THE self-issued death certificate is about to be denounced. Malawi's golden generation of theatre per¬formers has just revealed plans to recoup the clout once held by the local English theatre industry.
Theatre goers, especially those of the first and second post-independence gen¬eration, remember the time French Cul¬tural Centre Theatre, Malawi Professional Theatre Company, Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre, Force Theatre, Alabama Theatre, Chancellor College Travelling Theatre, United Artists Drama Group which fea¬tured the likes of Sunduzwayo and Ding¬iswayo Madise, Paulendo Drama Group of Eliah Kamphinda Banda, among others, constantly released must watch produc¬tions.
One moment they are bubbling with life and, in no time, they are as inactive as in death.
Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre's (Wet) manager Khumbo Mhango, for¬mer Wet actor and Force Theatre founder Frank Patani Mwase, and Mkumbira Arts Theatre director, who is also a former Wet actor and current National Theatre Asso¬ciation of Malawi's (Ntam) vice-president, Henry Ntalika, have revealed their intent to let Malawians recapture the olden days 'live' on stage in separate interviews.
Recalling the past
Most of the people who left a mark on the face of local theatre trace their roots to the Association for Teaching of English in Malawi (Atem), and this includes the ven¬erated late Du Chisiza Jnr. Du along with the likes of Mwase, Waliko Makhala, are all linked to Henry Henderson Institute's drama club.
While tracing their background to Atem festivals, a number of theatre per¬formers also trace their prowess to starring with Du in Wet. These include Ntalika, Mwase and Banda Twaya Sanudi (founder of Alabama Theatre).
Ntalika, who formed Mkumbira Arts in 1991, while still performing with Wet, dispelled assertions that local English the¬atre was on its death bed following the hi¬bernation of once-vibrant groups.
"While it is true that once prominent groups are not as active as they used to be, that does not translate into the end of local theatre. It is wrong to pronounce that local theatre is dead simply because the groups that were there in the 80s or 90s are not there," Ntalika argued.
Ntalika - the brains behind productions such as 'Village Conflicts', which was once featured in Steve Chimombo's Wasi Magazine; Nyifwa, a Tumbuka-sounding though Chichewa production, and; 'Emo¬tional Judgement' - said Malawians may as well take it on the chin that some of the groups that entertained the nation may never come back.
"What is important is not the names of the groups but the availability of talent in Malawi. The country has a lot of talented actors and actresses, but what has been lack¬ing is motivation and the platform to express themselves through theatre. I think the me¬dia have also not helped, as they focus more on the negatives than the positives, and do not report extensively on developments tak¬ing place in the industry," Ntalika said.
He, however, said the vibrancy of the companies that put theatre on the map could not be attributed to the availability of theatre organisations.
"The great theatre companies thrived under unfavourable conditions because the Southern Region Drama Association, whose first chairperson was Lali Lubani Jnr, with Charles Layman Kachitsa as secretary, was established as recently as 1990. Ntam, on the other hand, was established in 2001. The most important thing is to have the plat¬form," he said.
Ntalika cited Tiwaonere National Dra¬ma Trophy, introduced by drama enthusiast Steven Mcheka- who also owned Tiwaonere Drama Group, as one of the initiatives that promoted local theatre. The sad thing is that after the inaugural trophy, scooped by Up¬ile Drama Group, who were seconded by Nkumbira, Mcheka never came back with another national trophy.
One of the reasons behind the success of yester-year theatre could be the lack of plat¬forms. With the platform restricted to the stage, theatre goers had no choice but visit the auditorium.
The Ntam vice-president said, however, the modern-day stage actor is pitted against unfavourable circumstances.
"The coming in of free-to-air Digital Satellite Television, which has prompted others to start producing movies; the prolif¬eration of radio theatre; the proliferation of Nigerian films, and the quest for money, now threaten the dominance of stage theatre.
"But it is technology that has, actually, stolen that unique state and fun out of the¬atre," Ntalika observed.
Facing the future
Ntalika, in his capacity as Ntam Vice-Presi¬dent, says, however, that "the best is not past us; the best is yet to come".
"You can take my own example. I have been acting since 1986, and am still in the industry. What has happened is not the death of theatre per se, but actors in the industry have found other means of showing their talent.
"Actors and actresses are now hired to do theatre for development in rural areas. A lot more actors, including myself, are act¬ing through radio and television plays, as opposed to the old way of doing things: stage performances," Ntalika, who acts the Mfumu Mitekete character in Mbali Yanga soap operas.
Mbali Yanga is a radio play broadcast on a number of local stations.
On his part, Mwase said he has been working underground with other veterans and is billed to hit the stage before year-end.
The veteran actor concurred with Ntalika on the point that it is not about ac¬tors using the old, famous names that is the issue; rather, he said, it boils down to the brains behind the production.
"But it is not the name (of the theatre company) that matters. What matters is the name behind the same. So, even if we come back under the name Force Theatre or another name, it will still be a Frank Mwase production.
"In fact, we may even come up with a new name ... I don't know. We will see what happens," Mwase said.
Wet director, Khumbo Mhango, also said he had been concocting something for theatre lovers.
"We have been working on some¬thing with Mwase but we have not fina¬lised our discussions. We are working on modalities for a project," Mhango said.
A source linked to Alabama Theatre, while maintaining that the group was not defunct, attributed the group's inactivity to Twaya's move to South Africa.