Harare, March 5th 2013 | Patience G. Tawengwa
It all began with a discussion about our next production, following the success of the play ‘Eclipsed’ by Danai Gurira, which had been our first full production since we founded Almasi in December of 2011. I was eager for us to produce and stage a full production of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ with a Zimbabwean cast. I felt the universal theme of dreams deferred was very relevant in a Zimbabwean context and that staging such a play at this time would resonate with a Zimbabwean audience.
After a few e-mail discussions on the plan of action, Danai came up with the idea of Almasi having a ten play series of staged readings in Zimbabwe where Zimbabwean artists could read and hear classic plays from around the world and learn how other playwrights had managed to capture their experiences and how these have been preserved as plays which stand the test of time and are read and reproduced across the world. This was truly an alien concept to how we are used to doing things in Zimbabwe – our emphasis is mainly on staging plays as fast as we can, sometimes even working with first or second drafts of plays which are still in need of much work and are still in a process of evolving. I wondered if Zimbabwean artists would have the patience to work on readings as opposed to doing a full production. I hesitantly agreed to the idea, not too sure how it would be received and we set about implementing the process on the ground. We drafted a list of several plays from around the world and in researching and picking these plays one thing was evident – there weren’t as many African plays by African playwrights on the list as they were plays from other cultures, whether this is by mere omission or if it is a clear sign of the lack of development of African plays is debatable, what I do know is that as Africans we have a plethora of stories worth telling and dramatizing as in any other culture. We finally mutually agreed on 10 plays by playwrights such as Wole Soyinka, August Wilson, Luigi Pirandello and Lorraine Hansberry, and instead of charging forward to staging a full Zimbabwean production of A Raisin in the Sun, it was agreed that we would begin with the staged reading of the play instead. We drafted a great project proposal and set out to make the idea a reality.
Every vision needs provision in order to bring it to fruition and this was the first major hurdle we encountered. As Almasi we have always upheld the belief that no artist should work for free and we strive to pay all our artists a decent amount in exchange for their creative work. We would need finances to pay for an audition and rehearsal venue, finances for artists fees and their transport allowances, we needed to provide scripts and all this added up to a substantial amount. The proposal went out to several organizations – there is only one organization I know of in Zimbabwe which strictly funds arts and culture and they are inundated by proposals, with the rest of the organizations who at times fund the arts one has to tailor productions to their specific needs and message in order to receive support, if any at all. The response to the play reading series proposal was basically the same – great concept but it was not edgy enough, political or controversial nor did it address some social message thus we had no takers to partner us on this. The series was not about doing something current and gimmicky I agree, but it was and still is about simply making a long term contribution towards the development of Zimbabwean artists. I sent an e-mail to Danai in the United States – RE: Failing to get Zimbabwean partners on board! It was a source of much frustration for me, our first production Eclipsed had been wholly supported by American funders and I thought surely this time I would not fail to interest one or two Zimbabwean partners to join us. Danai agreed to personally fund the first play reading and on Friday 30 November 2012 at the University of Zimbabwe, we launched the Almasi play reading series with a reading of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’
A Raisin in the Sun has been overwhelmingly well received, from the University reading to the Black History month reading to the reading at Gateway High school for over 400 students, the Zimbabwean arts community and the audience have connected with the play. One of the most gratifying experiences which have happened at every reading of “A Raisin” is to have audience members coming up afterwards to say “I had never heard of that play before, but after hearing it I would like to get my own copy and read the play again.”