Sibusiso Mamba: “Africa’s relationship with power is very different from the West’s relationship with power.”
Tiata Fahodzi translates as ‘Theatre of The Emancipated,’ and is considered to be the leading British African theatre company in the UK. Armed with the vision of producing world class theatre which conveys, celebrates and challenges the cultural experiences of Africans, while serving an all-inclusive British audience, the company returns with Tiata Delights. Its annual festival of African plays/readings, which serves as a platform for the theatre industry and audiences to see plays from a wealth of emerging and established writers with roots inAfrica. This year’s line up includes, Sibusiso Mamba, who hails from Swaziland and South Africa. His play, Midnight Train to Sunrise is a brutal, lyrical ‘State-of-the-Nation’ examination of an African Superpower. Mamba elaborates on the inspiration behind his play and why is it important to explore African focused subjects/issues on the British theatre stage.
Sibusiso Mamba: My first encounter with theatre was as a child in a pre-school play. I remember every detail of my costume and the moment I had to speak my only line as a Shepherd in the Nativity. I believe the acting bug planted its seeds in me, then. As a teenager I discovered Shakespeare, Athol Fugard, Moliere, Arthur Miller and Wole Soyinka… suddenly all the upheaval of my teenage life made sense. Not because these writers were speaking about teenagers, but suddenly I understood that the stage was a place where life could somehow make a little more sense than anywhere else. I was hooked. I wanted to act. I wanted to direct. Writing hadn’t come into my mind yet. It did a few years later – when I had finally given up the possibility of ever becoming an engineer – to pursue a life in the theatre. Everything that happens on the stage is a ritual. A live ritual between performers and audience. Co-creating and crystallising a specific, particular and hopefully enriching moment in time. There’s no other story medium like it.
Belinda: Elaborate on the inspiration behind your play, Midnight Train to Sunrise?
Sibusiso Mamba: The inspiration behind the play started off as a question which was asked by an American director, Ricardo Khan, to a group of South African writers gathered for a workshop at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, in 2006. The question was about the new South Africa. And it was: What happens to you, when you can no longer point your finger away from yourself and say “they are doing this to me?” When the finger has to point toward yourself. Thus began the extraordinary journey of this play with Ricardo Khan’s World Theatre Lab. South Africa was at that time getting fully into the preparations for the FIFA World Cup. I was struck by the polarities of opinions in discussions friends and family would have about this event. I was also struck when I encountered people who didn’t seem to care that it was happening. That this big event was coming to South Africa. And I guess my writing of this play was to try and understand why. When I travelled to America in 2007 for one of the World Theatre Lab workshops.Americawas also in the throes of a new dawn. Again similar polarities in people’s views of this new dawn struck me. I started writing this play in 2008. Here in England… exactly at the time when the financial crisis hit. Suddenly all the themes that I had been exploring with other writers in the World Theatre Lab made sense. Change is a very frightening beast on many levels. It brings out the best and the worst in people, societies and countries. But it also allows us all to recreate ourselves anew. The play has been inspired by many different theatre artists from three different countries through workshops and two productions of earlier versions of the script.
Belinda: How would you describe the work Tiata fahodzi is currently doing and what should the audience expect from Tiata Fahodzi this year?
Sibusiso Mamba: Tiata Fahodzi is opening an incredible new path in British Theatre. New, because it is bringing together theatre artists from all over the African continent and through sharing our work with the British public, we shift perception and perhaps promote a new understanding of the beauty, the challenges and the many varied and highly complex structures that constitute the continent of Africa. I, personally, do not know of any other company – in the world – that is doing this. So, it is an honour to be a part of this gathering.
Belinda: Why is it important to explore African focused subjects and issues on the British theatre stage, at a time when you have a huge population of Africans on this side of the ocean?
Sibusiso Mamba: Theatre plays a huge part in creating bridges of understanding and harmony between different cultures. When we sit in the dark and take part in the ritual that is playing out in front of us, we are one. We breathe as one – an audience. So, when you have people from different parts of Africa and people from different parts of Britain (and perhaps the rest of the world), sitting together in one room… breathing as one… it cannot but open us all up to each other in ways we can’t imagine. And in that opening we may, perhaps, experience a new perception of each other.
Sibusiso Mamba: They are crucial…and vital. Without the deliberate and carefully planned creation of these bridges of understanding between cultures. That gap will always remain as that. A gap. I, personally, have learnt a lot about the history of Britain through plays by British playwrights. Through the theatre of this country I have come to an understanding of certain aspects of different cultures here. I believe that what Tiata Fahodzi is doing is building a bridge (or two) that has never been built before.
Belinda: Tiata Fahodzi has come along way with its mission to produce world class theatre which conveys, celebrates and challenges the cultural experiences of Africans. Serving an all-inclusive British audience, this year, you are among a host of writers from across the board, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Why is it important to have a cross section of representation of the African experience from different African nations based on the stories you have to tell as individual writers?
Sibusiso Mamba: Africa is a huge continent. Over fifty countries, numerous languages and cultures. The cross section of works in this festival excites me because it is at the heart of what the continent needs. Disparate parts of it coming together. It is essential for the British audience to see just how different and varied the continent is. It may lead to insights and understandings that are unprecedented and unanticipated.
Belinda: How would you describe the current state of the contribution of African playwrights to the theatre landscape of Britain?
Sibusiso Mamba: I would say that there has been a huge increase in work from African writers in the British Theatre over the last ten years. And that is very welcome and exciting. I do think, however, that the interest is top-heavy towards work from West Africa, which is wonderful. But there are many different cultures of theatrical expression in this part ofAfricaand it is necessary to explore them… and share them with the British public. But there are also hundreds that have not yet begun to be tapped into. And the artists from those cultures are here. Tiata Fahodzi is charting a path that has never been walked before. And I believe this will change the landscape dramatically. It is time to do so. I am grateful for the interest in West Africabecause it has inspired an interest into the rest of the continent. I think.
Belinda: How difficult or challenging have you found your quest to continuously tell your experience of the African story/stories you have inside you on the modern day British theatre stage?
Sibusiso Mamba: It is the gap between what British audiences sometimes expect African stories to be about and what they get when they see a story from an unfamiliar part of Africa. This is changing. A number of years ago I watched with horror as the audience, in a small UK town, howled with laughter during a crucially dramatic moment in a play I’d written. It was simply that what they saw on stage – a traditional ritual from a part of Southern Africa- was so unfamiliar to them, they couldn’t get past it in order to find the human drama that was happening. That taught me a lot. About the manner in my own storytelling needs to be approached.
Belinda: This year’s line up of plays, explores various themes, from love to relationships among others. Your play explores the theme of power and its multiple layers in an African nation. A) What was it about power that you want to explore, especially, within the context of an African nation?
Sibusiso Mamba: Our relationship with power, in many parts of Africa, is very different from the West’s relationship with power. Not so long ago we were powerless in our own nations. Power… self-governing… is a relatively new concept to many African nations…
B) What do you want your play to provoke in the audience?
Sibusiso Mamba: An awakening. A realisation that we are all ultimately one. My decisions and my actions affect more people than I can imagine. When we awake to this realisation – fully. It is more than just a spiritual concept. It is our deepest humanity at its very best.
C) What is the overall message or point of discourse that you would like to see evoked or arise from this year’s festival?
Sibusiso Mamba: There’s more. There’s more to the continent that inspires us to write about it and there’s more in the relationship between Britain and the African continent. Our voices are stronger when we come together from all over the continent, and meet here in a neutral place… and share them with everyone here… and with each other.
To find out more about Tiata Delights, go to: Tiata Fahodzi
Image: Nardus Nel