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In a country where the previous government ordered people to be arrested to counter acts of freedom of expression, a play that mockingly portrays the last days of Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, is becoming more popular, with tickets selling out each time it is staged.
Between March and April, “Operation Restore Regasi” will have been staged six times in Harare’s Theatre in the Park, with directors indicating that they are planning to show the play the last three days of every month due to public demand. They also plan to tour the country’s towns and cities.
After sold-out performances when it showed at Theatre in the Park towards the end of March, the play returned to the same venue from April 11–13 to an even bigger crowd. “We have to improvise; the venue is becoming small each time we stage the play,” said Daves Guzha, director of Theatre in the Park.
The play has drawn mixed responses from the audience who have been flocking to watch it. “It is a great play that tackles a serious issue in a humorous way. It is also humbling to see people congregating freely without being harassed by the police,” said audience member and sociologist Pardon Taodzera.
The play takes the audience to the events of November 2017 when Robert Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, was forced to resign following intense pressure from the military. The play portrays events—real and imagined—of what was happening behind the scenes when Mugabe was under house arrest from the army, under an operation codenamed “Operation Restore Legacy.”
Set at Mugabe’s multi-million-dollar Blue Roof Mansion, the satire’s opening scene portrays the all-powerful, yet not stable, Grace Mugabe (portrayed by Carol Mpofu) rehearsing what she’s going to say at a public rally the following day with domestic workers cheering her on. The boisterous Grace is heard saying she was responsible for the downfall of Robert Mugabe’s deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa who had been fired by her husband about a fortnight before. During her rehearsals, Grace is interrupted by an old and frail-looking Robert Mugabe (depicted by Mike Banda) with army general Constantino Chiwenga in tow with heavily-armed bodyguards.
Throughout the play the distressed Robert Mugabe tries to remain in power by hook and by crook, in the process quoting Zimbabwe’s constitution. But the no-nonsense army commander is having none of it. Robert even tries to cling on through unscrupulous means by offering to bribe the army general but nothing materializes.
Faced with impeachment, Robert Mugabe, who is portrayed as a cunning and wily old fox, resigns amid jubilant celebration in Harare’s streets. The play ends with Grace crying as the couple’s days in power come to an end.
The play’s writer, Charles Munganasa said it was difficult to convince actors to come for auditions as they were afraid. “In the past it was unheard of to mock Robert Mugabe, and when I called for auditions, actors were afraid to take part because they thought they would end up in jail,” he said.
During Mugabe’s days in power, many people were arrested for expressing themselves. The prominent journalist-cum-political activist Itai Dzamara is still yet to be found after being abducted for staging protests against the government in 2015.
Despite this, Munganasa has said he has not encountered any problems with the current regime and hoped that this marks a new chapter for artists to express themselves without fear of retribution.
Under Zimbabwe’s laws, it is illegal to wear army uniforms, but for this play the Zimbabwean army has allowed the actors to use the clothes.
“From the look of things now, it appears we artistes will have the freedom to exercise our creativity without limitation and intimidation. In this play, we have worked very well with the army, that is why we have no difficulties in donning some of our costumes such as the army ones,” said Munganasa.