“As long as I find that there is something wrong, I will always express it through my work. I think the artist is like a torch-bearer for people who have been sidelined. We are there to fight for people who might not have the opportunity to fight for themselves. If that opportunity can be found through theatre, then so be it.” – Du Chisiza Jnr.
Call him a theatre genius, a theatre maestro, a multi-talented theatre mega star, theatre wizard, stage artist par excellence; Du’s jacket simply accommodated all those accolades.
“He is a culture, a phenomenon, Malawi’s first superstar,” seasoned scribe Mike Kamwendo wrote in theIndependent tabloid a bunch of years ago.
February 24 will 15 years since Du Chisiza Junior’s demise.
His greatness in drama, his courage in tackling real issues, his black belt in martial arts, his entrepreneurship competence, his celebrity swag and style, this whole lot plus so much more are attributes championing the legacy of this great son of Malawi whose death at only 36 spelt doom to the country’s theatre arts Born on March 26 1963, at the age of 20, Du broke the odds by commencing his trade as a playwright, director, actor and founder of the first professional theatre company in the country, Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre whose momentum rose and rose after he obtained an MA in Fine and Performing Arts at the Philadelphia University of the Performing Arts in the US in 1987.
His creativity was so amazing, such that the radio adverts he made for his performances were awesome and captivating such that, the sign off of for ‘Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre, forging a theatrical future, as the journey continues’ became an anthemic theme that ably anchored the punchy intro of such ads.
Celebrated writer Stanley Onjezani Kenani said the fallen artist grew from a nobody to a somebody through hard work, determination and focus.
“Du Chisiza teaches us one big lesson as artists: work hard. Work hard endlessly. His earliest plays used to have an audience of less than ten, mostly family members, but he built Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre steadily, without giving up,” said the Geneva-based Kenani, adding that upon his return from the USA, Du’s dream to revolutionise theatre in Malawi was realised.
“He remained true to his dream, never wavering. Today, most of us artists register success once or twice and thereafter we want to wallow in celebrity, thereby losing focus on our art. Du did become famous, and the government of the day went so far as to appoint him Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture. Despite such recognition, he still worked hard as an artist,” Kenani explained.
According to Kenani, Du reaped success due to his team working spirit which saw him grooming and working with the likes of Frank Patani Mwase, Gertrude Kamkwatira, Jeremiah Mwaungulu, Emmanuel Maliro, Wongani Munthali and others.
“He registered Wakhumbata as a company and ran it like one. This sense of self-organisation, of forging a team-spirit, of approaching art as serious business, is what took Du to his inimitable heights,” he said.
Off the arts, Du’s personal life clicks elements of humbleness and sociable according to Deguzman Kaminjolo, who was then only a cub reporter for a now defunct Independent newspaper.
“The one thing I remember about Du was his down to earth attitude. I was a rookie reporter, working for a little known publication yet Du treated me like royalty. Several times he invited me to his house, and we would chat as equals. He cherished advice, and also encouraged me,” recalls Kaminjolo.
Emmanuel Maliro, who started playing his trade with Wakhumbata at only 19, says Du was a man in his own league, an irreplaceable icon.
“Man it was a great experience, he was too professional. I still miss those days man. I learnt a lot and he made us sharp to think quickly,” said Maliro.
“Do you know that Du could start adverts on the radio before he actually wrote the play? He could start writing on Tuesday, we were given scripts on Wednesday and start rehearsals, by Sunday the whole play was in place and everyone had their lines and gestures perfectly,” narrated Maliro, now a marketer with Zodiak Broadcasting Station.
Du was the third son of Dunduza Katuli Chisiza, a prominent activist of Malawian Independence who was killed in 1962 before Du’s birth.
His uncle, Yatuta Chisiza, was also a nationalist involved in politics, serving as bodyguard to Banda during the struggle for independence. He was killed following independence during an attempted take-over of the Presidency in 1967.
Du became interested in drama as a secondary student at HHI in Blantyre. He wrote and directed The Deceased’s Attack, which won first prize at the National Schools Drama Festival in 1982.
In 1983, he formed the Wakhumbata Workshop Theatre. Wakhumbata in Chichewa and Tumbuka means among them “one who hugs”, “one who hatches eggs” and “those who grieve”.
Du was Malawi’s best known playwright. He wrote about controversial topics in Malawi during one party rule and during multi party rule.
He was a fearless writer that dared to write about controversial topics that many would not dare to during the Kamuzu Banda regime.
One of his popular works includes Fragments which he produced after he returned from the US and after learning that he would need to do much of his work abstract in order to get his message across without being banned.
Another play, Tatuya Futi was a tribute to his uncle Yatuta Chisiza.
His plays ranged over a variety of controversial issues that led to some of them being banned by the Banda regime. He began to use artistic talent to disguise his themes. He became very popular for his works of political criticism.
In a surprising move, in 1993, he agreed to take on the post of Minister for Sports, Youth and Culture in one of Banda’s last cabinets before multiparty elections in 1994.
In the months preceding the first mulit-party elections, he was courted by each of the three major political parties. He announced his withdrawal from active politics in 1994 after the MCP was defeated. In 1998 he joined the ruling party, UDF. He announced his candidacy to stand as parliamentary candidate for Karonga South but died prior to the elections.