There is more than one way to tell an African story!
Facilitated by Alex Gwaze (Curator)
I’ve always been interested in how African stories are performed. By “performed” I mean how the words and ideas written in the script are acted out on screen. Something about African acting feels less realistic and more dramatic than anything else I’ve ever seen. I’ve always wondered why. One friend of mine said “it’s our theatrical foundations that makes our acting look so unreal on TV”. Maybe. However, great actors like Denzel Washington, Natalie Portman and Morgan Freeman all cite their theatrical background as a great tool that helped them craft more realistic performances on screen. Therefore, to get to the reasons why African performances are so dramatic I contacted two actors / writers to see what they might have to say about our films.
First I reached out to Zaza Muchemwa. Zaza is a 2 X National Arts Merit Award winning director / actor / writer. She is currently the Chairperson of International Theatre Institute of Zimbabwe and the associate Artistic Director for Almasi Collaborative Arts. She has been working in the Creative Arts industry since the late-2000s. Her work cuts across poetry, theatre, social media and film. And she has directed at least 7 productions and acted in music videos, film and TV series.
In addition, Zaza has contributed several articles and poems to Censorship Magazine, Povo Afrika, Women Speak, Pepeta.org, Cyphers Volume 87, Traps: Poems from Zimbabwe Women Writers, Badilisha Poetry Xchange and Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights’ All Protocols Observed. Moreover, since 2021 she has been profiling African creatives online through “Spotlight with Zaza”.
Next I contacted actor / writer Leroy Mthulisi Ndlovu. Leroy is a Bulawayo Arts Award (BAA) winning actor who has acted in several films and series that include, “Figure It Out”, “Moonlight Cross”, “Viva Wenera”, “Jane The Ghost” and “Qiniso The Movie”. As a writer he has been published on AfricanWriter.com, The Tenacity Post and Ilizwi 263. Furthermore, his first book, “Sirens: Tales of Youth and Love” was nominated for a National Arts Merit Award (NAMA).
This was their first time meeting and in their conversation Zaza and Leroy talked about love interests, drugs, growth, old white men’s stories and acting.
LEROY: I always like to ask this question. Of all the things you could do with your time, why did you choose to act or write?
ZAZA: Writing and performing keep me tethered to the aliveness of our shared humanity. It connects me to the power of ‘Story’. Stories are an effective tool for instructing, empowering, healing and entertaining a people. Being able to write or perform stories enables me to explore who I am and where I want to go. It also allows me to connect with my community and explore the complexities of our shared memories. And to present new nuanced narratives of my people.
LEROY: I’m also very obsessed with the power of stories. I could preach a whole sermon about the dangers of being a drug dealer but no matter how well written or orated it was it would never be as loud and potent as six seasons of “Breaking Bad”. In other words, a good story turns the kid in me on.
ZAZA: So true! It takes the smallest detail in a good story to remind you of how vast the universe was when you were little and how much you wanted to explore. That’s why I enjoy performing. I love this constant state of discovery and openness and the process of becoming someone else. You literary get to act out other worlds.
LEROY: Is there a certain type of role that you like to play?
ZAZA: Yeah. I like playing strong women who are as complex as they are vulnerable. Women who often exist on the margins of what society ascribes to be the function and position of womanhood. But we all know these roles are rare.
LEROY: Yes they are. Someone once said to me women are often written as a love interest even when they are the lead. This love-interest lead doesn’t give them an opportunity to explore more nuanced female characters on the margins of society. What are your thoughts on this?
ZAZA: Women in general have a hard time building a body of work that explores their talents. And I think that has been true for a long time in places like Hollywood where the industry was in the hands of rich old white men (who perpetuated several misconceptions, including the one that a film with a female lead over the age of 40 would not do well at the box office). Life begins at 40 as they say. So the roles for women under the age of 40 do not fully show how complex women really are.
LEROY: Interesting. I had not really thought of it in that way but I know some of my favourite actresses like Taraji P Henson, Regina King and Tilda Swinton got some of their best roles later in their career. If you could change one thing about the film industry in Zim what would be?
ZAZA: Just one?
LEROY: (laughs) Ok all of them.
ZAZA: I think one thing for me would be improving the training for actors, directors, producers and cinematographers so that they can produce quality, compelling, authentic Zimbabwean productions that will build and and maintain viewership. Secondly, we need to expand the number of channels and their reach. Third, we need to improve the working conditions for all, especially actors and veterans. Fourth, we need corporate support in media productions. Fifth, we need government support. I could go on, so many things. You know we also need a union of some sort.
LEROY: I sort of agree with you. I think we have held onto the romantic notions of viewing the Arts just as expressions of creativity. But that approach needs to change because our culture is being eroded by those who are producing more quality products. Art is a business just like any other and if we are to see any industry growth then we the artists must learn to treat film like the billion dollar industry it is. Which means, behind the scenes we have to acquire the tools and principles needed run a successful business. Then we can all eat.
ZAZA: Yeah. True. We need working, viable systems backing our works, like the US and to some extent South Africa and Nigeria.
LEROY: I’ve always thought it a bit unfair to compare industries in different environments but there is so much to be learnt from Hollywood and Nollywood. While we all strive to be like Hollywood at some point we have to accept that it’s a different ball game here at home. Hollywood has been around for +/-100 years and they generate billions of dollars in revenue. So, ultimately they are able to leverage their industry differently to their government. And as for Nollywood, I love how Nigerian film has evolved. They started with what they had, experimented until they found a niche market we now call a Nigerian film. Here at home we still have much to do, it’s hard to get work but I am happy that we have some cornerstones in our industry.
ZAZA: Yeah I do believe we have some kind of baseline but we do need to figure out our own formula. Which reminds me, I was going to ask this earlier but I got distracted. What is your acting process like?
LEROY: I’m what writers call a “pantser”, meaning I do it almost literally by the seat of my pants. When I get a script I read it through to get to know the story. Then I memorize the lines and get to know the words of the character. When then director says action, I rely on two things: the director’s vision and the energy of the scenes and other actor/s.
ZAZA: But how do you deal with an actor who is clearly killing the energy of the scene?
LEROY: I look at any production as a team sport. This is why I love rehearsing. It helps to make sure that we both communicate about what the director / script wants us to communicate. But even with that, there will always be moments when the other actor doesn’t deliver. In such cases you have to stand your ground and maintain your energy, so that at least the director and editor have something to work with. Ultimately, it’s up to the director to decide if we can move on.
ZAZA: Yeah, as director I love working within this kind of communion of collaborators. We come together knowing some things whilst acknowledging there is still more that we don’t know, and that which we know might not be it. Somewhere in this collaborative process lies the actors performance (laughs).
LEROY: (Laughs) Yes, the actor’s performance is not entirely his/her own making. You are a writer, actor and a director. How do you transition between these three roles?
ZAZA: I don’t. There are some similarities I take from each role which I use in the next one. For instance, each discipline calls for listening, observing, collaborating. However, they are differences in terms of approach. Other times it’s quite jarring to see the changes a director has made to your script. Or as an actor you perform the scene the way you want to but it wasn’t written like that. In the end you need to be aware of the boundaries of each role if you want to be a Writer / Actor / Director. That’s how you stay sane. You are a writer/ actor, tell me about your process as writer.
LEROY: For me it really depends on the characters. I spend hours, days, or even weeks looking at these scenarios and trying to understand who all the characters are … the kind of decisions they would make. The benefit of this for me has been that when I start writing it sort of flows easier and the characters will surprise me with their behaviour. A lot of the times a character will decide to do something different from what I planned and the whole story ends differently. One thing though, editing what you have written is an endless job. There will always be an improvement that can be made so I tend to set a target. Do you also set a target or deadline?
ZAZA: Not really. I try to write everyday to exercise my writing muscles. And the writing can be related to what I will be working on that particular time or not at all. I have some pieces I have been working on for a long time that end up being taken over by newer things because of the immediacy of the essence within the piece. As long as I’m writing, or reading, I feel it feeds my brain. What is the most surprising thing about yourself you have discovered through writing, or acting?
LEROY: I’d say it’s how I can connect with different emotions. As a guy you grow up thinking and being told “emotions are for women”. But over the years I have found myself processing a number of things I thought were buried deep down and I put them onto paper. I feel I’ve grown so much as human being since I allowed myself to access my emotional side.
ZAZA: What do you view as growth?
LEROY: I think growth is important whether you are an artist or not. We have this thing of trying to box ourselves into neat little categories based on a particular vocation. But human beings by their very nature, are expansive. So growth would be looking at how many different areas I can express and apply myself – hearing my voice and moving forward from mistakes. All that matters is that pursuit of applying yourself creatively in as many areas as possible. That is the hallmark of true human growth.
ZAZA: Well said! That’s very true. In the end its all about expressing and applying yourself. Sometimes it’s not even directly through your Art. For example, I am not going to name the project but … I’ve always thought of myself as a servant of the story or the artistic process – no matter what – type of creative. I would compromise and make concessions to keep the project moving forward. But on one project I learnt that there is a fire in me willing to burn brightly and fight for my own dignity and the dignity of all involved in the work. I surprised myself when I realized I was willing to let the whole project fail so long as my dignity (and those I worked with’s dignity) was left intact. In that moment I realized how much I had grown as person when I knew what I don’t want to do – just to keep things moving forward. Sometimes you just have to let everything end and fail.
LEROY: Failure is a great teacher and these days so many of us are afraid of failing.
ZAZA: At the end of the day I think our industry can grow if we accept that as creatives we have failed to really entertain our local audiences. As harsh as that sounds, it’s what we need hear to make the change from being amateurs to becoming professionals.
LEROY: I absolutely agree. We need to learn from our mistakes to make more entertaining films.