswana for Power In The Voice, which was a spoken word festival for High School students from all countries of the SADC Region and also the UK.

But now Los Angeles…

I think anybody can agree with me that there is something magical about the name of Los Angeles, the city of angels, and especially if you are coming from a township somewhere in Africa…

The Villa Aurora was the home of Leon Feuchtwanger, the German-Jewish writer who fled persecution in Nazi Germany during World War 2 and temporarily lived in France, and had also to flee France before the Nazi advance, and finally settled in the USA, where he bought Villa Aurora in Los Angeles, which is now an artists residence and historic landmark. When Leon Feuchtwanger fled Germany, he took along with him some of the books from his library which had survived seizure and burnings by the Nazi’s, whilst other books were shipped out to him by sympathetic friends, and this vast collection of books is now housed at Villa Aurora and also at the University of Southern California.

Going to the USA was also a task in itself. First when I tried to apply for a visa, I was told that my case was being investigated by the USA embassy for fraud, and so I could not be issued the visa straight away, but I would be informed after a few weeks about the results of the application.

Fraud, me! Anybody can guess that the next coming two weeks were not the happiest in my life - I wanted to be gone, I wanted to get to Los Angeles and start writing, and also revel in being there, for who does not want to travel to the world film capital once in their lives?

I also wanted to get out of Zimbabwe and refresh my exhausted soul, because even though our economy was sort of stabilising because of the recently introduced Unity Government and the introduction of the multi currency system, life was not as easy as one would wish it to be in their lives, and also a bit distracting to the novel project I was involved in then, titled Autumn Leaves, and which thankfully I finished at Villa Aurora and am now looking for a publisher for it.

I will also not hide the fact that I have received several rejections of the manuscript from publishers so far, but I believe in the manuscript and will never lose hope – I know a publisher is waiting out there for such a kind of story as is written in the way I have written mine, and it is only a matter of us meeting; Rome was not built in one day, so the learned say…

I had thought the investigation of my visa application would take a few days, but we had to cancel the flight bookings and reschedule them again as the flight days got dangerously nearer and there was still no word about the visa from the USA embassy. The original flight dates passed by, and there was still silence from the USA embassy. Now I was beginning to get worried – silence is worrying, especially if one is waiting for something that you know has the power to bring change to your life – just like the Presidential election results of 2008 in Zimbabwe.

Finally, after some weeks, I received a telephone call from the USA embassy – my visa was ready.

I live in Bulawayo city, a six hours travel by road to the capital, and when I got to the embassy, it was discovered that my passport had been printed with a visa with an error and it had to be cancelled for another one, and this new one had to be requested from Washington again too, and would be issued the following day.

I spent another night in Harare, and the following day the new visa was issued, and I think my sigh of relief was even heard in Los Angeles.

Then the volcano in Norway exploded, and the ash cloud closed all flights over Europe.

I travelled as far as Johannesburg from Bulawayo where I spent an anxious two nights at the airport there sleeping in the transit lounge because my connecting flight to Frankfurt had been cancelled, and finally decided to abandon the trip, and flew back to Bulawayo again with a heavy heart, for I felt that life seemed to be against me.

If I had been a superstitious man, I think I would have gone to a bone thrower to ask for luck, but I didn’t. I spent another week waiting for the dust cloud to clear, and finally flew off again, and safely and finally got to Los Angeles.

Villa Aurora in a majestic two-storey house in an isolated part of the Pacific Palisades in the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles. Of Spanish architecture with magnificent balconies, it overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and one can imagine such a place, of waking up every morning high up on a mountain to the sound of birds, and with the sea spread far down below you.

One would argue that such a sight is too grand, and it can distract one from work because all you would want to do is just to sit in the garden or balcony and enjoy the view, and I would agree to a certain extent, but after a few days or weeks depending on one, the beautiful sight sort of recedes into the distance, and the beauty of your work in progress once again comes to the forefront, and once you combine these two, the idyllic scenery and your work, then you can now start working beautifully.

For me, the best way to enjoy the scenery and my work was to put both two on a schedule – have time for the view and also time to work.

In the morning, like a patient taking their morning dose, I would give myself time to sit or stand in the garden and absorb the sight, just also like a person praying and finding a balance with one’s soul, then after some time I would go into my room which also had a window overlooking the ocean, and I would start writing or reading. Sometimes I would put a chair in the garden or balcony and work from there.

Villa Aurora also houses artists from Germany for a period of three months in three cycles annually who come in groups of four; a visual artist, a music composer, a writer and a film maker. The Feuchtwanger Fellow is the only artist who stays at the villa for nine months, and also is not from Germany.

There is also a wonderful support staff for the artists at Villa Aurora, led by Imogen, and I am forever grateful for their warmth and homeliness – Claudia, Daniel, Mechtchild (based in the office in Germany), and all the internees. And also the wonderful Gould family in the house across the street, Howard and Trish.

The residency also offered me the valuable chance for cross cultural interaction with my fellow German artists, twelve of them in total during my entire period there, and also with American people, of which I found beneficial as it opened my world view, and in some way I know that in the long run this will feed into my writing as, also, engagement with these foreign cultures also put my own African culture into clear perspective.

I also took part in panel discussion during festivals at the Universities of California (UCLA) and Southern California (USC), and did readings in Los Angeles at Eso Wan Book Shop, and in Sacramento at the Sacramento Poetry centre to wonderful audiences.

Of course I did not forget to go on long rambling walks in Santa Monica, the nearest town, and especially the 3rd Street Promenade where the performing artists display their art on the streets.

Nine months later, like I mentioned before, I am back in Zimbabwe and I am the proud owner of a finished novel manuscript and I am also now trying to finish another one. I will not mention the contents of the novels I am working on before I find publishers for them as I do not want to compromise my work.

I am also refreshed and attacking my writing with a new vigour. I find I am also more confident, I am more aggressive, and lastly but also importantly, I am also even more inquisitive.