Playwright Gideon Wabvuta brings universal truths to the stage
“For the longest time I had been trying to understand … how people change and where is that exact moment when you wake up and realize, 'Oh God, things are bad now.' That's one of the things I was wondering in my life—when did things really start getting bad in Zimbabwe? That made me write the story.” Gideon Wabvuta, a playwright and actor, wondered these things aloud as we talked over the phone, he in California, I in Albuquerque. He seeks the answers to these questions as he unpacks his personal history and the history of his home country in Mbare Dreams, a semi-
Mbare Dreams articulates the intersection of the personal and the political as Wabvuta stands on stage and illustrates the evolution of his dreams. The show begins the chronicle first with the dreams of an 8-year-old boy, and follows these dreams as the boy grows up. “He's got so many dreams about what he wants to be in his life, and we see his dreams constantly changing because of the change that is happening in the nation,” Wabvuta described, making the content of Mbare Dreams at once totally universal, but also acutely particular. “Wherever you are in the world,” Wabvuta elaborated about his motivations, “no matter whether you are in the US or a third world country, there is always the common notion of dreams.”
Coupled with the joy of sharing Mbare Dreams with American audiences, allowing them to forge connections to the struggles of a character in a distant country, Wabvuta also deals with the frustration that the play will likely never be produced in Zimbabwe. “In Zimbabwe it's actually illegal to write anything that speaks out against the president or the government in any way. When I was home, every time I would write a piece of work … I knew there was absolutely no way that [it] was ever going to be produced … everyone would be too scared,” he explained. The effects of being an artist working under censorship is something that Wabvuta is still working to slough of, though he has been living in the US for nearly 10 years now. “I've realized many people don't understand how censorship works, it goes beyond being scared about getting work produced,” he lamented. “You get to a point where your thoughts, just thoughts [are censored]. Just thinking is going out of line. You're so afraid that it becomes just how you exist in that world. … It's not going to disappear overnight.”
Though he described Mbare Dreams as “just scratching the surface,” the process of writing it while at the Ojai Playwright’s Conference was still a liberation for Wabvuta. “When I went to Ojai, I said to myself 'I'm going to write something that will be different. I want to write something where I do not have to worry, and I'm going to write all the things that I've always wanted to write about and really not care about the consequences because I'm in a different country,'” he described, summing it up like this: “If I was in Zimbabwe, there is absolutely no chance that I would've written it.”
Though the play was written and first performed in 2015, Wabvuta is curious to see if it will take on new resonance in this performance, almost as a cautionary tale. “When I did it in 2015, it was completely foreign. [The audience] didn't understand how someone could be censored that way, how it is to be in a situation like that. They didn't understand it,” he described. Yet, as Wabvuta pointed out, with a new presidential administration in attack mode on the media, he expects audiences will receive Mbare Dreams differently now. “If we are not careful, we will get to that.”
What will certainly translate to audiences who attend Mbare Dreams at UNM's Experimental Theatre on either of its performance dates (March 16 and 18), is an echo of cosmic truth as Wabvuta illuminates dreams and change in his work. As he put it, “A human story is a human story, no matter where you are, no matter how specific it is. As long as you are writing about human emotion, everyone can understand.”
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