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Protest theater puts free speech center stage

From Robyn Curnow, CNN
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Free speech on stage in Harare
  • 'Theatre in the Park' challenges Zimbabwean society
  • The group often stages plays known as 'protest theater'
  • In January, a group of actors were arrested on stage
  • The latest production, '10 Years from Now,' looks at Zimbabwe's future

Harare, Zimbabwe (CNN) -- In Zimbabwe, where speaking out on political issues can be risky, one theater troupe is refusing to tread the boards cautiously.

With prose that is political and a producer who is an activist, Theatre in the Park is engaged and very much involved in challenging Zimbabwean society on stage.

On a Saturday morning in the middle of the capital, Harare, veteran actors practice their lines in a park.

Most of the group's performances can be described as "protest theater," a popular genre in Zimbabwe. These types of performances are often staged in open spaces and halls.

"This is Theatre in the Park ... which is classified as the last bastion of free speech in Harare," said Daves Guzha, producer and founder of Rooftop Promotions, which runs the theater productions.

We survived when newspapers were being shut down ...
--Daves Guzha, founder of Rooftop Promotions

"We survived when newspapers were being shut down, when there was basically shrinking spaces of public debate taking place left, right and center, and we continue to exist," he added.

Theatre in the Park was created in 1986, with the aim of bridging the gap between white and black performing arts in Zimbabwe.

However, following the country's political unrest at the turn of the millennium, and the economic problems that came with it, the theater shifted its mission and focus.

The group often puts on performances that challenge the current establishment and isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

One play it staged, "A Play of the Giants," was about four African dictators who lounge around at the United Nations headquarters bragging to each other about how they keep their nations beholden to them.

Another, "Ganyau Express," featured several actors speaking their minds as they traveled home by bus after a day's work in town. The discussion examined issues that the group says affect Zimbabweans, such as student harassment and prostitution.

But the controversial plot lines don't always go unnoticed by the authorities. Guzha said a group of his actors was arrested in January 2011 and charged with "criminal nuisance" after performing the play "Rituals," which is about citizen power and communication with the government.

We've been intimidated before but it was the first time a piece of theatre was brought to court.
--Daves Guzha, founder of Rooftop Promotions
  • Zimbabwe
  • Harare
  • South Africa
  • Performing Arts

The Zimbabwean newspaper reported the actors were acquitted after being tried in March. It quoted the magistrate presiding over the case as saying: "There is no evidence that this reasonable court can convict the accused persons."

Guzha said: "We've been intimidated before but it was the first time a piece of theater was brought to court.

"Winning was a big relief for the actors and has given them a reason to go on."

The group now plans to perform "Rituals" in other parts of South Africa in July and at the Edinburgh festival, in Scotland, in August.

Guzha says, at its core, Theatre in the Park will always be about reflecting Zimbabwean society, good and bad.

The troupe is finishing off the final rehearsals for its latest play, "10 Years from Now,' an artistic and futuristic portrayal of a Zimbabwe with what it calls "a leadership not a dictatorship."

The writers say it will challenge the political establishment and hopefully hold the new unity government to account as it works towards a new constitution.

"Ten years from now is born out of a pure need and a pure desire where we have started looking at our future as a Zimbabwean society," said Guzha. "What we've been witnessing within the political scene, especially from the older generation is a failure to process the future."

"It's always 'we went to war for you, we did this for you,' it's always backward, no one is thinking about the future generation -- what are their dreams? What are their aspirations?" he explained.

But as well as making people think Guzha says he wants people to enjoy the performances as well.

"As a political satire there's a lot of humor to it and we really want those politicians to come in and enjoy and laugh with us."

Emily Wither contributed to this report