Almasi Arts is a new arts organisation founded by two young Zimbabwean rising stars. International playwright and actor Danai Gurira and film and theatre director Patience Tawengwa have collaborated to create an ambitious new project that aims to develop a professional theatre industry in Zimbabwe.
Tawengwa is well-known in Zimbabwe for her successful short films, music videos, TV shows as well as theatre productions Allegations and The Convert with which she first collaborated with Danai Gurira in 2011. In 2010, Rolf Hemke named Tawengwa as one of the most outstanding emerging directors in sub-Saharan Africa and in 2011 Tawengwa was one of the youngest theatre practitioners to receive the Zimbabwe Theatre Association Award for directing the play Loupe which won the National Arts Merit Award (NAMA) for Outstanding Theatrical Production.
Danai Gurira will be familiar to local audiences as a sometime performer with popular theatre group Over The Edge back in the 90s. Since then, she has gone on to star in the international TV show Law and Order, indie film The Visitor, and most recently stars as zombie slayer Michonne in the hit US TV show, The Walking Dead. She is also a successful playwright, having written In The Continuum, which won an Obie Award (one of the highest honours for theatre in the US), Eclipsed and The Convert.
Gurira’s is Zimbabwe’s most successful international actor. In between filming The Walking Dead, her new film Mother of George has recently premiered in the United States to rave reviews. Gurira grew up in Marlborough, Harare and attended the Dominican Convent High School before attending university at Macalester College in the USA and later New York University. We asked Tawengwa to tell us about their exciting new project:
What inspired you to create
The desperate need for change and structure within the Zimbabwean theatre industry and the arts industry at large. Most of us were learning how to do things by trial and error without any real structure. When I moved back to Zim in 2007 I quickly realized nobody was going to hire me or employ me in film or theatre because there were no job openings and those already employed by the few arts organisations were not going anywhere any time soon. When I worked with Danai on her play In the Continuum in 2011, she had vastly more experience and had worked in the USA where there is an actual industry. She has a genuine passion and commitment to seeing development in the Zimbabwean theatre industry and it seemed like an idea whose time had come.
What do you hope to achieve with this initiative?
We hope to contribute to the professionalisation of the Zimbabwean theatre industry and to help facilitate the creation of world class Zimbabwean artists through the arts education initiatives we are offering. We want Zimbabweans who can go to any theatre in the world and feel at home because they know what they are doing. Right now I have just come back from visiting the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey and there is SO much I am learning about running a professional, world class theatre organisation. In a few years’ time, the artists we are grooming won’t be daunted by walking into such an environment: they’ll be up to speed and on par – that’s the goal.
How does Almasi Arts fit in or work with other organisations that produce theatre in Zimbabwe?
I think as an organisation we complement the hard work other people are also putting in but we bring something different because our niche is that we are a Zimbabwean-American organisation and we focus on arts education and nothing else. Each production, each project must have a strong aspect of education to it. An imparting of skills and an empowering of Zimbabwean artists has to be there, so in that respect I think we will play a part in capacity building for artists who will go on to work in these other organisations.
How can people get involved with Almasi Arts events/activities?
People can get on to our mailing list by visiting our website to keep up with our up-coming events. And we are always in need of volunteers! As a young organisation without much capacity, we need people who are willing to partner with us and invest in our vision by volunteering their services.And of course, we always need financial partners.
Picture: Patience Tawengwa (left) and Danai Gurira (right) with Emily Mann of McCarter Theatre in the US.