It was a bright Sunday afternoon in 1992. The French Cultural Centre (FCC) had been a hive of activity. Not so long before, the arts haven hosted a music fest, the International Day of Music. On the line were music performances by Acacias Band, featuring Ben Michael now Mankhamba; Rukuru Band and Allan Namoko and the Chimvu River Dance Band.
Yet, that bright, sunny afternoon was a totally different affair. It was nothing about music. It was about theatre, professional theatre.
A radio advert, simply put, coaxed me to the centre that bright Sunday afternoon. The urge was too hard to resist.
A. A woman needs love
B. A woman needs security
C. A woman needs forgiveness
You won’t appreciate a good woman till you lose her
That was an advert selling WET or Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre’s Educating Mwalimu. That was the first play that drew me. Being a Standard 8 primary school pupil at the time, I really wanted to see what Du Chisiza Junior meant when he coined the catch line: Forging a theatrical future…. As the journey continues.
Getting into the FCC gates, jazz music greeted us. Earl Klugh music was booming from a radio cassette on the stage. That jazz music made you feel like a king, as you waited impatiently to see that very drama kingpin. Like all first experiences, the mood was just exhilarating.
That is the first lesson one can draw from Du. He treated his followers as royalty. His shows were just like a four-course meal. The jazz music was the soup.
Then, as I was lost in Earl Klugh’s music, all came to a halt. There was that silence. A deafening silence. Then, the man walked on the stage. That was my first experience of stand-up comedy. Du’s jokes were the appetiser.
That bright, sunny Sunday afternoon, Du may have been at his worst. He may have been at his very best. For me, he was extraordinary.
I remember him cracking jokes about a woman and a man in a first sexual encounter. Du had a way of spraying on his audience the laughing powder. He cracked more jokes that sent us into stitches of laughter.
Then, he announced the play that was coming on stage. Educating Mwalimu. With a bow, he left the stage. What could have prohibited all of us from applauding?
Then, the stage was set. There was Peter Munthali, better known off stage as Baby and other stage hands taking care of things.
That is the other aspect of Du’s work. He took care of the minutest of detail. For all the plays I was to watch from Du, I was carried into the scenes because he knew how to create scenes. You could be drawn into the hills and valleys of Karonga in Kabuha Tragedy and be thrilled by the opulence of a rich man’s home in Papa’s Empire. A director who scarcely knows how to create scenes is not worth their salt.
But I digress.
The entry of Gertrude Kamkwatira, that bright Sunday afternoon, as Astrida was majestic. Her voice, that voice, has left me with a better sense of life. You never appreciate a good thing until you lose it.
It is now, and today, that we appreciate that once, there lived Du Chisiza. Ay, once, there was Gertrude Kamkwatira. We appreciate their being, now that they are gone.
Then, came Wongani Munthali’s entry. That bright Sunday afternoon, he was wearing the PJ Viyuyi mantle.
As the play progressed, a sweets seller we used to call Mr Banana, started to sell the confessionaries. He was disturbing our attention. We were enjoying our meal. After the appetiser and soup, how could someone get into our entrée, indeed the main dish?
Du would not have a bit about it. In between two acts, he got off stage. He told Mr Banana one thing: “Do not disturb or you will be barred.”
From that day, Mr Banana only sold the sweets in peace at the gate, or in between acts. That is another lesson from Du: Discipline. As historian and author DD Phiri noted at one point, Du must have inherited discipline from his father Du Chisiza, an economics firehouse.
So, that bright sunny Sunday afternoon, having the first Du and WET experience was, I repeat, a four-course meal. The soup was in the jazz music; the appetiser in the stand-up comedy and the entrée, the main dish, was the play itself. Now, what was the dessert?
Re-enacting WET plays became the fruit and cake after the main dish. From Democracy Boulevard to Truman’s Corner and through Diandra and The Priest, Barefoot in the Heart and so much more, memorising the lines became for us the order of the day. Missing a Wakhumbata performance was a pain, as friends in class would go on and on regurgitating the lines they caught.
We tried, in our least, to wear Frank Patani Mwase’s shoes, attempted Wambali Mtawali’s mannerisms, Twaya Sanudi’s gestures, Jeremiah Mwaungulu’s wit, Emmanuel Maliro’s fluency and Zondwayo Juba’s pretence. No, we cannot forget Waliko Makhala, who saw the genesis of the WET journey in Fragments.
This is where Du set the bar higher. If you wanted to get the best of his lines, you had to get any of his books. Off the printers, he had Barefoot in the Heart and Other Plays, Democracy Boulevard and Other Plays and De Summer Blow and Other Plays.
Coming to De Summer Blow, I hear the play was performed in Lilongwe last week. It will be in Blantyre this weekend. Never mind the banter about the play being pegged at K10 000 in Lilongwe and K3 000 in Blantyre.
And while we are at it, one can only long to see the Chisiza legacy on, long after his demise on February 24 1999 in the run up to the elections when he was aspiring for a parliamentary seat on a United Democratic Front ticket.
Lawyer Wapona Kita, upon watching De Summer Blow last week, posted on Facebook laying praise on Edwin Saidi, that youngster we remember for his act as Truewell Chipwenyenye. ICT guru Matthews Mtumbuka chipped in: “Edwin zisiyeni za IT.”
As the clock ticks, I await with impatient expectation to see on stage, Doreen Chisiza and others making the journey continue. n