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(c) Philipp Hamedl

"Everything develops from me as Mbene"

Nach seiner begeisternden Vorstellung von The Story of a Tiger im Mai 2015 kommt Mbene Mbunga Mwambene für eine weitere Vorstellung der Soloperformance ans LICHTHOF Theater. Die Produktion selbst entstand in Zusammenarbeit zwischen Nanzikambe Arts (Malawi) mit dem Theater Konstanz. Im Interview mit dem LICHTHOF Theater erzählt Mwambene von den Entstehungsbedingungen des Stücks unter Zensur, dem Reiz dieses Einpersonen-Dramas und den Verbindungsmomenten von Ästhetischem, Sozialem und Politischem im Theater. Seit Oktober 2015 lebt und studiert Mbene in Bern.


THE STORY OF A TIGER: Samstag, 12. Dezember, 20:15 Uhr


LICHTHOF | What initiated the production of THE STORY OF A TIGER?


Mwambene | It’s twofold. First, I wanted to tell a story of what happened on July 20th 2011 in Malawi. People demonstrated against the government across the country. There were starving families, universities were at standoff, the currency faltered. There were massive corruption, the unemployment level kept rising and the hospitals didn’t have enough medicine. The opposition was weak so people had to resort to alternatives, which were led by civil society organizations. There was no option available but protest. The police responded with massive force, shooting 20 people two death within two days.


The second impetus was a beautiful coincidence. Our theatre [Nanzikambe Arts] had just entered a three year partnership with Theater Konstanz. The head of the theatre had come to Malawi to conduct auditions with a German team in collaboration with Nanzikambe. After watching me, he liked my physical presence and told me that he had a play but couldn’t find anyone to play it. He thought I was well qualified to adapt the play. That was the beginning of a long journey which also changed my taste for theatre.


What do you like about this play?


Mwambene | Despite the fact that the play has been adapted in Malawi, the interpretations of the story are so diverse. People relate their life experiences in different ways. I’m playing more than ten characters and they have different personalities and tastes.


I also like that fact that in the play it is me telling a story. Every little thing develops from me as Mbene. The feelings and movements are true of me. I am not portraying how someone was politically victimized. I am the victim in so many different ways myself. My closest friend’s cousin was shot to death that day. I have the freedom to tell that story through Dario Fo.


What were difficulties in the adaption of Dario Fo’s original version?


Mwambene | I was nervous. Prior to that, I had never heard of Dario Fo nor had I done a large-scale one-man piece. I had lots of questions. Dario Fo was a controversial Italian artists and never liked by his government. In the play he talks about the problems of communism and capitalism, about the Americans and the Japanese in China. There is also a huge metaphor: the Tiger. It was hard. I read the story lots of times and the fact that I was going to act it out alone made everything a blur. We also had to establish the meaning of the Tiger and spent three months watching Tigers on television. It was educational but also very funny: Whenever I roared, my neighbors came to check – fearing I had gone crazy.


However, the director Thokozani Kapiri and I started breaking down the bits and picked what could be meaning or relevant to Europe, Africa, America or Asia. This is the reason my performances come in different layers depending on where I am performing. It’s a flexible piece that listens to a demand of a specific audience.


Please expand on the political dimension of THE STORY OF A TIGER.


Mwambene | It is highly political. Not only does it make fun of our political leaders but it also questions them and exposes some kind of stupidity. At the same time, the piece questions roles of those governed. What power do they have to change things? It’s multi-faced approach. It pricks at the most diverse of societies.


I had a problem with the authorities. Four weeks before my premiere, a fellow artist was arrested on stage by the police because he didn’t submit his script for censorship. This was all high-profile and I was really scared. We always have scripts brushed through by the state. However, I had mine submitted but all the political and sexual parts of the text were omitted. I was never allowed to criticize any political figure or government let alone the Chinese economic invasion of Africa. But I had only submitted 65% of the script, keeping the most sensitive parts in the back of my head. During the premiere the Director of Malawi Censorship Board came to watch it but he was disappointed and angry. That’s when the cat and rat rapport developed. I don’t want to go into details for obvious reasons.


You have been performing across Africa and Europe. Do audiences react differently to your shows?


Mwambene | The audience reactions are very different. Different levels of energy come in different ways but all are positive. When I perform in Africa there is a really noisy atmosphere when you call a spade a spade. People really chant with you. They want to sing and dance with you. They want to go out on the street right away. The feeling of provocation is so instant. But it is also distracting at times.


In Europe, they have a more analytical attentiveness, acknowledging the demarcations between you as performer and them as spectators. But both audiences enjoy the shows. They laugh a lot. In both worlds I really want to treat my performances lightly.


At Nanzikambe Arts, you work with structurally disadvantaged communities. How does your social involvement influence your artistic projects? Or would you say that theater as art is per se social involvement?


Mwambene | This is a tricky question. There are two or three reactions to that. Firstly, government does not fund arts in my Malawi nor the private sector. There are some international funding agencies which fund different projects in Malawi. In order to get funding from them, you have to design a particular project where we include theater as mode of information dissemination. Theatre comes in as a small component. But that seldom happens. You try to find room for sketches, that way you keep your artistic skills afloat


Secondly, theater has been instrumental in combating and mitigating social challenges. Through theatre we empower communities with a voice. After training and workshops, participants design sketches to be able to demand service in their communities. They are able fight stigma against people living with HIV.


I don’t believe that as an artist I can change the world but I can only influence ongoing change. When communities have a chance to present their issues, then they have something to believe in and cling to it. But the authorities are always watching to unleash their archaic laws.


As an audience member, what do you look for in a theater performance?


Mwambene | Wow, I look for unexpected and enjoyment.
 
© 2017 LICHTHOF THEATER Hamburg