That's the fundamental question in Zimbabwe Theatre Academy's Zandezi, now playing at Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre in Blue Lake. What matters more to a man: that he prove he's been wrongly convicted, or benefit from an amnesty program? That he care for a sick cellmate or accept that sufficient food comes at a price? That he patiently await justice or take advantage of an opportunity to escape?
Dilemmas abound in this spare, powerful, universally relevant piece set in a prison in Zimbabwe and drawing the audience in through judicious breaching of the fourth wall. Devised and performed by two exceptional actors, Cadrick (Khe Khe) Msongelwa and Ronald Sigeca. Msongelwa holds a Professional Training Program certificate in physical theatre from Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre and Sigeca holds a Professional Physical Theatre certificate from the Zimbabwe Theatre Academy. The academy is a full-time, one-year professional program founded by Dell'Arte International alumni Lloyd Nyikadzino and Teddy Mangawa in partnership with Dell'Arte International and the Pamberi Trust. On June 25, Msongelwa and Sigeca will accept the 31st annual Prize of Hope from Aesen Theatre and Dell'Arte International on behalf of the Zimbabwe Theatre Academy Trust.
Directed by Lloyd Nyikadzino, Zandezi is the epitome of physical theater. With only minor adjustments to their prison uniform costumes and a large metal tub as their only prop, Msongelwa and Sigela convey the eternal struggle for justice and survival in a harsh yet mundane, cruel yet comradely environment through movement, music and precisely chosen words.
Zandezi revolves around Philani Dube, who was accused of a crime he did not commit, simply because he bought a cellphone on the street that had previously belonged to an actual criminal. The only witness who might be able to prove his innocence has disappeared and his lawyer will not search for her unless he's paid a lot of money that Dube does not have. Freedom costs money. After he's jailed, Dube learns his wife Lucy has given birth to twin boys but his pride prevents him from letting Lucy see how prison has changed him. By the time he has come to terms with who he has become, the COVID pandemic has arrived, no visitors are allowed, one of his sons has died from the virus and Dube cannot attend his funeral.
Along the way, Dube learns a great deal about the realities and injustices of prison life, starting with the widely accepted presumption that "half the people in here are innocent and half the people out there are guilty." He learns he will be locked up from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m., and the remainder of each day is an endless cycle of work ("In here you are a slave"), bad food, exercise and inmate-created entertainment "to keep our sanity." It is a dance of power and control that begs the question: "Who is dependent on whom?" He learns that accused rapists will be raped and it costs five cigarettes to use a working toilet. He also learns how to put on an act for the courts to petition for his freedom.
When he finally regains his freedom, Dube finds the world is a changed place. His wife has married someone else. He can't find work, noting, "It's like you have leprosy — no one wants you." He resorts to breaking into houses and the cycle begins again. And this is justice? You be the judge.
Zandezi was created in 2018 in Zimbabwe, where it won awards for Best Production and Best Actors from the Bulawayo Arts Awards in 2019, Best Director from the National Arts Merit Awards in 2019, and Best Production at the 2021 Jika International Dance Theatre Festival. With the relaxation of pandemic restrictions, the Zimbabwe Theatre Academy has been able to tour the production in the U.S., with performances at Georgetown University and in Seattle and Portland. The Blue Lake run will be followed by a special presentation at Pelican Bay State Prison through Dell'Arte's participation in the California Arts in Corrections Programming.
Performances of Zandezi will continue in the Carlo Theatre Friday, June 3 and Saturday, June 4 at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, June 5 at 2 p.m. Proof of COVID vaccination and masks required. Tickets are by donation, starting at $5. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.
Pat Bitton (she/her) is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired but you know how that goes.