Blantyre-based youthful theatre group Young Travellers Theatre had the task of stepping into the shoes of one of the country’s huge personalities, former president Bakili Muluzi.
Their task to relive and recreate the story of one of the most popular and widely followed figures was made harder and more complicated as the theatre group had to recreate one of the former president’s best and unique qualities: his wit.
The Young Travellers Theatre slipped into Muluzi’s shoes courtesy of an adaptation of a play, Bakili’s Wit, originally written by literary guru Smith Likongwe. The play is part of Likongwe’s trilogy, Living Playscripts which also has other plays The Tragedy of Bingu and Amai’s Turn.
The performance, staged at Jacaranda Cultural Centre (JCC) in Blantyre on Saturday afternoon, centred on the relentless efforts of one journalist Zimitsani Nyali, who at all cost want to write a book about Muluzi.
His pursuit leads him to Muluzi’s home village in Machinga where he finally finds man celebrating his birthday with his kinsmen in the most modest and traditional way possible.
This gesture alone surprised the inquisitive journalist writer who wonders how a person of his stature could choose to hold such an important event in a village. Muluzi played down Nyali’s curiosity, insisting as a man of the people, it was only proper to be dining with his own.
The writer takes Muluzi aback when he asks him to clarify his reported conviction while he worked as a court clerk for misappropriation of funds. Using his wit, Muluzi quickly dismissed the story as mere fiction, to the amazement of Nyali, played by Ken Kananji.
“A Nyali nanunso mukukhala ngati nyali yopanda mafutatu,” retorts Muluzi, a role played by Abdul John.
The story also captures the events that surrounded the change from one party era to pluralism. It chronicled some of the decisions that characterised Muluzi’s decade long rule such as his alliance with Alliance for Democracy (Aford) leader Chakufwa Chihana.
The renaming of structures identified with his predecessor Kamuzu Banda such as Kamuzu Stadium, Kamuzu Highway Kamuzu International Airport is also part of the story.
The performance also brings memories of some of the antics Muluzi and his leadership are known for such as displaying truckloads full of maize at political rallies purportedly for distribution only for the vehicles to disappear before the rally ends.
The play also trumpeted some of the positives and gains recorded during Muluzi’s rule such as the establishment of the first ever television station and the introduction of free primary education.
The 18-member cast tried their best to bring back Muluzi through the performance which lasted over an hour but still in some parts they were lacking.
Likongwe, who was part of the audience, in a post-performance interview, admitted a few flaws.
“In terms of following the sequence, it is a long play as it is a whole book. Sometimes when a group is acting a long piece it is not always easy to follow everything. But otherwise in terms of the performance it was impressive,” he said.
Likongwe has offered to work with the cast in their subsequent performances to perfect some grey areas noted. He said he was impressed that the young stars took the responsibility to take the lead in telling their Malawian story.
Among the audience was also social commentator Higger Mkandawire who said: “Apart from just telling the story, they were supposed to add some of the real elements that happened on the ground then. Imitating how Muluzi and other characters such as Chihana used to speak.”
Director of the play Imran Shabaan said previously they have just been performing stories or plays that were not Malawian such as Julius Caesar but they are now happy that they helping in safeguarding the legacy of some of the notable figures in Malawi’s history.
Shabaan said: “The response has been nice. But we had difficulties because of the stage we used as it is not suitable for a real theatre performance. We faced space limitations as we rehearsed on a different platform than the one we performed on.”
Some family members from the Muluzi clan were also in attendance during the performance.