Last Sunday, February 24, marked 20 years since the death of the country’s theatre maestro Du Chisiza Jnr. He was the man who single-handedly revolutionilised English stage drama in Malawi between 1983 and 1999, the year of his death.
He had a passion for drama. He had a dream. He had a mission about theatre which he wanted accomplished. Right from a tender age, while at HHI Secondary School as a student, he wrote and directed his first play The Deceased’s Attack which was to get the top prize during the national school drama Festival organised by the Association for the Teaching of English in Malawi (Atem).
This was a beginning of a long journey in theatre which would see him write more than 20 plays and get involved in writing and directing 25 others. Most of his creations were done with his theatre company, Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre (WET), the first of its kind in Malawi.
He had standards. He had a big heart. He did not mind being the first or maybe the odd one out. Riding on that spirit, it is with no surprise that, two decades later, nobody has come close to the height he scaled.
When he died, Malawi’s theatre landscape took a huge fall. Today, theatre lovers are still crying for another Du. The industry is still yearning for an innovative mind which presented a combination of wit and humour in the best way possible.
His courage to weave politically sensitive plays during the dreaded one-party era, productions which had heavy political undertones, was one of his greatest strengths too. At a young age, he dared to step where elders avoided with all their might.
As an artist, he knew his responsibilities. He understood the privilege he enjoyed owing to the platform he had. If he was not going to bring the change itself, but he had to be the voice that would set the discourse rolling and excite people’s reasoning in the face of numerous political atrocities they suffered.
The political theme was therefore dominant in most of his work. His work on Fragments, Papa’s Empire, Tatuya Futi, Democracy Boulevard, De Summer Blow and Kabuha Tragedy were all laden with strong political themes.
After his death in 1999, his protégé, the late Gertrude Kamkwatira, looked determined to carry on with Du’s mission. That would only last till misunderstandings with the Chisiza family crept in bordering on the use of the name Wakhumbata.
She did not have reason to cling on to a name which really was not hers though she shared in the ideals that Du had about the company having starred side by side with him for the better part of WET’s existence.
Then, his half brother Khumbo Mhango stepped in to take charge of the ship. The journey did not last long either under his stewardship and the group hibernated.
Over the years, efforts to revive the country’s most successful English stage drama group have been made but have all come to naught. Promises to get back on this journey have disappointingly proved false in the end.
Early this year, the group, through Mhango as the creative director, announced the planned return of WET. The comeback, he said would be officially marked by a performance on February 24, at Blantyre Cultural Centre (BCC).
He assembled several members who performed with WET and they were set to stage two of Du’s productions Educating Mwalimu and Estrida. It was going to be such a befitting tribute, and everything sounded so well until Sunday came. There was no show at BCC and there was no WET. Sadly.
As interim leader of the group, Mhango is yet to come with an official position and explanation as to why the anticipated comeback never happened. It has now come to a point where theatre lovers have lost hope on prospects of this becoming a reality.
WET was Du’s dream but certainly the onus of continuing with the journey as he wished is for everybody who is close to the establishment. For the good of theatre and in honour of his spirit we still hope the right things will be done so that one day this journey should continue! n