After eight years in oblivion, Karonga’s celebrated Chikolopa Performing Arts is back on stage; not under the veil of theatre for development, but as a stage drama group. The mission is to revive stage drama.
That is the story of theatre in Karonga, northern part of Malawi. A story that is always incomplete if the name Chikolopa is not mentioned. And that is how powerful the name Chikolopa has been for the last 25 years.
But, just as the Tumbuka say: Nyumba yiliyose yilinachindere chakhe (Every family has its own prodigal son), Chikolopa Performing Arts has been a prodigal son in the theatre industry for eight years.
It abandoned stage drama for theatre for development which, Chikolopa artistic director Taniel Mwakaghe says contributed to the demise of stage drama in the district.
Mwakaghe, however, observes that lack of proper venues and people’s diminished interest in stage drama forced them to venture into theatre for development.
“By and by patronage became an issue. And since we had already made a name, we decided to venture into theatre for development after noticing that various organisations were willing to work with us,” says Mwakaghe.
Chikolopa Performing Arts was established in 1990 as a brainchild of Fwasani Silungwe who had just completed his education at Chilumba Secondary School in the district.
By then, Silungwe was part of Du Chisiza Jnr and the Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre in a play Nyamilandu.
“We used to travel a lot with Chisiza. We visited various districts with the play Nyamilandu. This went on up to the referendum period when we were staging the play Dzira.
“After gaining some experience with Wakhumbata, I decided to establish my own group in Karonga,” recalls Silungwe who has relinquished his artistic director position due to pressure of work.
The group, with 20 scripted plays, used to stage Reverend Bardan (1995), Prison Smoke (1996) and Babalani Scandal (2000) in their early years.
By then, the group never lacked an audience due to a thriving theatre which was enhanced by the Association of the Teaching of English in Malawi (Atem) competitions and class lessons in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth and Julius Caesar plays.
But those are gone days Chikolopa looks back with nostalgia.
Between 2000 and 2008, the group was swallowed up with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to spread various messages through drama.
“Due to popularity, a lot of NGOs were flocking to us. We had contracts with organisations or institutions such as Karonga District Hospital, PSI [Population Services International], Banja la Mtsogolo, World Vision Malawi, Malawi Aids Society of Malawi [Masm] and others.
“As a result, we abandoned stage drama due to lack of time. We were always busy with these NGOs,” says Mwakaghe.
The group has now found its senses. They have resolved to revive the glory that was in stage drama.
“The coming in of an amphitheatre [at the Karonga Museum] has also been a motivation for us to revert to stage drama. In the past, we had challenges of venues because the Karonga Community Hall is no longer in good shape,” he says.
The first step in reviving stage drama was a theatre festival held at the amphitheatre last month during Independence Day Anniversary celebrations.
The festival brought together Chikolopa, Nyangenyange Drama Group, Mbuto Living Theatre and Manaseh Chisiza’s Oneness Art Theatre.
“The aim of the festival was to revive live stage performances. Karonga has been deprived of such entertainment for a long time. This was to give people a different kind of entertainment,” says the Karonga-based Chisiza.
Chisiza, who is also National Theatre Association of Malawi (Ntam) president, says the response to the festival was encouraging and fans are asking them to be holding such festivals frequently.
With such a combined force, theatre in Karonga seems to be taking another direction. Those interested are encouraged to join, too, as there is no restriction to those with a talent.
“We believe that one can excel as long as there is a hunger for theatre. For example, Chikolopa started as a village drama group at Malema with people without or with little knowledge in drama. But after trainings they excelled,” says Mwakaghe who is a tutor himself.
He was trained in theatre for development by Chancellor College’s lecturer Mufunanji Magalasi when Chikolopa was contracted to PSI in 2006.
“The training was so beneficial because it gave me more knowledge to impart to my colleagues.
“I have since opened a training school within the group where I teach new members topics such as storyline, playwriting, stagework and characterisation,” he says.
Presently, the group is working on a DVD titled The Death of My Husband to be released in October this year.
This is the second DVD after the success of their first one titled Vizito the Witchdoctor released in 2012. n