On directing Amen Zim

I arrived in Zimbabwe, a country I didn’t visit before, a country not related to my southern European roots, traditions, or knowledge, a country with a majority of Shona people to whom I was going to meet for the first time in my life.

The challenge that I had to face was to present a play in one of the best theaters of Harare in three weeks. So, what could I do with 25 well-known Zimbabween actors from different local companies that the Spanish Embassy in Harare, through the local theatre producer Rooftop, had selected to work with?

Since I had presented two years ago in Kinshasa, Being faithful in Congo is not easy, I decided not to bring one of the 15 plays that I have produced on stage in different countries around Europe and America. Instead, I decided to start from scratch: no previous text, no previous theme, ideas or concepts, no previous anything –except for the inevitable prejudices we all have. We would start from the instruments of the 25 actors present, here and now: their bodies and minds, their sense and sensibility; their feelings and reasons…. So, if there were other actors at the same moment or the same actors at a different moment, the result would have completely changed.

How is possible to produce dramatic material worthwhile of a play if there is nothing previous? There are three basic sources from where everything came: actions, objects, and texts, and one main rule: no acting, we are actors. For the first 10 days, 8 hours a day, we all went through an intense and personal work on actions, on objects emotionally cherished, and on stories told by actors either tragic or comic that they had lived. We achieved to produce a big number of dramatic situations, scenes, conflicts that all came from the world and life of the actors: past, present, social interaction, politics, poetry, music, dance, fantasy, injustice, love, expectations, etc. Mainly, individual characters that you can find at the streets of today’s Harare and today’s Zimbabwe. The final result became a perfect metaphor of today’s world.

For the next 10 days, we were devoted to build a play with all the material we had. When I say a play, I mean something very open, a development, a whole action that grows and has to be interesting, impressive, original, enticing, and of course, amusing for the audience. Boredom is strictly forbidden. Here again we all worked together to solve all the problems concerning not only the structure and the text but also the acting, lighting, choreography, scenography, etc. A clear example of our work progress with objects came up one day: an actress brought a photograph of Michael Jackson’s and she went deep into her feelings of sadness due to his sudden death. We all agreed to include in the play an homage to the great performer and a whole one minute of silence.

Changing the actors´s way of working was one of the main aims of this experience. Wherever I go in Europe, America, Africa, or Asia, actors are expected to wait passively and obey orders from a director that usually comes with a written text. As in real life: we are all expected to obey orders from parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, pastors, traditions, habits, etc. What I try to do through theater is just the opposite: to foster disobedience, independence, rebellion, and above all, to become active in theater and life.

Finally, the premiere took place. Celebrities, ministers, and regular people were part of the audience. Before the actors were to stage, I only repeated one magical word to them: have fun! If you enjoy, the public will be aroused. And they succeeded. When after the play the Minister for National Healing came to congratulate us all, she told me that she wanted to use the play in her program of action. I asked her why and her answer will linger for ever in my memory: because you put forward all the controversial issues of Zimbabwe but with a lot of humor. “That is Zim, a country where even when we are tortured we laugh not to loose our dignity.” She was beaten almost to death two years before.


Translated by Natalia Perellón

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