Harare, July 2nd 2015 | Sandra Chidawanyika-Goliath
When Patience Tawengwa called me three years ago to ask if I was interested in participating in the inaugural staged reading by Almasi, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by American director and dramaturge Julia Wharton, little did I know that this would mark the beginning of a life changing journey for me as a passionate performing artist. With four National Arts Merits Awards nominations for outstanding actress under my belt, two of which I had won, one would assume I had learnt all there is to learn about the art, and was ready to pass it on. But this is far from true. My theatre experience up until then, (with the exception of the two-hander ‘In the Continuum’, written by Danai Gurira ‘Miss Dee’ and Nikkole Salter, and which Danai devotedly flew to Zimbabwe to co-direct with Patience Tawengwa, and Eclipsed, also written by Danai) had been that of collecting my script, going home to work on it myself, and walking in to the first rehearsal to show off how much of my lines I had memorized, ready for action.
The Almasi Staged Reading Series changed all that for me, starting with my being selected as a mentee director/actor in the staged reading of ‘Necessary Targets’, our Mentor Julia Wharton equipped us with the tools and techniques needed to eventually be ready to direct a staged reading of our own. Having worked with Julie before, I thought this would be merely another exciting chance to use what I had learnt while gathering more skills, until I realized that in this new role where I was expected to fully participate in the entire rehearsal process, from the analysis of the play, text and characters, I realized I had to put in a lot of work if I was to learn, unlearn and relearn. American Author Alvin Toffler couldn’t have put this better. This involved reading the whole script and letting the text guide me on the world of the play and its characters present and absent, letting go totally after gaining a clear understanding of my character, which was not instantaneous; as with each rehearsal there was always more to discover. I also learnt to be aware that I was part of a creative team with common goals – one of which was to stir the imagination of the audience and to move them to action, and that as an actor what I had to say mattered and I had a role to play in the choices made by my fellow actors and the director. I cannot even begin to describe the sheer delight and sense of accomplishment I felt when on the day of the reading the audience identified with our play as evidenced by the vibrant post reading discussion.
When my turn came to direct my own play I remember feelings of hesitation creeping in. While I had no doubt that I had opened myself to this new way of thinking, had I truly overcome my misconceptions and misunderstanding that were there up until the time I acquired these new tools? How was I to ensure that I did not miss all those little but crucial details in the play and its text and subtext? I knew instantly when I read No Good Friday by Athol Fugard that this play, with its diverse themes and its unique world, would have a lasting effect on the audience. BUT the size of the cast!!! Eleven characters. I counted again to make sure, and even after double-casting, nine actors was still sizable. After reading a number of other plays from a selection provided by Julia and the Almasi team, I found myself drawn back to No Good Friday.
I was first drawn in by a woman’s untainted love for the only man she has ever loved. I felt Rebecca’s desperation as she tried to save her man from the despair he seemed to be sinking deeper into. But most of all – I felt the strength of a real woman who knows when to hold on and when to say goodbye, even when her heart wants to stay. Before my poor heart could send out distress signals for this troubled sister, Guy came to my rescue. With his love of jazz and blues, this young man, also Rebecca and Willie’s biggest supporter, reminded me of many gifted folk today, who, even when their dreams of ‘making a fortune from their passion’ seem unattainable, they persist; never losing focus on that which they have set their eyes on. I marveled at his optimism and his courage, because for Guy, living in Sophiatown 1950s, this meant another day on the streets without a pass, increasing his chances of arrest.
Then I connected with Willie. Willie Seopola – our ‘melancholic’ hero who, after getting a good education and earning the respect of the people of Sophiatown, realizes that he will not be able to advance because of the color of his skin. And he realizes that he is not only a victim, but a contributing ingredient of a poisonous system. But his story is not just about apartheid. It is about the dreams and choices made by people determined to live a decent lifestyle in the shadow of a state that is actively hostile to them. Being at the bottom of the economic, political and social hierarchy, they have to ‘pay for protection’ from the local tsotsis (thieves). One ‘not-so-good’ Friday, a newcomer with a big dream comes into town, refuses to buy into the protection and ends up dead. This is the tipping point for Willie. His reaction costs him the love of his life, and more.
After auditions, which attracted a huge turnout, I chose nine actors with varying experience. My goal had been to have a mix of new and experienced players, to challenge females to play male parts and to have a resourceful team to support my goal. After the first rehearsal I knew I had made the right choices, for the discussion which followed after was rather insightful, opening up new possibilities for the characters which I had not discovered during my time spent on the script.
There were moments early on in the process, when I felt I would smother my voice as a woman by choosing a play with a ‘no so strong’ female, as from the surface all Rebecca seemed to want was to be validated, after letting go of her dreams, to live her life through the dreams of her love, a mere shadow of her man. My frantic efforts to dig back 50 years into her world hoping to find answers were futile, as they only clarified what a ‘non entity’ women were then. Until the actor playing Rebecca defended the character, citing that this was a woman who deserved our notice and admiration, for while many women at that time were running shebeens while she was home supporting someone she believed in, a role we still play today as mothers, sisters and aunts. Rebecca also showed her strength when she walked away after realizing that she could not ‘reason with a mad man’. How many women can honestly stand up and admit that when they know it is over they choose to walk away?
Having gone over the notes in my journal from the immersive Necessary Targets process, and true to my ‘over-planning’ nature, I had come to the first rehearsal armed with a resource pack on the life and times of the writer and the world of the play. Little did I know how valuable this would be until I faced one of my directing challenges of communicating my vision clearly to the actors. I felt myself beginning to fear my actors and doubts of my capabilities as a director crept back in. After a heart to heart with my mentor, who always seemed to have a sixth sense when I was caught in a wedge, she advised me to go back to the source, the writer, and search deep to find what he was trying to say. I tried it the next day and ‘Chucker puff!!!’ as Tichaona, the actor playing Shark used to say during our warm ups – like magic, it worked! From then on each time an actor struggled with their characterization or seemed to go in the opposite direction of my vision I would listen, nod thoughtfully, tilt my head to one side and ask ‘ what do you think the Fugard is trying to tell his reader about this type of person, based on the discoveries we have made?’
As a result of the directing process of No Good Friday, the discoveries I made about myself as I dug deep into the characters, I will never be the same. As Patience Tawengwa once shared a quote by a wise man who said ‘The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions’, this process has left me with not just the confirmation that anyone who dares to dream will not be denied, but my attitude as an actor in a production team is different. Directing for me, as I learn more, will be a way of empowering others as I have been empowered. I learnt to actively listen to members of my team and that ‘a good leader leads from behind’. I unlearnt the importance of ‘I’ and relearnt the ‘we’ in the team, I unlearnt my once perfected art of planning – that your original plan may not always be the best plan, and that a good director should always have a plan B, and even a C, as we go through the testing and experimental stages. As a result of this process I relearnt that if you believe in your work, your actors will too and so will your audience. As Almasi slogan goes, KUDZIDZA HAKUPERI –LEARNING NEVER ENDS. I came to learn, unlearn and relearn, and I believe this is only the beginning.