Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The state of theatre reviewing in Zimbabwe: Sam Ravengai

Above:The cast of Indigenous Indigenous Indigenous, a new play by Stephen Chifunyise go through their lines, ahead of the premiere of the play on Tuesday 8 November 2011

article By Samuel Ravengai

I argue here that there are new tendencies in theatre criticism in Zimbabwe that are emerging where theatre reviewers are drifting more and more away from works and focusing on personalities, opinions, press statements and features.

If the critic’s role is to help shape the future of theatre and to enlarge the knowledge of theatre and its techniques how can that role be exercised where the focus is on gossip rather than theatre itself?

One may question how well do our Zimbabwean theatre critics carry out these functions? Because some of our theatre critics have not specialised in theatre in their training the easiest thing to do is to fill up columns with dates where the show would take place, quotations of interviews with the director, playwright and producer, promotion of certain performers who would feature in the show and seldom any reasonable analysis of the theatre production itself.

Even if theatre critics attend productions, they seldom want to comment on the production for fear of being caught and exposed. If there is any reference to a production the reviews are full of admiration which, in most cases, is a sign that the critic has adopted a subordinate role as the director would have done something beyond the critic leaving him in respectful paralysis.

A typical theatre review that would be useful to today’s theatre lovers and tomorrow’s theatre historian is the one that explores the themes and ideas of the playwright and situating the work within the Zimbabwean and African performance tradition. Furthermore, the review should have thick description of the production evaluating key technical elements such as the quality of writing, performance, elocution, costume, set and lighting.

In this regard, the critic should critique the craft for the purpose of developing talent and pruning unworkable choices. Moreover, the theatre critic should place the production into a larger context such as comparison of other works by the same theatre maker and see the connections between them. When this exercise is done well it helps to educate the taste of the African audience and to shape the future of Zimbabwean theatre.

Much of what we know today about the history and development of Zimbabwean theatre is derived from media archives. There is something incomplete about theatre when it has been written, rehearsed and performed to the public until evidence of its enunciation has been recorded and extended to the reading public through the media.
The theatre critic and/ or reviewer is, in essence, writing for today’s theatre audience and the future theatre historian. The theatre critic is, however, in a dilemma when executing this important role; s/he is under pressure from various interested parties who all want to be satisfied.

Between these the theatre critic makes his/her own choice of priorities. However, the function of criticism is to dissect and analyse the work in both its contemporary and historical context writing advertising jingles for artistic perfection and discouraging bad tendencies.

My Basis:
In arriving at this conclusion I sampled 45 newspaper articles which appeared in The Herald, The Sunday Mail, The Chronicle and UZ news letter between 1984 and 1988. Of the 45 theatre articles, 19 were features and reports of what happened or what was to come in the theatre. 26 articles were reviews based on theatre works that were performed during the period representing a commendable 58 percent. During this period emphasis by arts media practitioners was on the works themselves and less on reports and features.

However, after the end of the first twenty years focus on works declined and shifted to features and reports. I sampled 35 newspaper articles written between 4 March 2001 and 10 July 2002 which appeared in The Daily News, The Sunday Mail, The Sunday Mail, The Standard, The Financial Gazette and The Mirror. Only 10 articles reviewed works that were performed representing 28 percent.

The rest were features, gossip and reports on theatre personalities. There was almost a 30 percent decline in theatre criticism which also invariably coincided with the decline of theatre especially as compared with the first 16 years after independence. I deliberately avoided the current period for fear that I might ruffle the feathers of some of you and unintentionally declare a war with the media, which we know no one can win. It is safe to stay in the past and predict future trends. In revealing these statistics I am not suggesting that features and speculative reports are less important. They are indeed important and should be pursued vigorously but only as long we prioritize the criticism of theatre works when they have taken place. We have a responsibility to the theatre.

Theatre historiography in Zimbabwe has been depending on the media for a very long time. Theatre historians like Charles Taylor were able to argue that there was no theatre in Zimbabwe before English colonization because African documentation traditions did not rely on the written word. From 1890, the White Rhodesian press ignored African performance traditions even though Africans performed a lot of drama and theatre during the colonial period. The little that we know about African performances was captured by brave missionaries who reported works at their stations and magazines that were aimed at African readership. Even after independence the press continued to favour white theatre productions and ignoring works by community theatre groups. This imbalance only ended around 1991when the power of the National Theatre Organization (NTO) was neutralized by Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatre (ZACT) and the new emerging African voices in the media. Thus one finds that the only four books on Zimbabwe theatre covering the period 1980 – 1996 such as Plastow (1996) Rohmer (1999) Byam (1999) and Zinyemba (1986) rely on journalistic reports of Zimbabwean theatre now archived in Chifunyise and Kavanagh’s Zimbabwe Theatre Report (1988). The archives used by the various authors were rich with information on theatre productions representing a fair 58 percent. With the decline on theatre criticism, can the same success story be repeated by future theatre historians wanting to cover theatre productions that occurred during the crisis period (1997 – 2008)?

Theatre and the media
When a production has ended its living materiality dissolves and disappears. It can only be accessed through the quality of traces that it has left. The nation depends on the media to access theatre productions in the here and now as well as in the future. While other traces are mostly individual and private such as photographs, video recordings and the body texts of performers, the media is the only public forum and repository where theatre records can be accessed for informing the nation and guiding future productions. The media carries a huge responsibility to shape the future of theatre and to enlarge its knowledge.

The theatre critic shapes the future of theatre by writing advertising jingles for the audiences and potential publishers as well as discouraging bad tendencies amongst playwrights, directors, designers and performers. In other words a theatre notice just like any news item should answer the who, where, what and when questions and deliver a verdict on what has been reviewed as succinctly put across by Irving Wardle: “There is, however, no separating criticism from judgement, even if it is only implied. Why bother to analyse or interpret a work unless it stimulates your admiration or antagonism? (1992: 33).”

Yet we find that in our generation we are afraid of value judgements and consider ourselves godly when we don’t judge. How then can we grow theatre without pursuing certain ideals for perfection? The passion for artistic perfection should rage in every theatre critic. George Bernard Shaw is unambiguous about the notion of perfection:“Let all young artists look to it (perfection), and pay no heed to the idiots who declare that criticism should be free from personal feeling. The true critic, I repeat, is the man who becomes your personal enemy on this provocation of a bad performance, and will only be appeased by good performances (cited in Bobker 1977: 228)”

When reviewing Zimbabwean theatre criticism one finds that theatre reviews of the 1984-1988 period were laden with value judgements associated with two competing aesthetic discourses – western illusionistic theatre favoured by the NTO affiliated critics and socialist realist aesthetic favoured by ZACT affiliated critics. However, when we shift to the later period (early 2000s) theatre reporting is full of speculative data and sometimes no value judgements. Does it imply that beyond 1990, Zimbabwe had reached a stage of artistic perfection? By no means!

The whole notion of artistic standards should be problematised. Standards are always assumed that they exist and theatre makers appeal to them when it serves their purpose. Theatre critics enjoy the status of aesthetic commissars and tend to whip practitioners into submission. But we have to be careful here in the sense that Africans carry a double heritage – the inherited western realist aesthetic and the indigenous cultural text. There is considerable debate amongst scholars as to which aesthetic should be enforced in Africa. The African purists (wa Thiong’o 1981, wa Mirii 1988, Chinweizu et al 1980) advocate for a common African aesthetic and urge African critics to encourage an awareness of African tradition and play the role of critical intelligence guiding the transmission of African cultural values.

This school of thought was active in Zimbabwe just after independence. Eurocentrists such as Dennis Granger (1984) demanded that African theatre making emulate the western illusionistic theatre tradition. This coterie was also active in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s and still influences our perceptions of theatre today. There is a third coterie represented by Cont Mhlanga, Dambudzo Marechera and Andrew Whaley which advocates for an intercultural theatre aesthetic. There are many advantages and limitations in pursuing any of the above aesthetics and it would be cumbersome to discuss them in such a short paper. What I need to emphasise is that aesthetics do not live forever. They come and go. Raymond Williams (1973, 1977) argues that in every period there is the dominant, the residual and the emergent cultural traditions. Western theatre that was dominant in the early 1980s in Zimbabwe is now residual while what was emergent theatre during the same period such as the theatre of Marechera, Mhlanga and Whaley is currently the dominant theatre tradition. The biggest media disservice to theatre would be failure to recognise the fresh structure of feeling and attack new works on the basis of old and fading aesthetics. Beethoven was once thought of as mad but became a western music icon.

Dambudzo Marechera was once thought of as private, individualistic, anti-nationalistic and anti establishment, but is now the model for many writers. The theatre critic’s political stand, theoretical and ideological leaning, cultural context and various other variables will affect his/her verdict and the tone s/he adopts towards a theatre production. Today, we find that we are of Africa and have emerged from a demeaning history. The choices we make when passing judgement should, therefore, not worship aesthetics which yesterday belittled our artistic achievements. Our criticism should be committed to develop an aesthetic which celebrates both our Africanness and what we choose to appropriate from our colonial heritage.

However, I also know that newspapers have strict restrictions on space; descriptions, opinions and judgements may not all be accommodated in a 700 word article. There is, however, a way of writing a review that collapses these distinctions. Criticism can be composed of description and argument or argument through description and get to the point as quickly as possible.

Given the foregoing functions and responsibilities of a theatre critic, it goes without saying that theatre criticism is not anybody’s job. If the critic has no prior training in theatre s/he needs to have a thorough knowledge of theatre through watching as many shows as possible and keeping a transcription of each production for future reference. The critic may need to keep reference books on playwriting; directing and acting to expand his/her knowledge of theatre a blind person cannot lead another blind person. The critic also needs to have an understanding of other arts such as music, dance and mime which tend to be subsumed in much of Zimbabwean and African theatre and performance.

Bobker, Lee R., 1977. Elements of Film, 3rd Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Byam, L Dale., 1999. Community in Motion: Theatre for Development in Africa. London: Bergin and Garvey
Chifunyise, Stephen and Kavanagh, Robert Mshengu., Eds. 1988. Zimbabwe Theatre Report, No.1. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications.
Granger, Denis., 1984. Theatre Critic, Denis Granger Started if off (Sunday Mail, 14 September 1984) In: Chifunyise, Stephen and Kavanagh, Robert., Eds. 1988. Zimbabwe Theatre Report. Harare: University of Zimbabwe, p. 12.
Plastow, Jane., 1996. African Theatre and Politics: The Evolution of Theatre in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – A Comparative Study. Amsterdam: Rodopi
Rohmer Martin. 1999. Theatre and Performance in Zimbabwe. Bayreuth: Bayreuth University Press
Wa Mirii, Ngugi., 1988. People’s Theatre. In: Chifunyise, Stephen and Kavanagh, Robert. Eds. Zimbabwe Theatre Report. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Press, pp. 7-40.
Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi., 1981. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House
Wardle, Irving., 1992. Theatre Criticism. London: Routledge
Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Williams, Raymond. 1973. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. London: Penguin

++Paper presented at the World Theatre Day on the 26th of March 2012, Alliance Fran├žaise Harare)


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