Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Adapting ‘Harvest of Thorns’ for stage was fun all the way, but very tough: Chinodya

 picture: Benjamin being interrogated at the war front.
Shimmer Chinodya’s internationally acclaimed novel of 1989, Harvest of Thorns, was adapted for stage and presented during the recent Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) as a stage drama. It was staged to a capacity crowd on April 30, 2013 at 7 Arts Theatre in Harare, Zimbabwe. In the spirit of encouraging the notion of adaptation, I caught up with Shimmer Chinodya and talked about the goings on behind the scenes.

CHIRERE: Harvest of Thorns got so much international recognition, winning you The Common Wealth Prize for Literature (Africa Region) in 1990. What place does this novel hold in your life and career?

CHINODYA: It was my literary breakthrough. Mind you, I was only twenty seven when I started it but few people realise it was my fourth novel. It took me places, carved me a niche in Zimbabwean and world literature. It was staple reading for a whole generation of Zimbabweans and foreigners. It became an ‘O’ level literature text for Zimbabwe in the 90s and was taught in universities and colleges worldwide and read by people in the street. Harvest’s success challenged and spurred me to write more. I went on to write seven other books of fiction, and two of them, Chairman of Fools and the Noma Award winning Strife have been prescribed as ‘A’ level set texts. The success of these and scores of my textbooks used in the SADC region made me quit my last job as Professor of Creative Writing at St Lawrence University, New York, to return home and take up full time writing as a career. And I haven’t looked back!

CHIRERE: But you are not known for theatre…

CHINODYA: Oh, yes, I do have some grounding in theatre. With sixty published books under my belt, you bet there isn’t a literary genre I haven’t handled. In my brief high school teaching spell I directed three plays for Open Days. Exactly thirty years ago, in 1983, I adapted my dear, beloved first novel, Dew in the Morning, into a 40 episode radio drama for the then Radio 4 and I even narrated, directed and co-produced it! Then in 1987, I wrote and published a collection of Plays for Schools under the pseudonym B.S. Chirasha and it was   favourably reviewed by Stephen Chifunyise in The Herald. I went on to do film work, winning the first prize in the Short Films Scripts and Ideas competition in 1992 with my ‘Run, Boy, Run’ and attending a Frank Daniel script writing course. I wrote the story and script draft for the feature film, Everyone’s Child and the producer, John Riber, invited me to direct it but I couldn’t because I had to take up the professorship in the States so they roped in Tsitsi Dangarembga. Now, directing a film, that would have been some adventure..! And I’m not scared one bit of artistic adventures!     

CHIRERE: Adaptations are not common in Zimbabwe. How did you come up with the idea to adapt Harvest for the stage? And why Harvest, of all your novels?

CHINODYA:  There had been several offers to make a film of Harvest and in 1995, the great Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety (of ‘Hyenas’ fame) and producer Tariq Ali had agreed to work on the project with a company called Bandung. I even did the treatment but the fundraising hit the rocks...Now in the last two years, I have been ardently watching Zimbabwean theatre and I thought; some of our theatre is so tame, fireside or sitting room affairs ‘manufactured’ for convenient NGO causes or topical interests with short life spans and I said to myself, why don’t I do something really big and beautiful and artsy with our history and our culture and our classics and POP! Harvest came up! Because, many people say, the book is an epic and is so graphic and it already wrote itself out as a drama.        

CHIRERE: What guided you towards which parts to bring into Harvest as drama and which sections to leave out?

CHINODYA: The storyline was not difficult to maintain. It was the compressing that was difficult. When you have to tell a huge 50 year story in 90 minutes and using four different genres; theatre, music, dance and storytelling, you have to be ruthless to your own work. Some parts that worked beautifully as prose like protagonist Benjamin Tichafa’s interior monologues or reminiscences of the 60s, for instance, had to be sacrificed to save time. Perhaps Clopas and Shamiso’s romantic comedy took up too much time. Benjamin’s predicament and mental turmoil could have been explored more. But that is drama, you have to have a take, an angle and sacrifice some aspects. With prose the canvas is much wider and the artist is freer to indulge her/himself.

CHIRERE: What was it like doing the adapted script itself? Was it like a rewriting or a revision? Or, a new challenge?

CHINODYA: It was fun all the way, but very tough - rediscovering my characters and interrogating their predicaments, a quarter of a century later! The characters and issues emerged like swimmers out of the blue, clearer, sharper. The cast members immediately warmed up to their roles and I must thank them for their practical suggestions; every evening we would whittle and refine the story. It was a real team effort. I gave them the story and they brought their various skills to nurture it to life. The real challenge was to blend in the various genres so that none of them ‘bullied’ the others, and all worked together smoothly to create a fresh and delightful product.

CHIRERE: Harvest of Thorns is a novel partly about war and sometimes real combat. I understand that you have never been a combatant. How did you come up with the sections on contacts? Where did you get the confidence?

CHINODYA: Memory and imagination, Mr Chirere! Remember I was expelled from Goromonzi in 1976 for protesting against black call up. I could easily have run off to Mozambique and joined the ‘boys’. We heard the propaganda. We heard vivid reports from the war zones. I heard the misplaced blasts at downtown Woolworths from the Manfred Hodson Hall, college green and saw the fuel tanks blaze in Southerton in the late 70s. We lost relatives or family members in landmine blasts and ‘crossfire’ and witnessed atrocities from either side. When you saw in my play that old demented woman dazedly picking up children’s body parts and stuffing them into a paper bag after the Rhodesian bombings, the very next morning after the infants had been gleefully chanting ‘The Chimurenga alphabet’, that was a fusion of history and art.    

CHIRERE: This is a novel of 1989, how did it gain or lose from being adapted in 2012/13, about 24 years later?

CHINODYA: Artists must not always push their thumbs into the bowl of history. We tried to capture things as they were right up to just after independence. The true judge of history is time. Artistic distance often sharpens perception. I suppose some people expected the ‘thorns’ to extend from the woes of the Tichafas to our present day problems, the economic meltdown, potholes, poisoned environment, endemic corruption and protracted political strife and insipid despair. I didn’t want to overload the story. I opted to let Hope Masike jazz up the ending with her wonderfully distilled lyrics for Benjamin’s ‘bornfree’ son, Zvenyika in the last song –  Zvenyika woye, wotoshinga mwanawe/ Baba havana chavanacho/Mai ipwere/Wotoshinga Zvenyika mwanawe.

CHIRERE: You wrote this novel; Harvest of Thorns. You adapted this story for stage. You directed the stage play. You have done three things with this story. Don’t you think the product could have been different if somebody had adapted and directed?

CHINODYA: Correction; four things. I also produced it! I admit it probably might have been a different thing if we had brought in other brains to work on it, but you don’t always get the vision and commitment – intellectual, financial and the time you envisage from your colleagues. Besides, who says a good writer cannot try a hand at directing – many great African writers, Soyinka, Ousmane etc, have done it. An excellent script is the ultimate director. I approached quite a few people and was generally met with cynicism and indifference or lukewarm commitment. So I said, Damn, I will do this myself, but tap on the skills already within the cast. Hope Masike is an accomplished musician, Maylene is one of the best dancers in the country and Charles, Chipo, Bob, Everson and Sitshengisiwe are experienced actors and for Christ’s sake,  Shimmer has a superb story and great script so we will make this a team product…You sometimes need that hardnosed egoism to create something novel and shake up the industry.

CHIRERE: Doing the script is one thing but working with actors is totally different. What were the challenges of identifying an appropriate cast and working with it?

CHINODYA: Most of the cast was handpicked. I had seen them on the stage or knew their work. I had to charm them into believing we were onto something different. I tapped into their various talents. Everybody contributed. The script metamorphosed, refined itself. It was a difficult and demanding script, but we argued and interacted – and hopefully came out of it better artists ourselves. You bet after this my own writing is going to be different…  

CHIRERE: We notice that some people who were indicated in the papers as being in this play were not there. Who really made the final line up?

CHINODYA: Actors Michael Kudakwashe, Notando Nobengula and Caroline Mashingaidze dropped out because of clashes with other engagements, but only after we had submitted their names to Hifa, so the media inadvertently included their names in the project. I had invited Albert Nyathi to be the producer; I am grateful to him for his apt advice in the two or three initial consultative meetings we had, but he got tied up with other projects and that left me with the additional task of actually producing the show. The final line up was: Actors Charles Matare, Chipo Bizure, Everson Ndlovu, Sitshengisiwe Siziba, Bob Mutumbe, Winnie Moyo, Tafadzwa Takadiyi and Vhusa Dzimwasha; Musicians Hope Masike and her band members Elisha Hererwa, Blessing Chimanga and Maxwell Mbukuro; dancers Maylene Chenjerai and Marvin Ndoro. And yours truly tripled up as writer, director and producer.  

CHIRERE: The mbira and songs by Hope Masike and company were wonderful. How did you come up with all these?

CHINODYA: Hope Masike is an absolute beauty to work with. She’s energetic, versatile, intelligent and professional. She won this year’s Nama award for best female musician. She was my first recruit for the project; as early as November 2012 we’d meet twice a week to discuss the project and I’m grateful for her enthusiasm and willingness to hear me out which gave me the confidence to think out the project to her. She (like all the subsequent cast members) read my novel and liked it.  I’d say to her, can you do these two chapters in a two minute song or do a war refrain or back up this interior monologue with sad  blues mbira  and she’s be back three days later with a couple of tunes. I’d drive her out to Domboshawa or Goromonzi or Cleveland Dam and she would pluck up Nhemamusasa, chimurenga, or mbira jazz  and I would hand her a plate of mazhanje and tease, ‘Njuzu munodyawo here muchero?’Her music was not merely decorational, it became part of the story, part of the drama.         

CHIRERE: The story ends up in a happier way than the novel; a new baby, a meeting and conversation between father and son… Were you answering to some of your critics who might have told you that the novel has a sad ending?

CHINODYA: Art must ultimately uplift the human spirit. The happy ending grew out of the comical slant of the play, the celebratory reminiscences of the 60s, of the kwela dances, the ability of the soul, particularly the Zimbawean psyche, to heal itself and regenerate. The last jazz song united the whole cast, and jazz is not always happy or sad music, rather it is mumhanzi wekugaya, a thinker’s music, just like Zimbabwe is a thinker artist’s terrain.   

CHIRERE: I saw that most of your cast are generally below age 40 and they didn’t directly experience the war of liberation and the music and dress of the 1960s. How much work was done and what were the challenges?

CHINODYA: Most of the cast members had read the novel. The material was mostly alien to them and I had to explain to them some aspects of the war, for instance, the political ferment in the 60s, the war effort itself, Chinese torture, the Chimoio bombings, the treatment of traitors and the human foibles of the combatants. For nearly all the cast, the material was an education. But Charles Matare, the main actor, who had previously excelled as The Colonel in Wusiku, a play which earned him the Nama Award for this year, choreographed the war sequences. I am in fact very grateful to Matare for ably assisting me in the theatrical direction throughout the play.    

CHIRERE: This show was advertised as ‘Zimbabwe’s first full scale musical.’ I think that was misleading. 1. It was not a musical but a drama with background music. 2. There have been musicals in Zimbabwe before. An Offshoot of the Ecumenical Arts Workshop experiences was the widely-acclaimed passion cantata composed by Abraham Maraire (Dumi). He called the cantata 'Mazuva Ekupedzisa' (The Last Days) in reference to the week of the passion of Jesus up to Easter. Maraire's cantata was a true musical. The narrator sang his part and all the actors in their various roles (Simon Peter, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate etc) sang their parts. So how was this error made and how could this have been taken by the audience?

CHINODYA: The error was a promotional oversight which I tried, but failed, to stop and I am aware of it and apologize for it. I would have preferred to call the show Harvest of Thorns Classic and will do so from now on. Whatever it was we staged, dozens of people phoned afterwards to say they enjoyed the show and the music and the dance and said the story gelled beautifully and we should take it round the world.  Of course there were slips, areas that need to be polished up. Mind you, that HIFA premier was the very first time we got the thing together with script changes, props and lights and the whole cast together on one proper stage, and if we present it again and again we could definitely end up with a Zimbabwean gem.

CHIRERE: Why was there a decision for Hope Masike and band to be visible throughout when the band was not physically interacting with the acting? Why didn’t you keep the band behind the scene?

CHINODYA: That was a technical decision, Memory. We decided that curtaining off the band every time they stopped playing, or having them slip off stage would be too cumbersome, so we had them blacked out and the lights on the action on the front stage when the band was not singing.

CHIRERE: You will agree with me that we need more of these adaptations. What would you say to other writers who would want to do this with their novels?

CHINODYA: It’s easier said than done. It’s damn expensive, a no go area for ‘pump price’ artists. For the record; our revered Culture Fund gave me not a cent – I have half the mind to approach and co-opt a committee of established artists from across the arts to fund the Fund itself! I am very grateful to HIFA, to Gavin Peter and Elton Mjanana, in particular, for their generous vision, for believing in the project as something that could showcase combined Zimbabwean talent and underwriting the bulk of the budget. Adaptations need blocks of time – solid months of sheer hard work – not the sort of thing to try when you have been grading seminar papers all day, shuffling legal files or balancing company financial sheets or running a multiplicity of small time errands like every other Zimbo. And you need a broad enough vision and knowledge to see the interconnectedness of the arts – music, drama, visual art, dance, literature and how one art form ultimately feeds on the other. When the Book Café offered FREE screenings of a Miles Davis documentary and the main 70s Woodstock film last year, there was not a single musician or writer present – just one Thomas Brickhill and me and just a handful of other spectators. SHAME! Too many of our writers are a lethargic lot – they don’t realize Miles Davis is a haunting musical preface of  Marechera, Vera, Chiundura Moyo,  Mungoshi, of us all full time scribes. They don’t realize Woodstock is a great epic of history, the 60s quest for freedom and human rights and the inescapable cannibalism of creativity. For me Sororenzou Nyamasvisva and Maungira eNharira’s aching mbira captures and evokes my tortured interface with the past and the present in my novel Strife. Hey, maybe I’ll adapt that one next! Well, I can’t speak for my colleagues if they want to try it but I wish them the best of luck – and stamina! It’s painfully delicious fun, like all serious art, anyway. (The End)    


  1. excellent interview thanks
    P Nhlapo

  2. hie Mr Chirere.do you mind sharing with me the link to which i can access the adaptation of harvest of thorns?that is if it was published online after HIFA.

  3. Grateful for this posting thanks Va Chirere