It is a miracle to see how the arts, especially theatre, have managed to survive the onslaught from state apparatus up to this day.
As I write the cast of Rituals is celebrating a landmark victory after a court in Mutare acquitted them of “criminal nuisance” (please read political nuisance) charges.
And it was not the first time Daves Guzha and Rooftop Promotions have gone to court to defend the artist’s right to freedom of expression and opinion.
It is also a public secret that since the launch of a comprehensive assault on freedom of artistic expression in Zimbabwe theatre has, arguably, suffered the most.
Plays have been stopped, others banned. Actors have been detained and made to stage full performances before a captive police audience, at times being told to re-do certain lines in their scripts, lines deemed dangerous or suggestive enough to warrant arrest and incarceration.
Writers and directors have been abducted and beaten up — all in an attempt to shut them up.
However, some of these writers and directors have refused to be shut up. One such writer is the founder of Amakhosi Theatre and the pioneer of protest theatre in Zimbabwe, Cont Mhlanga.
Commenting in a local weekly in 2007, he said that “as artistes, our job is to entertain people, and we do that based on true historical events and incidents whose knowledge is in the public domain, not fictitious events and incidents in imaginary countries. Now it seems it is unlawful in this country to speak the truth, even if all facts are there for everybody to see”.
Consequently, he has been in trouble for his views and opinions. In fact many in political circles consider him a political nuisance.
For some time now the local authorities (please read security agents) seem to believe that the theatre sector has committed one of the worst sins in this country.
They seem to think theatre has sold out and is probably sleeping with the enemy.
This is shown by the attitude of the police, especially by the questions they throw at artistes when they have arrested them. Who is funding you?
Who is sending you to stir up trouble? And how much are they paying you? This is said as if the artistes themselves are incapable of coming up with the ideas presented in their own plays.
According to some of these authorities artistes are not educated enough or intelligent enough to have the kinds of opinions they are exhibiting in their works.
So the belief is that they are working under instruction from those trying to work against the state.
In other words artists are sleeping with the enemy and parroting western thoughts and desires.
However, Daves Guzha, one of theatre’s front runners in Zimbabwe believes otherwise. “We are artists who reflect the challenges and triumphs of our society. We are not puppets and messengers.”
It is very sad that once the police and members of the secret service invaded the theatres the audiences, most of whom had seen so much of themselves in the plays that were being staged around the country — particularly plays that reflected on their frustrations and projected their suppressed dreams — fearing for their safety suddenly decided to stay at home — right in the comforts of their homes.
The reality is that it has become too risky for one to just go and watch a political play anywhere.
Let me take you to a time in 2008 for a moment. One evening I went with a friend to watch Cont Mhlanga’s The good President at Bulawayo Theatre.
The play was simply a reaction to the public beating and humiliation of Morgan Tsvangirai by the police. It also touched on the thorny issue of Gukurahundi.
In the middle of the performance the police, riot gear and all, had stormed into the theatre and gave the surprised audience five minutes to vacate the theatre.
I had never seen something like that before. There was a stampede as people ran for the single exit door.
Outside, we found the riot police everywhere.
They had the whole theatre surrounded and I remember running into the night, into the thick, dark Centenary Park night with only one thought in mind; to get as far away as possible from the riot police and their baton sticks.
This is the kind of behaviour from state apparatus that has led to some people staying way from theatre.
Who, in this country doesn’t know that it is better to be safe than sorry?
As I have stated earlier theatre has been hardest hit. The following plays were either stopped from being performed, banned or the cast and crew harassed – some actors even spent several nights in police cells while the authorities deliberated on what charge to press. Workshop Negative.
This is probably the first Zimbabwean play to invite government’s attention to theatre. Super patriots and morons. Dare. Two cheers for a patriot. Final push.
Madam Speaker, Sir. Two decades of terror. The crocodile of Zambezi. Poetic journey. Heal the wounds. Rituals. The list goes on.
However, this assault on freedom of expression has not been solely confined to theatre.
In visual arts Owen Maseko’s exhibition on Gukurahundi was stopped a day after it opened at the National Art Gallery in Bulawayo.
After the closure of Maseko’s exhibition the censorship board immediately ordered the statue “Looking into future” that had stood on the gallery courtyard for more than a decade years to be removed.
Suddenly, the statue had become pornographic and had to be banished to some dark storeroom somewhere around the gallery.
The arrests, stopping of performances, bans, harassments, and clear intimidation of artists by state apparatus – including the Board of Censorship – will not suffocate and kill theatre.
It might cow a few artists but it will not kill the genre.
Also the state needs to know that a new breed of artists has been born – artists that have gone to school and have degrees and diplomas and loads of certificates to their credit.
And these artists are not afraid to voice their opinions.
Call them political nuisance, and even threaten them with criminal nuisance charges but they are here to stay!
Raisedon Baya is a Bulawayo based playwright. He writes in his own capacity