THE NEWS FROM ZIMBABWE: A RE-ENACTMENT
“But the writer sometimes defiantly asks the prison officer locking his cell: ‘Why are you locking yourself out?’ as one Zimbabwean asked, before he was declared insane and released…” — Chenjarai Hove
Maybe less a re-enactment as much as a ready-made, maybe less a ready-made as much as a docu-drama, less a docu-drama as much as a staged thought-experiment. Trail-runned (ran?) at SPT’s Poets Theater.
Background: In 2007, Anthony Tongani and Silvanos Mudzvova were arrested while performing their satirical play “The Final Push.” They were taken to the Harare Central Police Station, locked up, and forced to re-enact their play again and again (over 48 hours) for the police and Central Intelligence Organization officers, who walked in and out, interrupting & arguing over what punishment the performers should get (for treason &/or inciting a riot). (The CIO are the secret-service – the notorious ZANU-PF ‘enforcers’…)
For our versioning, we attempted to re-stage a condensed version of these events.
On stage: police/CIO officers drinking, smoking, napping at table. “Narrator” standing at table with various implements (tape, handcuffs, kitchen utensils, floggers, etc.). Two performers in “jail cell”.
The premise was to run a number of looped repetitions of the ‘play’, enacted within the cell within the police station, while the police/CIO interrupt, add constraints/’punishments’, & make the performers begin the play-within-the-play again, etc. Each time a new officer would arrive onstage, the play would be stopped & the seated officers would explain the situation to the newcomer, who would then in turn ask to see the play re-started. Then the newcomer would be told that they like to ‘add a twist’ to each version, and s/he’s handed a stack of cards to choose from. The newcomer picks & reads the card, and asks the narrator:
“Is it really okay that I do this?”
to which the Narrator responds some variation of “you’re just following orders”/”it’s just a play”/”You’re just following the script”/”I don’t see anyone out there stopping you…”
Then the newcomer takes one or two of the implements, and restrains the prisoners/performers (cuffing ankles together, duct taping arms together, etc.) & administers some form of physical punishment (slapping, beating with paddle, spitting in face, etc.). There is a brief exchange between officer & prisoner (“I thought you writers liked the poetics of constraint” etc.). Then s/he poses in front of prisoners/performers for the photographer (another officer who’s onstage the whole time). The performers/prisoners are then told to begin again, at which point the loop starts again.
The play within the play (“The Final Push”) takes place within an elevator. The two characters are Mugabe & the opposition leader Morgan Tsvengari. The actors are thus playing imprisoned performers who in turn are performing as Mugabe & Tsvengari.
Reflections & self-criticisms on trail run:
The question of race was never directly addressed. The performers were mostly white. Audience as well.
It was under-cooked & under-rehearsed – I wrote up the concept 5 days before & the play-within-the-play the day before & we had one meeting to practice. Given that I certainly wasn’t aiming for some kind of proper ‘theater’ experience, but as it is not a ‘typical’ (?) poets theater piece it could’ve maybe benefitted from more practice.
My fellow performers were super helpful, patient, & game. The process of thinking the piece through in a limited amount of time & space meant that each performer brought their own questions & interpretations (rather than just ‘playing the role’ or whatever) into each loop.
It felt too condensed. It would be interesting to see how it ran/felt if stretched out over 30, 40, 60 minutes, with more loops &or more time for each loop to develop, for the play within the play to develop, for physical exhaustion & stamina to be tested, for the audience to be ‘tested’ more, for the potential boredom/banality of having to watch the same scene(s) over and over again to settle in, knowing that a desired break in the action would also require violence against the performer(s).
I have no idea how long it actually went on for. I don’t know if this is simply because when you’re performing in a ‘play’ you lose track of time, or if because this was a looped piece it’s easier to lose one’s ‘place’ or sense of time, or it was some reaction to the physicality of the piece (I apparently have a very low pain threshold & very little stamina).
Someone asked if I made the whole thing up – i.e., was it a ‘true’ story. Good question in that context. A different version of the question: “Was that real?” Maybe that’s a different question.
Someone said that when the narrator said “I don’t see anyone out there stopping you” that she suddenly worried that it would be left to the audience to stop the loop/cycle/play. This made me realize that though we performers knew how many cycles we were going to do, the audience did not. Without conventional plot or narrative, how do you sense time/progress in a performance?
The play within the play is never finished, never fully performed, never ends. It’s still happening, still beginning again.
The violence, though ‘real,’ was brief enough not to push anyone’s buttons too hard. It still felt ‘safe’ & perhaps more ‘gestural’ than it could’ve been.
Lots of questions about other possible variations:
What if we just kept repeating the loops until an audience member actually intruded? to put that burden/question of complicity – “I don’t see anyone out there stopping you” – onto the audience?
What if the cards on the table contained a wider range of punishments, and/or were truly mixed-up & chance-based? Such that each performer playing a cop would not know what s/he was expected to do until reading the card onstage, and having to choose to follow the script/order? What if performers were then given the choice to take a different card?
What if the performers in the cell had no idea what might be on those cards? Would not know what was coming at any given point?
What if audience member(s) were asked to take the photos?
What if audience members were asked (or required) to take a card & follow the instructions? to become active participants?
Were audience members already active participants, by virtue of not stopping the punishments?
What if the performers did not already know one another?
What if the performers were black/of color, in front of a typical (ie almost exclusively white) poets theater audience?
A few days after the performance, Morgan Tsvengari joined Mugabe’s government in a power-sharing agreement.
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