Text: Siyabonga Sithole
Photograph: Supplied

The ZWAKALA Festival which turns 26 this year continues to incubate, develop and fine-tune, young theatre making talent from across the country, with a specific focus on inspiring emerging voices to use the festival as a stepping stone to their professional careers.

Established through a great love for developing and telling community based local stories reflective of South Africa’s diverse cultures, Zwakala stands head up above the rest as the premium platform “unearthing and refining creative gems from the community theatre sector for over two decades.”

In preparation there were Zwakala Festival Conversations which took place at the Windybrow Theatre in Johannesburg, where a small group of young theatre writers and directors were taken through their paces by Mpho Molepo, Keitu Gwangwa, Sipho Mwale and Themba Mkhoma.

The four emerging theatre makers which were shortlisted from over 50 groups are now a step away from making history as Zwakala alumni, a prestigious accolade for any serious aspiring theatre practitioner.

The four include Ibala-The Mark, led by Pretoria based director, Busisiwe Mazibuko and stage manager Katlego Nkogodi, The Pilgrimage, directed by Tembisa’s finest, Nash Makobane, What was is, No More, directed by Hlubi Nontlana Radebe, and last but not least, Uthando Umanqoba, written by Nomfundo Magwaza Ziqubu, alongside assistant director Ntando Ngcungama (both from KZN).

Speaking to Culture Review Zwakala Festival administrator and facilitator of the workshop, Sipho Mwale congratulated the young cream of theatre makers for their hard-work and equally deserving strong stories which have made the cut to be considered for the prize.

“I have seen great success in the industry. I think every single one of the guys in the programme have what it takes to succeed. To succeed in the industry, you need to be yourself, but still be able to open yourself up to ideas. You also need to be a slow thinker who takes time to speak up. Years ago that was Themba, who is currently part of the programme as artistic director. I see Themba in some of the, and I see Mpho Molepo in others. For others it is their stubbornness that they should not lose, however that also means you need to open yourself up to ideas from others without losing the core of your production,” Mwale said.

Zwakala Festival Artistic director, lecturer Themba Mkhoma, was equally proud of the stories that the top four presented in the early stages of the programme, adding that part of the festival is to create a network of artists and credible theatre voices across the country.

“With this group and even with the past groups over the years, we have seen the freshness of theatre that exists across the country. Most of the plays that we incubate are raw and fresh and are done in our languages, which is what Zwakala Fesival is about,” he said.

Even though the festival has changed its policies in line with the Batho Pele principles and government funding models, the artistic director of the festival still feels, the programme has not lost its core founding principles as it continues to be representative of the black lived experiences and cultures.

“The Batho Pele requirements are specific in how they want us to reach out to the communities. Even though I miss the days when we had about 50 groups and we would sing and dance and exchange numbers, the festival and in extension the Market Theatre, who are the custodians of this festival is still about, writing and telling strong, and solid stories. As the Market Theatre Laboratory, is all about experimental stories that extend to our communities,” Mkhoma said.