Zimbabwe theatre dares to challenge Robert Mugabe

A failed leader hands out crusts of bread to his oppressed people in a scene from Treasure, performed at Hifa, April 2011
Image caption A failed leader hands out crusts of bread to his oppressed people in Treasure

A figure unmistakably representing Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe was recently forced from his throne in front of some 7,000 cheering Harare theatre-goers watching an outdoor musical, accompanied by the tune of Gloria Gaynor's 1970s pop anthem I Will Survive.

"I said: 'Go, walk out the door, don't turn around now, you're not welcome any more,'" singer Chiwoniso Maraire belted out, as the figure of a failing leader meekly exited the stage via the audience, who tugged at his tiger-skin robe.

"It was an amazing feeling to see him go, but it would be better if it happened in reality," said one woman who watched the show.

The musical was a commentary on the last 10 turbulent years in Zimbabwe: From the political oppression and slum clearances to the economic meltdown and food handouts the poor now receive - in a country once seen as the bread basket of the region.

Called Treasure, it was also a dig at the rich diamond fields recently discovered in the eastern highlands from which army commanders and politicians are accused of profiting.

At one point, the Mugabe figure with his trademark moustache and a forehead covered in sparkling gems is seen dancing along to Madonna's hit Material Girl with a look-alike of the pop star, an army general and a church leader.

Following Treasure's daring performance at this year's Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa), four officials were taken for questioning by the police.

They were released without charge but the arts in Zimbabwe continue to push at the boundaries of what the authorities will allow.

Arrested for beating a drum

Hifa organisers say the festival attracted some 100,000 people, but in general arts venues get small audiences.

Image caption Nneka's VIP - Vagabonds In Power was loved by the festival goers in Harare

Musicians who align themselves to President Mugabe's Zanu-PF party often perform at galas screened live on national television to mark occasions such as independence day.

Those at the other end of the spectrum, pressing for political change and questioning the establishment, face harassment and arrest.

But Comrade Fatso, one of the most outspoken artists in Zimbabwe, feels this is no reason to give up.

"I think it's important to break boundaries both musically and politically, I've never not performed something that I want to perform," the protest poet and musician says.

"I feel empowered when I get that message out and the audience relates to it in their own way."

Comrade Fatso's music is banned on state-controlled radio - the only kind there is on FM - but his message and that of others are heard at concerts and poetry slam events.

Theatre scripts must get past the country's censorship board before they are performed - and those that succeed still encounter problems.

Even the acclaimed play Rituals, aimed at fostering dialogue about reconciliation following the 2008 election violence, has faced problems.

It was performed 100 times on a recent national tour, with open discussions held between the cast and the audience after each performance,

But the entire cast was arrested in the east of the country earlier this year, spending two nights in police custody on the bizarre charge of beating a drum in public.

The actors were arrested again in another town on the charge of undermining the authority of the president.

But the momentum of the play has not stopped. After a tour of Zambia it was performed before large crowds at Hifa and it will move on to venues in South Africa and this year's Edinburgh Fringe festival in the UK.

"We are not political activists but we are neither ignoring that art can be a political tool for changing ways in which we govern ourselves," says Stephen Chifunyise, the writer of Rituals.

"It has always been like that - our poets in the traditional society used to criticise chiefs using very strong ritualistic poetry."

Hifa also had performers from around the world wanting to push the boundaries.

"The German Embassy approached me about the show and I said: 'I'm only going to do this show if you don't restrict my artistic freedom of speech,'" said Nigerian-German singer Nneka, who performed her song VIP -Vagabonds In Power to much laughter in Harare.

"[It is] my worst song for corrupt politicians," she said.

Unique platform

However, other Zimbabwean artists at the festival preferred not to be pressurised into using their platform politically.

Image caption Rituals, a play about reconciliation, will be at this year's Edinburgh Fringe festival in the UK

Hip-hop artist Black Bird raps about identity and relationships, believing that change in society comes from within individuals, rather than through government policies.

"People get overwhelmed with political stuff. We're in a country where there's a lot of politics going on, and people want to escape from that," she said.

"So a lot of the time if people go to a music show and you're singing politics, it defeats the purpose. They come for escapism and you're just feeding them the stuff they're trying to run away from."

But Hifa founder and artistic director Manuel Bagorro thinks the festival's high profile offers artists a unique platform.

"We still work through all the protocols that we're obliged to through censorship, and we do sometimes have trouble getting plays through."

"But we have found that we can provide a safe space for artists to present work that may not be possible or safe at other times of the year, and we're really proud of that."

Comrade Fatso says the festival was an example of what the arts can do when properly channelled.

"Poetry has been a very important force for social change in Zimbabwe over the past decade and it's the only art form that's grown during this decade of oppression and repression that we've gone through," he says.

You can hear more on Steve Vicker's round-up of events at Hifa on the BBC World Service programme The Strand.

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