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Despite Arrests, Zimbabwe Dramatists Continue to Stage Controversial Plays

Zimbabwean playwright Stephen Chifunyise and producer Daves Guzha

The play 'Rituals' focuses on how community-driven initiatives for healing and reconciliation often conflict with politicians, opened in October in Zimbabwe and has traveled to Zambia and Kenya and is headed for South Africa

When human rights watchdog Amnesty International recently released its 2011 report highlighting the arrests of human rights activists in Zimbabwe, one of the cases to which it referred journalists was that of Daves Guzha's Rooftop Promotions.

The theatre company's production of "Rituals" has drawn the ire of the internal security and intelligence unit of the Zimbabwe Republic Police.

The play focuses on how community-driven initiatives for healing and reconciliation often conflict with the aims of politicians. It opened in October 2010 in Zimbabwe and has since traveled to Zambia and Kenya, heading next to South Africa.

While traveling through Zimbabwe for a 100-performance tour, members of the cast were harassed and arrested by the police.Ten artists were arrested over the course of the tour and spent a cumulative four nights in prison though "Rituals" had been approved by the national Censorship Board before the start of the nationwide tour.

Guzha's company has staged political plays before, but this was the first time the police intervened. “I think that this time around the resistance has been higher,” he said. “What tends to happen within the Zimbabwean framework is that the moment politicians get excited to say that there is going to be an election, everything just changes.”

“Rituals” was written by acclaimed writer Stephen Chifunyise, who spent three months conducting research in villages to address issues faced by Zimbabweans.

Guzha said that he had discovered that many rural communities were conducting their own healing and reconciliation initiatives, which worked well. But their projects were often stifled by politicians who wanted more control over the process.

Rural areas were also the target audience for the tour. The actors performed under trees or on the verandas of shopping centers, changing in a van parked nearby. Guzha says such performances in rural areas attracted the attention of local police.

“The performances in the city centre have not been much of a problem,” Guzha said. “The real challenge has been when we go into those communities where we’ve been performing to a minimum of 200 people. The thinking among the security agents has been that if you are performing to 200 people, it becomes easier to change the mindset of a whole community. This is where we’ve had a few altercations with the police, especially the Police Internal Security and Intelligence Unit.”

Around 30,000 people have seen "Rituals" performed live, according to Guzha.

Rooftop Promotions has also circulated 50,000 DVDs of a recording of a live performance. Guzha hopes that the play will encourage Zimbabweans to live without fear and take back their right to freedom of expression.

Since the theatre is not listed under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act or the Public Order and Security Act, Guzha believes that theatre plays a key role in contesting political abuses.

“Every other medium that we know of seems to be reacting to what the politicians say instead of leading the pack,” Guzha said. Rooftop Promotion’s next play, “Ten Years from Now,” is set in the year 2021.

“There are certain people that we’d like to kill as characters,” Guzha said. “We’d like to discuss their funerals and to discuss what Zimbabwe will be like in 2021. We must make our people dream. That is the power of theatre. Theatre must provoke and it must make its audience dream.”

Guzha said that the challenges to perform "Rituals" in Zimbabwe have only strengthened the resolve of the artists at Rooftop Promotions to continue to produce more plays.

“Now that [political officials] are vacillating about whether there’s going to be an election in 2012 or 2013, we’re excited to start sending out more work to see what the response will be.”