The seeds that grew into Workshop Negative were sewn as long ago as the fifth century AD, with the arrival of the Bantu people in the region now known as Zimbabwe. Performance was an integral part of life before the arrival of the white settler. Artistic rituals played a key part in events such as funeral, rain and inheritance ceremonies. Pre-adolescent children at harvest performed the mabumbwe, as part of their passage into adulthood. This wasn’t art for art’s sake; this was communication, community and custom.
During the colonial era these practices were banned as part of the Witchcraft Suppression Act. But the desire for expression couldn’t be crushed. Out of this culture grew Zimbabwe’s theatre. In the 1970s, at the height of the country’s struggle for liberation, nationalist armies used all-night festivals to articulate their fight and to solidify support among their communities.
After the fight for independence was won many new theatre groups formed, including, author of Workshop Negative, Cont Mhlanga’s Amakhosi Theatre. In urban areas their content tended to be highly politicised. The set was often loosely structured and portable, able to be performed on the streets where the message could be heard. Much of the work was rooted in political or educational issues and were created collectively utilizing elements of the traditional genres and indigenous languages.
Amakhosi’s works such as Cry-Isili , Citizen Mind and Book of Lies continued the political theme, expanding from the township audiences to national tours, resonating closely with Tangle’s own strategic approach to theatre making today. This work was also the starting point for discussions, engaging the audience in social, political and cultural conversations and using their platform to spread important message. Their 1994 play Hoyaya dealt with the spread of AIDS. This wasn’t alien to Amakhosi alone, other groups such as Robert Mshengu McLaren’s Zambuko/ Izibuko stood alongside Cont and helped change Zimbabwe’s cultural landscape.
These groups had to be flexible, in some ways a direct response to the fact that many theatres were inaccessible to them, still white-only environments (again, something which Tangle approaches through its annual new commission and tour with its ensemble, Tangle Company). On average the cast was less than 10 members regularly playing in schools and colleges. It meant that theatre groups had to be compact, portable and able to tour and utilise different spaces. Costumes were vivid but were normally taken from the personal wardrobes of the cast and crew.
With Tangle’s London premiere of Workshop Negative we intend to bring many of these techniques to Gate Theatre, Notting Hill and honour the traditions of Zimbabwean collective theatre whilst also re-interpreting the form for a contemporary UK audience. Cont is a master of bringing together poetry, song, movement, stage combat and dialogue with found objects, tools and props to create the stage language he wants. In creating Workshop Negative we have drawn on all these forms with our fantastic team. It really is a privilege to be handed this opportunity, which not only brings this inspiring dynamic to life for UK audiences, but also opens up new possibilities around collaborating collectively across live performance forms.