As the creative industry recovers from the chilling effect of the pandemic, the sector seemingly lagging behind is Namibian theatre.
Once a star-making and esteemed enterprise, theatre-makers have had to contend with elevated and restrictive costs of theatre rental as well as a significant decline in funding, skills development and support, much of it previously and passionately driven by the National Theatre of Namibia (NTN).
As bygone developmental schemes such as the NTN’s Theatre Zone and the institution’s Premiere Productions are sorely missed, glimmers of the theatre’s heyday were visible in this year’s independent productions of German-Namibian documentary theatre offering ‘Hereroland’, Ombetja Yehinga Organisation’s dance extravaganza ‘Remembering Johnny’ and in Keith Vries’ searing solo ‘Coming Home Dead’.
This year also saw the international premiere of Eslon Hindundu’s Namibian and German opera ‘Chief Hijangua’ which opened at Haus des Rundfunks in Berlin in September. ‘Hereroland’, ‘Coming Home Dead’, ‘Chief Hijangua’ as well as Veronique Kuchekana-Chirau’s ‘Daughter of Molly’ at the Franco-Namibian Cultural Centre and Tuli Mekondjo’s ‘Typewriter’ at The Project Room were all concerned with the German colonial era in Namibia.
“Although the number of locally owned productions are on the decline, content addressing the generational trauma of the 1904 to 1908 genocide has increased visibility in the form of theatre,” says ‘Coming Home Dead’ director Patrick Sam.
“These various productions are building generational resilience by using culture as a vehicle for restoring human dignity for descendants,” Sam says.
“We need to increase the volume of locally produced theatre productions that empower people who don’t have political power to use their cultural prowess to tell narratives that would honour their dignity in both their lives and livelihoods,” he says.
“I want to see theatre change hearts and wallets.”
Scant on traditional local theatre productions but trending upwards with regard to performance art and comedy, 2023 was a year in which performers sought new spaces and definitions of theatre.
From Sven-Eric Müller transforming The Blush Bar into a site of musical monologue, Tuli Mekondjo’s remarkable rituals at The Project Room, and Otjomuise Live Arts Festival delivering dance to Khomasdal, Okuryangava and the central business district courtesy of performers such as Le Clue Job, Haymich Olivier and the Lusu Sipelu Dancers, this year, local performers got creative.
“One thing that’s happened with traditional theatre facing setbacks is that there’s actually been a rise of new vocabularies. Performance art, live art, public art or performance in the public space that is not the traditional black box of theatre,” says theatremaker and educator Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja.
“A lot of these efforts have been supported by artists themselves. Even when the theatre is not making productions as it used to, somehow artists are resilient and they find strategies to continue telling stories. Resilience is crucial.”
Proving its staying power and achieving some of its 2023 goal of decentralisation, Drag Night Namibia kept going, despite this year’s increased anti- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) sentiment.
Drag Night’s performance and drag artists held shows at venues across the city, and the popular platform proudly spread its wings to Swakopmund, Cape Town and Berlin.
Another highlight of this year’s performance art scene was Senga Brockerhoff’s Pegasus Productions’ collaboration with the Alabama School of Fine Arts, which presented ‘Say Whaaat? A Night of Monologues and Musical Theatre’ at The Loft.
The spirited cooperation featured established and new Namibian performance talent as well as students from the College of the Arts, University of Namibia Drama department, and the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
Last but not least (and with a shout-out to Frankly Speaking and Vinyls Music Café for keeping performance poetry alive and kicking), this year comedy was back with a bang.
Abuzz with the Windhoek Comedy Festival and solos from comedians such as Big Mitch, Mark Kariahuua, Lifa, Hildegard Titus and South Africa’s Alfred Adriaan, comedy was definitely on the rise.
“What stands out for me is the various comedy shows that took place throughout the year from different groups. You had Vinyls, Free Your Mind, Windhoek Comedy Club as well as individual comedians doing their own thing,” says theatremaker and comedian Jonathan Solomons, who recently presented ‘Homo Hysterics’, a queer comedy and arts night at The Brewers Market, alongside musician Vernon Sawyers.
“I think it was really cool to see the surge of comedy this year and that comedy is reviving in the Windhoek scene. Comedy could be more decentralised, like taking your shows to other towns and giving platforms to other spaces,” Solomons says.
“Next year, I would really like to see more diversity and more queer and female comedians coming up.”
A challenging but promising year for performance art, 2023 comes to a close with high hopes for 2024.
– email@example.com; Martha Mukaiwa on Twitter and Instagram; marthamukaiwa.com
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