John Chilembwe Play: A Polished Performance



History is not everyone’s favourite subject, and certainly has been given a reputation through years of international media as being boring - a long droning list of dates and facts. If the reality truly reflects this, perhaps an alternative teaching method would be to turn history lessons into theatre performances.

That is exactly what YDC Theatre did when they brought to life the story of Malawian historical figure John Chilembwe, in a play titled Operation Mandala: 1915. The play is written and directed by Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr (Chimmy the Chambo Has 3 Wishes, YDC Theatre's Macbeth), whose invisible touch is responsible for the cohesive strength of the production. 

The first impression when watching the play is observing the level of teamwork and synchronicity amongst the cast. The timing of the dialogue was perfect, alternating between group chants and solo monologues in a seamless, harmonic manner. Though the main character of John Chilembwe was naturally key to the entire production, and was played by a strong actor Ngwenyama Nkhata, the play was not short of actors who embodied their supporting characters with (as they say) full force and vigour. Florence Magombo plays Chilembwe's wife Ida with a gentle, feminine strength, while Nicholas Thombozi played some of the most memorable supporting characters with his commanding voice and mannerisms. 

Opening scene of Operation Mandala: 1915

The cast of 12 could shift effortlessly from one scene to the next, using the physicality of their bodies, and a few simple wooden boxes to portray a church scene in one instance, a court scene in the next, and even slow motion action scenes without appearing absurd. The narrative style was slightly complex, shifting back and forth between flashbacks and the present, but with little confusion about the sequence of events. 

Actors would also switch characters to suit the scenes, with minimal costume changes. For the most part, it was obvious when an actor was playing different character, however at times it was slightly confusing when the characters being played by one actor were similar in behaviour to each other, despite different costumes.


Ngwenyama Nkhata playing Rev. John Chilembwe (Centre Stage), 
and Florence Magombo playing Ida Chilembwe

Costume changes were limited, and though none were done backstage, they were timed such that another character would be presenting an engaging monologue at the front of the stage, while other actors discretely changed costumes in the shadows at the back. An audience member could blink in surprise when the actor stepped into the spotlight again, with the thought “Huh? When did they change costumes?” This showed the formidable skill of the production from a storytelling and technical perspective.

On occasion I would shift my eyes from the character taking the centre stage for their monologue to see what the other background characters were doing, and not once did I see anyone slip out of character, or appear to just be statically waiting for their line. Each actor took their role seriously, and at times you could see and hear background reactions to their co-actor’s dialogue that were simultaneously organic and entertaining. 

Humour was certainly not in short supply, as it is quite a Malawian trait to cope with tragedy and strife using humour. That humour was balanced well for the most part, and the play also allowed some moments to remain completely sombre in a believable way.

There may have been one or two moments where a dark scene seemed to be inappropriately undercut with humour, taking away from the gravity of the events portrayed. This may not have been intentional for the play, but rather an unfortunate effect of a little over-acting. Nonetheless, it didn’t spoil the overall production. 

Overall, it was a fast paced play with zero lag time, blink-and-you-might-miss-it action, and easy to follow, educational dialogue. The play is a blend of English and Chichewa; whilst those who have the advantage of being Chichewa speakers will get the most out of the humour and colloquialisms, it is certainly very possible for non-Chichewa speakers to follow the story.

Keep an eye out for future performances of Operation Mandala: 1915 – they have big plans to tour around Malawi, with plans set to hit Madsoc Theatre (Lilongwe) and Kamuzu Academy (Kasungu) in the near future. Dates to be announced on the YDC Facebook Page. The experience is worth more than the modest entrance fee, and remains memorable long after the final bow.


Captive audience at St Andrews International School in Blantyre
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