The electric atmosphere at Blantyre Cultural Centre (BCC) sometime in May this year was reminiscent of how famous drama once was in the country. On stage was the Nanzikambe Arts Theatre, showcasing a play that formed part of an awareness campaign on incidences of burns in the country. The play featured such talent as Thlupego Chisiza and Mphundu Mjumira. Their
act ignited laughter from the audience and presented a sense of professionalism. The Nanzikambe artists displayed a spirited performance
which revealed their profound artistic prowess. And as their act climaxed, its objective surfaced— the message on dangers of burns
was driven home.
Thus, what began as an entertainment for the audience turned into something designed to educate them.
On stage came a plastic surgery technician from Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (Qech), Dr Tilinde Chokotho. “We believe that when people are informed about a particular issue such as how to prevent fire accidents in the home, they contribute to the development
through taking measures against accidents and leading healthier lives.
Theatre is an excellent opportunity for educating the masses on their right to health,” said the doctor. This is just one scenario capturing what has become of drama these days. Today, most artists or drama groups are into commercial soaps or theatre for development (TFD) initiatives
that are driven by the interests of the sponsors or donors. Not much is heard as an independent initiative by drama groups to entertain the masses.
And it appears the once major source of family entertainment is destined for the death bed. Not only is drama facing competition from popular television soaps such as those aired on satellite channels, including Telemundo and Zee World, among others; it is also losing out to stage poetry which has taken the centre stage.
Solomonic Peacocks director McArthur Matukuta observes that groups are prevented by a number of factors to organise
independent drama projects. He said: “Today, dramatists or theatre companies have no choice, but to dance to the tune of sponsors because the theatre environment is no longer conducive.
“Take the issue of venues, for example. Today, people want to associate themselves with decent things. But which decent family can go to Blantyre Cultural Centre and comfortably watch drama with the current state the facility is in?” Matukuta said stage drama is for executive people who cannot afford to take their families to venues that do not match their status, adding that lack of decent, but affordable venues has proven to be a huge setback to the development of drama in
He adds that apart from being robbed of talented dramatists such as John Nyanga alias Izeki, the country’s drama is facing a tough ride due to poor corporate support. “It is not easy to organize professional theatre performances because it needs a lot of resources. An event organiser first weighs the risks of pumping resources in a particular event,” said Matukuta. In the past, BCC—formerly French Cultural Centre (FCC)— used to be the hub of drama performances. Groups such as Kwathu, Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre and Wanna Do Ensemble
Theatre used to hold successful shows there.
Professor Mufunanji Magalasi, drama lecturer at Chancellor College, a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima), says the country’s theatre industry is yet to get to a level where it can sufficiently support careers of artists. “Very few dramatists are solely
surviving on it. This is the reason why many drama graduates end up taking other jobs,” he says.
Asked what could be done to improve the situation, Magalasi suggests a multi-sectoral approach and mindset change towards a career in theatre.
“To reclaim the lost glory of popular drama needs concerted efforts from different players. There is also a need for mindset change among the practitioners themselves,” he said. National Theatre Association of Malawi (Ntam) president Manasseh Chisiza concurs
with Magalasi, acknowledging that most dramatists rely on companies and organisations to make commercial soaps or campaigns for survival. “Resour ce const r a ints are a major drawback that prevents most dramatists from
implementing projects. As a result, they end up in sponsored campaigns or commercial soaps. It is not easy for dramatists to make it out there,” he says. He urged government, including stakeholders that are handling the National Cultural Policy to speed up the process so that an arts council is established in the country to disburse funds to various arts bodies just as is the case with Malawi National Council of Sports.