Chimidzi-Midzi: Theater and de-coloniality of creative spaces.
Approaching the open space inside Fort Jesus Heritage Site which played host to Jukwaa Arts as they staged their play Chimidzi-Midzi, one can’t help but admire the collective support shown to a local production. The turnout looks great and the venue a great way of rethinking the usual theater setup consisting of a permanent sitting arrangement and a stage as the primary prerequisite for a performance.
When the play starts, the audience is almost caught unawares as a suited Dr Gilbert (Played by the famous Masufuria) runs around the stage, issuing instructions as he rechecks the decor for her daughter’s graduation ceremony. One wonders; what is happening? Why the conundrum? Is something burning? Why the running around? Has the play started yet? This, in the most artistic sense, captures the crowd as everyone settles in to immerse themselves in the play.
In retrospect, and in consideration of the artistically coined yet very Giriama-informed title of the play, it would have been vital for one to approach the performance with a little background knowledge of the Mijikenda people, the Giriama in this specific case. Or— and this could have been the goal of the performance— what the play makers intended was for the audience, Giriama or not, to interrogate the culture as an outcome of the performance so as to understand the play.
It becomes clear that the audience would be fully immersed in an unapologetically decolonized theater performance as Mapenzi, Dr Gilbert’s sister and Pendo’s aunt converses solely in Ki-Giriama. Pendo is your typical modern-day with a phone permanently attached to her arm, so much so that it seems like an extension of it. She exists more in her virtual world than the present and she remains, throughout the play, as the oblivious character who is both arrogant and ignorant, witty and somewhat likeable.
The play is as much centered on values of traditional knowledge structures as it is on disruptive modernism. Language plays a key role in this dichotomy. Mapenzi mocks English as much as Dr Gilbert mocks tradition. The few moments Mapenzi uses English is in utter derision. It’s a push and pull as Pendo communicates in sheng while Dr Gilbert communicates to his aged mother in English.
Beyond the language, the play’s intention, it seems, is to act as a reminder of forgotten traditional values that have a bearing on the peace and prosperity of communities. A peaceful community, the play postulates, is one that the spirits of the dead are at peace. It is one in which modernity does not shroud traditional values, rather where both can coexist. This is also a reminder that there are restless spirits within the community as the Vigango in which they find peace were uprooted and whisked away to Western museums far from their kaya. Chimidzi-Midzi then shifts from a mere stage performance to take on the role of activism, calling for reparation of cultural objects.
It is in this restlessness that Pendo’s grandfather, a departed Segenya dancer, communicates to the living, first through a swarm of bees, Pendo’s dream and a snake. As an elder (Gohu) he deserves a kigango and his spirit’s attempt at communicating this goes unheard, leading to the possession of Pendo. Here, Pendo becomes a medium for the spirit to reach the living. We see her experience an episode which leaves her father baffled but her aunt actively trying to find a solution through traditional rituals. It is through this episode that we are introduced to the “voice” explaining Pendo’s trance. This voice, youthful and somewhat knowledgeable of the customs also converses part in sheng, symbolizing youth in their quest to understand their cultural pasts and identities.
The makers of the play employ different strokes of genius to make the play memorable and engaging. While most of the dialogue happens in Ki-Giriama, Dr Gilbert acts as a linguistic conduit, cleverly translating whatever is uttered to English. And, so as not to confuse the audience, they also employ an ingenious way of engagement by switching “stages” and physically making the audience transit from one side to the other where we now find ourselves in the kaya as elders work on putting grandfather’s spirit to rest properly.
Pendo all the while remains clueless and oblivious of what is transpiring. Even when she rises from her possessed state, she rushes to look for her phone. She represents a generation that has abandoned tradition for modernity.
But there is a silver lining in this apparent obliviousness. Pendo records everything apart from her possessed state and it would be interesting to think of her as that young person who, in their cluelessness also acts as an archiver of culture. How exciting it would be, then, to see the story from her POV.
The audience may have gotten lost when the traditional songs seemed to take too long, but then again, one must understand the importance of song and dance in African rituals. That the spirit of Pendo’s grandfather has to be put to rest by performing his songs is symbolic and one appreciates the play and its songs much better when this is understood.
Chimidzi-Midzi is a wonderful example of decoloniality in creative spaces as we the artists of today attempt to reclaim our cultural pasts and identities. It is our way of making sense of tradition in a modern context.
Image credit: Jukwaa Arts