The Lusaka Playhouse and the case of our collective destructive gene as a nation

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By Sampa Kabwela

The destruction of the Lusaka Playhouse, I am afraid, represents a pattern I have seen across the country and among us, as Zambians; the effortless ability to destroy anything in our path, including indestructible things.

I have come to the painstaking conclusion that perhaps, as Zambians, collectively and individually, we possess a unique gene that destroys things, a destructive gene.

Years ago, I brought to the attention of the nation the decay and squalid state of the Playhouse in two articles – ‘Rape of the Lusaka Playhouse’ and ‘Deeper into the loot and rot of the Lusaka Playhouse.’ I detailed the destruction and concluded it should be coded as a crime against humanity. In response, the Lusaka Theatre Club management took me to court, and later withdrew, seeking relief for allegedly painting them in the same light as the former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, who had been charged for war crimes.

Between then and now a lot has happened at the Playhouse, now it is about to become a filling station.

But this is not the most disturbing part.

When the Lusaka Playhouse was built in 1958, it was registered as a cooperative society owned by members belonging to the Lusaka Theatre Club. It was a collective and public good, with membership open to all. This has been its status for more than five decades, until recently.

In the last five years or so, the Lusaka Playhouse was re-registered from a cooperative society belonging to all, to a closed one, belonging to 26 individuals who christened themselves as founders and shareholders.

In short, the 26, now ‘own’ the Lusaka Playhouse.

There was no consultation, participation, inclusion nor consensus of the larger art community and stakeholders to change ownership from collective, to private. In fact, the whole takeover was shrouded in secrecy.

It is these 26 founders and shareholders, who now want to lease part of the Lusaka Playhouse to turn the carpark into a filling station, supposedly, to help run it and bring returns to the shareholders. During a crisis meeting on Thursday held in the wake of the public backlash, the Board Chair — and one of the 26 shareholders — Henry Phiri, could not disclose the details of the contract nor the plans of the 25-year lease, nor explain how exactly a filling station would add value to the historical and cultural landmark.

There are many questions that will need to be answered in the next weeks and months.

The Playhouse, where our collective destructive gene finds its most vivid expression, once had everything it will ever need to stage a play.

It had a breath-taking library filled with hundreds of classic and contemporary works by poets, authors and playwrights from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Ngugi, Blake to Kipling, Faulkner, Biko, Keats, Elliot, Achebe, Seneca, Neruda, Soyinka, Yeats, Tolstoy, an endless list of books, upon plays by Greek, Latin, African, Asian, American and British authors. Where the library once stood as a shrine of knowledge is now amatebeto-style restaurant. And the books? Thrown away, most of them burnt to ashes, some rescued and taken by actors.

The lighting room at the auditorium entrance could transform the mood at the hands of gifted and trained lights men. It had a massive room known as the wardrobe, filled with hundreds of costumes and props that it would ever need to stage any play.

The wardrobe had fascinating costumes bought, donated, and collected since its opening in 1953. The wardrobe had lifelike crowns of kings, thrones, wedding dresses, colonial uniforms, army regalia, relics, boats, furniture, beds, shoes, everything and anything to stage any play under the sun.

Most stunning was the massive backstage with hundreds of switches, ropes, pipes, steel, timber and iron bars, curtains, each built with a specific function geared towards recreating an entire world that each play will ever need. This is the Playhouse where in 1979, President Kaunda hosted Prince Edward to watch performances by the national dance troupe among others.

The stage itself could be transformed into anything, including underground bunkers and a river. Legend has it that when it was exclusively for the white population, it had switches that could produce rain and snow on stage. The stage was equipped with in-built microphones and world-class acoustic standards. Even today, in its lifeless state, the Playhouse boasts some of the best acoustics in the country.

All the costumes have been emptied, the lights broken, the curtains pulled down. And you should see the third-grade job ‘renovations’ from the ZMK750K Youth Empowerment Fund. The contractor could not find or bother to replace the seat covers for the two rows of seats to match the rest. As for the toilets, – I pledge to renovate the ladies.

Again, what is it about us Zambians that destroy things?

Don’t take my word for it; go to the Post Office in Cairo Road. When you are done, go to Findeco house, Mindeco or just about any building – deplorable.

Go to any government building, starting with the Cabinet Office, if that is not enough, go to State House, and let me know if what you will find represents the best of any nation.

The two-kilometre traffic island from north-south end on Cairo Road, now squalor, was once a lush, beautiful park canopied by giant trees and palms right in the heart of the city.

Forgive me for asking, but what is the state of the public library in Katondo Street, opposite the Development Bank of Zambia?

Last year in June, at KKIA, in one of the offices, starched in the corner, was a masterpiece sculpture of Kenneth Kaunda, a priceless work of art, the kind western museums would pay millions for, and treasure till the end of time. But in our custody, it stands in the corner of some ticketing office, facing a wall, with bits broken and serving as a handbag hanger.

I would appreciate information from the National Airports Company where that sculpture is.

I recently visited three universities: Stellenbosch (South Africa), Al-Farabi Kazakh (Kazakhstan) and UNZA; the contrast is painful. Two of the universities are spectacular and cities in themselves, acquiring properties around them, while one keeps slicing itself away.

When I read about certain lodges in lower Zambezi not wanting ‘us’ on their properties, stories of Lusaka joints relocating to the furthest obscure hard-to-reach corners of the city to avoid us, I rage with anger about such blatant racism.

But then again, look at the Playhouse, the Lusaka Museum, the national stadium and a thousand other places; I pose and ask myself if this is entirely about racism or something else.

What is it about us Zambians that burn books, wreck schools, damage hospitals, break toilet cisterns and windows, uproot rail sleepers, hit traffic lights, remove stadium seats, throw litter from car windows, block drainages, break anything and everything?

What is it about us?

Twitter @ukusefya – [email protected]

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