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In Zimbabwe's theater of fear, dissent plays on

The stage was a small room in the Harare Central Police Station. The audience, about 20 bored policemen and plainclothes intelligence officers.

The two actors were shaking, not with stage fright but the real thing. Anthony Tongani stammered and forgot his lines. Silvanos Mudzvova was so afraid that he didn't dare make a mistake.

They stumbled to the end. Then they were ordered to start again.

And again.

They performed their political satire, "The Final Push," 12 times in two days at the station, while police and officers from the feared Central Intelligence Organization argued over what charges to press against the actors and fired questions about who had funded the show.

"The first time, the officer in charge was not there. When he came, he demanded his own performance. Then the superintendent came, and he demanded his own performance," Mudzvova said. "It got worse when the CIO came in. One of them was actually sleeping during the performance. Then he'd wake up and say, 'Are you through?' "

A rich culture of protest theater has sprung up in Zimbabwe, but artists are under increasing pressure from President Robert Mugabe's security forces as he crushes dissent. In recent years, most independent newspapers have been shut down, opposition parties have been infiltrated by CIO spies, and activists have been arrested, beaten and sometimes killed. The 2002 Public Order and Security Act bans political meetings of more than two people without police permission, outlaws statements that incite "public disorder" and makes it an offense to insult the president.

Mudzvova and Tongani were arrested at the premiere of "The Final Push" in late September. Tongani was arrested before he could take his final bow, and Mudzvova immediately after taking his.

The play, written by Mudzvova, is about the chairman of a building called Liberty House (a thinly disguised Mugabe) and his political challenger (presumed to be opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai) trapped together in an elevator during a power failure. At one point, the two duke it out in a boxing match.

In Zimbabwe's repressive climate, artists and actors find creative ways to protest. People crowd into clubs to drink beer and laugh at stand-up comedy poking fun at Zimbabwe's problems. They turn out for the opening nights of political plays, even though police often raid theaters and close productions before the first lines are spoken.

Zimbabwe's underground arts culture is thriving, taking hard-hitting political messages to the masses in the crowded black townships, the engines of their cars running in case they need to make a quick escape from the authorities. Filmmakers recently secretly shot an underground movie based on a banned political play in Harare, the capital.

The two nights Mudzvova and Tongani spent in custody had elements of the kind of surreal political play in which they might perform. Police laughed in all the right places, especially when the chairman gets knocked out by his opponent. But the CIO men were outraged.

"The CIO guys tried to convince the police that we were actually talking about the president being knocked down," Mudzvova recounted in an interview the day after his release. "But the police did not see it in that way. To them it was just a simple, straightforward story.

"The police did not know what to do with us. But the CIO kept insisting that we be charged. The question was, with what?"

In the end, Mudzvova and Tongani were charged with inciting the masses to revolt, a statute that carries a 20-year penalty. Twice, police modified the charges, first to criminal nuisance, and then breach of the censorship laws.

Mudzvova says that with media freedom hobbled, it is up to artists to take a message of protest to Zimbabweans.

"Artists, like everybody else, fear for their lives. But the moment you have that fear, you won't get anywhere. People are saying, 'If you guys have that fear, where are we going to get the correct information from?' "

The night after their release, the two men were back onstage in the small circular Theatre in the Park, modeled on an African hut, in Harare. But they modified the script to satisfy the CIO: The knockout in the boxing scene was gone. A day later, after debate with colleagues and actors, they restored the scene, without drawing further visits from the police.

An unlikely career

Bulawayo-based satirist Cont Mhlanga grew up in a village with no theatrical tradition. His father expected him to be a farmer. Mhlanga didn't intend to become an actor, because he didn't even know what it was.

Even today in Zimbabwe, the idea of a career in the theater is unthinkable for most people. It is seen as a last resort for beggars and failures, people incapable of producing something real to eat or sell.

He was introduced to theater by accident when a group wanted to hold a drama workshop in the hall where Mhlanga practiced karate. "I said, 'What is theater?' " But he joined in, got hooked and has been writing political satire since Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980.

Stepping into Mhlanga's cluttered Bulawayo office is like visiting the inside of an inspired but chaotic mind, crammed with yard-high stacks of books, yellowing newspapers and scripts, drafts of his latest protest letter to the government, and pieces of old broken, unidentifiable equipment, with a sleek laptop basking happily in the middle of it all.

Wiry, with piercing eyes, he speaks in a tumble of words. He does not look old but declines to give his age, shrugging scornfully at the question.

"Everyone around here calls me Grandfather," he said dryly.

His plays are so bluntly political that he and his actors frequently get into trouble.

In May, the officer-in-charge at Bulawayo Central Police Station went through Mhlanga's play about AIDS, "Everyday Soldier," deleting lines with a red pen, offended because one character disappears as part of the plot.

"He said, 'You can't have this because you are implying that people disappear in Zimbabwe.' I said, 'I'm not going to remove the lines. It will play as it is.' He said, 'It will not play as it is. I'll close it down.' "

He did prevent public presentation of the play, but Mhlanga found a way around it: "We started to run the play for closed audiences. We just make sure there are no police in the audience."

Mhlanga's latest play, "The Good President," inspired by beatings and arrests of opposition members in March, was shut down on opening night in June, and riot police surrounded the theater for a week to prevent the actors from staging the play.

To evade arrest or censorship, artists run underground projects. Mhlanga invented what he calls Invisible Theater in bars, trains and the commuter minibuses called taxis.

In Invisible Theater, several actors plant themselves in a group and improvise a conversation.

"People don't know they're actors. The dialogue might be: 'This government is terrible. Look at those kids in the street. They should be in school but they're carrying water.' Then another actor will say, 'Don't start with that. You'll get us all beaten. There are CIO guys everywhere.' Then a third actor will say, 'The way we're living in this country is more than a beating.'

"Then other people will join in," he said, referring to the unsuspecting people around them. "The actors will keep directing the conversation, and the moment they think they've made a point, they will get off the taxi and get onto another one.

"The thing we are challenging is fear, because we know that people are afraid of discussing these things in public."

'Hit-and-run' shows

In Harare, a theater organization named Savanna Trust does "hit-and-run" street performances in volatile areas such as Mashonaland West, where actors risk arrest by police or violence from ruling party thugs.

They're designed to reach people in poor, crowded neighborhoods who otherwise would never see theater. The performance must be quick, sharp and funny, and the actors ready for a quick getaway.

"When you do hit-and-run theater, you beat drums and the people gather. You have a car there with the motor running," Mudzvova said. "Your heart is beating very fast. You are full of fear that you are going to be arrested at any minute. You know the exact message that you want to give. You make sure the people get the message in the shortest time. As soon as you see that people are getting the message, you disappear.

"Afterwards the actors go, 'Phew! That was extreme!'

"We escaped by a whisker in Bindura," he said, referring to a stronghold of the ruling party. "We only escaped because the car we had was far more powerful than the car the police had."

Mudzvova is not the only one producing controversial material. The low-budget underground film "Super Patriots and Morons," produced by British-trained Zimbabwean actor Daves Guzha, was filmed secretly over nine days in Harare. It includes real scenes of Harare street life, bread queues and crushing poverty.

Filming without permission is banned in Zimbabwe, and the filmmakers, questioned by police while they were working, were lucky to escape arrest.

The film's portrait of an isolated, paranoid president haunted by dreams of a bloody hangman's rope is unlikely to hit cinema screens in Zimbabwe. The best its makers can hope for is mass production of DVDs that could be distributed free. But there is no money for that, so the film's future is unclear.

The director, Tawanda Gunda Mumpengo, is critical of what he sees as self-censorship by artists terrified of arrest and violence.

"It's up to us as citizens of this country to demand our freedoms if we feel they are being curtailed and to assert ourselves," he said, "because no one will do it for us."

In his jumbled office, Mhlanga gestured at the mountains of papers around him, the fruit of 27 years of labor. "No one will shut me up," he said. "There's only one option to shut me up and that's to kill me. But they can't kill what I stand for."

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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