For many years, stage drama has been the source of entertainment for many Malawians.
Besides, it has been a conduit of sending across messages to authorities as well, especially in the democratic dispensation.
Though done subtly, oftentimes actors have communicated or reprimanded politicians on certain decisions and injustices on people, and the messages were driven home.
On the other hand, English drama has nurtured the arts, told local stories and created a platform for performing artists.
To date, Du Chisiza remains the godfather of English drama in Malawi through his Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre (WET) which, sadly, only lived a few years after his demise in 1999.
A shadow of its former stellar self, WET has several times promised fans of its coming back on the English drama scene but to no avail.
Interestingly, Wakhumbata gave birth to several groups, including Force Theatre after misunderstandings between the departed legend and his colleagues, but the offshoot did not last long.
Also, at the peak of Wakhumbata, another drama group that caused a sensation was the Chancellor College Travelling Theatre. Today, it still sits in Zomba, but only for academic purposes and not commercial as was the case in the past.
After Du, came Wanna Do of Gertrude Kamkwatira, Lion Theatre of Thlupego Chisiza, and others such as Solomonic Peacocks and Alabama Travelling Theatre. However, they all went into hibernation along the way.
Previously, English drama was for a cross-cutting audience, parents went to the shows with their children for learning purposes. During the days of Wanna Do, people such asformer government official hostess Cecilia Kadzamira
and John Tembo used to attend shows.
At some point, former president Bingu wa Mutharika surprised many when he attended a drama show. That is how serious English drama was.
Recent years saw Nanzikambe Arts, then Bilimankhwe, whose impact was felt across the entertainment scene to fill the gap, but now fans are only left with memories.
Regrettably, even the Association for the Teaching of English in Malawi (Atem) is fading. It is on the death bed as it is no longer as industrious as it used to be.
What went wrong? Is it the dawn of television stations which offer a variety of entertaining content like movies? Is it technology such as mobile phones, computers and other devices that have brought entertainment including drama right at the fingertips of people? Is it the issue of sponsorship or no new venues?
Renowned dramatist Smith Likongwe believes dramatists should not only look at the cost-benefit analysis, but also the respect for the trade.
“The blame should first go to dramatists themselves because in spite of the fact that drama in Malawi does not really pay, there is still need for dramatists to exist not only because it would be a communication tragedy to the country with no drama but also because audiences are still craving for stage drama in English.
“In any business, the smaller the capital, the smaller the benefits. So, dramatists need to work with partners who would appreciate the need for the resuscitation of English stage drama,” he says.
Likongwe also adds that theatre practitioner’s inactivity is another challenge as funds must be sought with good proposals.
While acknowledging that technology has greatly affected patronage at drama shows, Likongwe calls for a mindset change.
“I want to put it on record that we are simply in a phase where we over-respect television shows to the detriment of live drama shows.
“In developed countries such as the UK, this technology came years back and yet there are patrons who religiously follow live performances,” he says.
However, challenges such as costs continue to affect performances, he argues.
“You may wish to know that it is not only English drama that is affected. Even Chichewa drama in the commercial stages is very scarce these days. All this is about survival. The cost for performance halls is prohibitive,” he says.
Arguably, the only semblance of hope for stage drama in Malawi is that it is still battling for its life through popular vernacular group, Kwathu.
Renowned dramatist and play wright Frank Patani Mwase says a lot of things have happened to theatre resulting in the current situation, adding that the reality in Malawi is that art does not pay.
“What we have seen over the years is that once artists such as actors and musicians get popular, they go into other avenues. On top of that, the sector needs funding which is a challenge as nobody in this world gives free money.
“But all in all, the industry can be rekindled as it is not dead. It will be unfair to people who have done drama in Malawi to say English theatre died with Du. However, it is correct to say it experienced a decline. We have people like the late Gertrude who carried the mantle and kept things going until sadly she left us,” said Mwase. n