The coming in of theatrical groups that stage English plays in Malawi poses a challenge to Chichewa drama groups as many people are becoming more and more conversant with the English stage plays.
In his paper, Malawian Popular Commercial Stage Drama: Origins Challenges and Growth, Mufunanji Magalasi observes that the origins of popular Chichewa drama date back to 1940s with performances staged in schools, churches as part of variety concerts.
Magalasi notes that such drama became prominent in the 1970s because drama was taught in teachers training colleges. Later, Chichewa drama groups were asked to speak Chichewa with a Central Region Chewa/Ngoni accent considered the ‘proper chewa’.
This then gave birth to the alienation of Chichewa drama groups, according to Magalasi, and the trend was only changed in the early 1980s when groups such as Kwathu and Umodzi Drama Group were formed in Blantyre.
Because of this trend, many Chichewa drama groups’ members are deciding to break away from their groups and start their own solo career as stand-up comedians.
But despite this worrying trend that may kill the existence of drama groups that stage their plays in the vernacular language, there are also groups that have chosen to stand tall and sail in the wading waters.
One such drama group is Kwathu. Founded in 1980 and 33 years down the line, the drama group, though with one of its founding member, Augustine Mauwa, gone, with some actors changing careers and others leaving the group, is still going strong, boasting of over 15 full members.
In an interview, Kwathu Drama Group leader Eric Mabedi, stage name Jakobo, who joined the group in 1984, said Chichewa groups have changed and actors have decided to just do with a one man or two man cast because of expenses incurred during rehearsals and performances but the future is still bright.
Mabedi said with the rise in the cost of living, it is very expensive to take a more than 10 men cast in a nationwide considering transport, accommodation and food expenses.
Despite being among the few drama groups that performs in Chichewa, Kwathu boasts of a number of legendary actors and actresses such as Evance Mbewe, Charles Mphoka, Enifa Chiwaya, Linda Chatha and Emma Chikwembeya who Mabedi described as an outstanding actress in the group.
The actor said sometimes he blames the tendency of a two man cast on Izeki ndi Jakobo as they are like the trendsetters. He feels they created a picture that even two people can stage a play and educate, entertain and inform just like any large cast.
“Drama should involve a good number of actors and actresses taking their turns to give people the best and not two people doing a two man comedy. We just hope with time the drama essence will rebound,” said Mabedi.
Mabedi, together with his close friend John Nyanga (stage name Izeki), started their two man show in the early 90s and in 1992, they released a DVD titledKukhala and in 1997, they produced two audio tapes and then later two DVDs; I am the road you walk and Njinga which did well on the market.
Izeki ndi Jakobo’s two DVDs were even pirated and found their way to other countries, especially Zambia where they became bestsellers because of their heart enthralling scenes.