Acting up in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean playwright and anti-Mugabe activist Silvanos Mudzvova, here at The University of Manchester on an Artist Protection Fund fellowship, talks about his terrifying struggle for freedom.

Silvanos Mudzvova smiles and warmly shakes my hand. His joy immediately fills the room; he seems genuinely pleased to be here in Manchester.

Only when he walks do I notice he is limping. Later he shows me a dent in his skull. These are the scars of his abduction and torture by security forces back home in Zimbabwe; the physical evidence of a frightening struggle for freedom that he refuses to abandon.

The 39-year-old dramatist has spent years writing and performing plays to draw attention to the injustices of Robert Mugabe's regime. He has lost count of the number of times he has been arrested as a result.

Silvanos Mudzvova

Silvanos Mudzvova

Playwright, Drama, The University of Manchester

But his abduction from his home in September 2016 was different. It occurred after a performance of his play Missing Diamonds I Need My Share outside the Zimbabwean Parliament; a piece calling for arrests over the misuse of $15 billion of the country's diamond revenue.

"They beat down the door. I got my wife and children into a bedroom and went out with my hands up. They put a sack over me and drove me to a remote lake notorious for disappearances," he recounts. He was beaten continuously, subjected to electric shocks all over his body, and interrogated by his captors.

The ordeal went on for three long hours, but luckily Silvanos was saved. "They started getting phone calls telling them to stop – it was breaking news on the BBC, CNN and social media. Then I knew they weren't going to kill me."

"Before they left, they injected me with something," he says. "I still don't know what it was or what it will do. I could hear but I couldn't see or move. A group of fishermen got to me and took me to hospital."

Silvanos had several operations – including one to repair his stomach, which had been stamped on – and remained in hospital for four weeks, part-paralysed and unsure whether he would ever walk again.

A history of protest

But this is not the only time he has bravely suffered for his art and been motivated to use theatre to bring to the forefront corruption within the Mugabe regime. The playwright's first arrest, in 2007, was when riot police stormed a theatre during a performance and arrested him on stage. The play was about Mugabe being stuck in a lift with the opposition leader, the two forced together to resolve Zimbabwe's challenges.

"I was put in leg irons and handcuffs and charged with treason, which has a minimum of 20 years in prison. I was so full of fear," Silvanos recalls.

Terror turned to farce as he was then forced to perform the play 12 times in 72 hours, for higher and higher ranking officers, none of whom could understand it. When it went to court, the judge concluded treason meant overthrowing the government, rather than performing a play, and Silvanos was released. "I went to the theatre that night and we did a three-week run – everyone wanted to see it," he smiles.

Safe at Manchester

Silvanos was awarded an Artist Protection Fund (APF) fellowship in 2016, which placed him at The University of Manchester – after seeing our Martin Harris Centre theatre spaces online, he was thrilled with the opportunity. Sponsored by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the APF awards grants to threatened artists and places them at host universities and arts centres in safe countries where they can continue their work.

He is working closely with our students – speaking at their lectures, producing a play with them, having them take part in 'read throughs' of his new work, and even judging the Drama Society's Manchester In-Fringe Theatre Awards.

He is also producing other plays, giving talks and working with community based theatre groups and artists around the city. Stephen Bottoms, Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the University, says: "Silvanos embodies the historical role of drama at the University – it has led on this agenda of applied, social theatre. His fellowship perfectly reflects our goal of social responsibility.

"Art is very powerful and Silvanos is driven to write and perform. He is also a very gentle, funny and utterly charming man. We could all learn a lot from him." In return, Silvanos will further hone his craft: "What I am learning at the University will increase my understanding of theatre and its different forms. The School is so advanced in terms of the technical side, so I will spend a lot of time learning how to include this in my future performances."

Fighting for a younger generation

Theatre has always made Silvanos happy. As a child he would sneak into performances and sit on the floor in his school uniform. At 17 he took a lead role at the same theatre.

In 2002, he travelled to England on a scholarship at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, but his stay in London was cut short when his mother, a vegetable vendor, was the target of extortion.

“Art is not a luxury when you are living in a community where these things are happening.”

Silvanos returned home to form an organisation to express the pain and outrage felt on the streets. He remains defiant: "Art is not a luxury when you are living in a community where these things are happening."

He is also motivated by his three children. Since the abduction, he has seen them twice, and then only for a few minutes for their own safety.

"I left my family without saying goodbye. That is one of the most painful things," he reflects. "I have not had the good life I wanted, but I can do this for my children. They don't have a bright future in front of them if we keep quiet."

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