ZIMBABWE |  A play called The Coup was stopped by the police last weekend in Bindura in Zimbabwe, as reported by Godwin Muzari in The Standard.

The play, written by New Zealand-based writer Stanley Makuwe, had a successful run at Theatre in the Park early this year. It was about to start a national tour when the axe struck. The play, The Coup, is a gory tale of corpses that rise from a mortuary and stage a bloody coup. In a country in which arrests for “insulting the president” are frequent, playwrights and actors are taking huge risks with this kind of protest theatre, especially with plays this brazen

Writes Muzari: “Theatre followers that saw the production at Theatre in the Park would agree that it is one of the most creative pieces to come to the park. It brings to the fore pertinent issues about human rights and good governance. The issues are central in our political realm. It would be imperative for citizens to discuss these aspects on a social space like a theatre stage but that access has been denied.”

Part of the problem seems to be the title, which was deemed incendiary. Muzari points to another case in which the axe of censorship was also struck:  Tafadzwa Muzondo’s No Voice, No Choice. The latter play was performed at a couple of Africa festivals (namely Chimanimani Arts Festival and Intwasa Arts Festival) but Muzondo failed in his attempts to engage an Appeal Board.

“As set out in Section 19 of the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, Muzondo had to appeal to the Appeal Board and contest the banning of No Voice, No Choice. To his dismay, he was told the board last sat in 2009,” Muzari writes. “Do away with politically suggestive titles, artists urged. What bothers most thespians is that these productions would have been cleared by the Censorship Board, which should be the sole determiner of stage-worthiness of a play.

These bans have had a chilling effect on other productions. Producer Daves Guzha of Rooftop Promotions has apparently expressed worries that his similarly aggressively titled production, Protest, might not be performed outside Harare after it was staged at Theatre in the Park. (Still, the play has been performed in South Africa._

“But Guzha told audiences that he was not confident of taking the play to other cities and towns because of the fate that has befell The Coup and other previous productions,” Muzari writes. “Someone among the audience suggested that producers should do away with striking and politically suggestive titles like The Coup and Protest when going for national tours.”

Playwright Stanley Makuwe who wrote "The Coup"
Playwright Stanley Makuwe who wrote “The Coup”

Stanley Makuwe, who wrote The Coup, used an experience he had as a student at a public hospital as material for the play—a strike by health workers that once left students in charge of the facility.

Last year a member of Parliament was arrested for calling Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe a “goblin”. Another man was arrested after he called his brother, during a quarrel on a bus, as “hard-headed as Mugabe”.

Some say that theater remains one of the few remaining outlets for free speech. Recent plays seem to be filled with protest: the February 32 Movement, probably a spoof of the 21st February Movement that celebrates Mugabe’s birthday, and Protest Revolutionaries. Another is Changing of the Guard, media activist Takura Zhangazha’s theatre debut.

Zhangazha said the freedom theater apparently enjoys is just an illusion. As soon as artists try to take politically charged acts on the road, they face arrest. Playwrights also have to scrutinize their scripts, leaving out content that may be deemed offensive and keeping themselves within “safer limits,” he said.

Most producers call their genre “protest theatre,” but Zhangazha speaks of “frustration theatre.”

Stanley Makuwe's play "The Coup"
Stanley Makuwe’s play “The Coup”
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