HARARE, ZIMBABWE — 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.
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.