African Myths, Humour and The Critics Who Don’t Get it!
The Epic Adventure of Nhamo the Manyika Warrior and His Sexy Wife Chipo has been described as “Pure fun” and “A delight from start to finish” by critics. The ultimate African fable, it is storytelling turned on its head from a Zimbabwean sensibility. Produced by Tiata Fahodzi, the leading British-African theatre company in the UK, its run at the tricycle Theatre has been extended by a week because audiences cannot get enough of it. So just what is this comedy, written by Denton Chikura, founder of Two Gents Productions about? Lucian Msamati, artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi and in his role as director of this production says its time African mythologies also get the same attention as their western counterparts.
The Epic Adventure of Nhamo the Manyika Warrior and His Sexy Wife Chipo is one heck of a title for a stage production; can you elaborate on what this production is about for us?
It’s about a narrator who needs to find an African fable in 24hrs. At the end, we discover that he is a hero and that he is noble, and it’s that fact that sometimes, if you play the hero long enough, you will become the hero. We as people of African origin in this world and in our place need to celebrate and create our own myths in a way that the Americans and British do with great relish and freedom and unpretentiousness because very often – the writer Denton was talking about how when you look for African mythology, it’s all very often reverential. You will never see for instance a Hollywood blockbuster about Esun versus Ogun, full of magic and explosions because they are superheroes, and they do have superhero quality but people are often too scared, to be un-pc (Politically incorrect). The only way you can tell these stories is if you respect them in another way. And sometimes, to respect them in another way is to poke fun at them. I mean Superman is basically a tongue-in-cheek look at the messiah based on the way you look at it. That’s what it is – a play on this need to be one great saviour for all mankind, who is above all. That is what it is really. It’s the same in Star Wars, it’s fundamentally a Judeo Christian mythology at the heart of it, done in this fantasy Star Wars, set in outer space western if you like, so it’s very much about enjoying these influences but putting an African spin on them and it doesn’t take itself too seriously and having a good laugh.
When you first took over Tiata Fahodzi, you said one of your goals was to move away from the Nigerian-centric focus and make the company more diverse in terms of the stories being told. Have you been able to achieve that and is The Epic Adventure of Nhamo the Manyika Warrior and His Sexy Wife Chipo a step further in that direction?
It’s an on-going process. It’s my feeling that not everybody is going to enjoy this piece of work but that’s the same with everything. It’s not obvious and it’s not clichéd, either you get the joke or you don’t get the joke. You either get the humour or you don’t get it. It’s either taking the fact that you don’t take yourself so seriously or you get frustrated because you want to get something deep, meaningful and worthy. But that’s not how you build a canon; you build a canon with a variety of things. So, it’s an ongoing process but I do think the core of people who loved the show when we offered it at Tiata Delights will absolutely like it because it’s the response we got from doing it there that made me say okay, let’s proceed with this one. It’s fun, completely different and no one is going to be expecting it. It’s a comedy in a way that I don’t think Africans or British Africans have been seen before. There are those who will be expecting the obvious stereotypes and gags and jokes that are sort of familiar. But I think it speaks for itself and I can only hope that people come and enjoy it and have a god time because we have had a good time putting it together and so far, the response has been good. It’s onward and upward.
Why do you think myths from Africa are not propped up like western counterparts which are sold to us as big blockbuster movies?
Well, for me, it’s two things. There is first of all a level of ignorance – people just don’t know which I think is a fact we can agree on. It’s fair to say there’s also a certain degree of indifference towards it. But also when it comes down to it…because it always gets dressed up as a lot of things that are within our Africa worthy world universe, it’s also dressed up as this educational, social, political…there is never a sense of fun or adventure, there’s always got to be burden with it. All our stories have to be burdened with meaning to the point where any producer who wanted to make the African version of Superman, just wouldn’t do it because they will be attacked and they will be picketed by this lobby group – saying how dare you? Why are you portraying this? So there’s that constant pressure for every single story to have everything in it and if it doesn’t tick every single box, it’s not good enough.
Is it technically challenging to have a cast/ensemble that may not have the Zimbabwean sensibilities where these kinds of stories are concerned and how much work does it take to get that out of your actors the way you envisioned the story will translate to the stage, especially when you take those nuances and the idiosyncrasies into account?
For me, it was more important than anything else to find the right actors to bring the piece to life because when it comes down to it, again, this is something that I keep going on about, I’m not a cultural anthropological preservation society. That’s not my job and I hate going to watch plays in which you can see the actors have been told, no, no, no because you are Yoruba, your arm has to be here and because you are Igbo, your foot has to be there. Suddenly, instead of just having a play about people, it becomes this cultural preservation exercise, which for me is just dull, boring and uninteresting. Of course, having said that, it would have been great for me to have had a fully Zimbabwean cast because I know there is something about just the spirit of the humour that is just unashamed and I think – already, we have had one preview so far and you could tell already who the Africans in the audience were because of the noise level they made, the appreciation and because of the fact that they get it that these guys are up here having a laugh and they are having a good time and they want us to also have a good time. To be honest, when you really get down into it, nuances and mannerisms and all that, those things are the expectations of any society that you are around and they change and you have to realise that culture is dynamic, it changes and does not remain the same. I think anybody and everybody will enjoy it. The Zimbabweans will get more out of it (laughs) but just because of certain subtitles or certain jokes and names but really, it is no hindrance to your enjoy it.
Africa’s storytelling tradition is based on oral tradition. Was it challenging to translate that element of oral tradition to the stage where you now have props among other elements that make a theatre production work?
It was simple. It was about saying, let’s take the traditional aspect of the African storyteller and put that into the 21st century competitive hustle and bustle of the 24-hours social media and multiple choice channels or world of movies. What would that that be like? Who would that person be, what will they be and how will they fit in? It was very simple because at the centre of it, even the storyteller needs to make a living no matter how reverential you are, and when you are competing in the market, you have to be smart, otherwise you are not going to eat and that’s where the reverence goes out the window and say actually, let’s just take it and put it in the 21st century and be uncomplicated about it and see what happens. It’s a piece which as I said – you either get it or you don’t. You either like it or you don’t but I think at its heart is a fun story and it does not take itself too seriously and pokes fun at itself.
Lucian Msamati’s Image: Johan Persson
The Epic Adventure of Nhamo the Manyika Warrior and His Sexy Wife Chipo runs until 24 August, at the Tricycle Theatre, London.
For More Information, go to: The Epic Adventure of Nhamo the Manyika Warrior and His Sexy Wife Chipo