Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

3.1. Die globalen Probleme des modernen kulturellen Prozesses
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeurs: Michail Blumenkrantz (Charkow/München), Emelda Ngufor Samba (University of Yaounde 1), Michael Wimmer (Educult, Wien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Why theatre? A theoretical view of its Centrality in HIV/AIDS communication

Kennedy Chinyowa (University of Zimbabwe)



More often than not, practitioners of theatre for development have tended to adopt a utilitarian view of theatre as a medium in development communication. Theatre is regarded as a tool or instrument for development. Once it is thought to have served its instrumental purpose, it is often discarded or placed on the periphery until there is another popular theatre project. In this paper, I attempt to explore the discursive role of theatre in communicating sensitive issues associated with HIV/AIDS such as gender and sexuality. Rather than continue to privilege the end product (e.g. development), my focus will be more on the process by which people author meaning and how they come to believe in the happening.

Drawing illustrations from my field research on an integrated regional development program on HIV/AIDS prevention and mitigation carried out by Amakhosi Theatre of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, I will show that the aesthetic frames of theatre such as freedom, paradox, make-believe, improvisation, space and flow are central to development communication. For instance, in popular theatre, participants engage in spontaneous action which gives them the freedom to articulate their own point of view. By selecting events and characters from real life, a make-believe world is created that gives form to imagination. The resulting performer-audience encounter is experienced as a paradox, being real and not real simultaneously. It is the freedom afforded by this metaxic world that releases participants from the world of familiarity as they become absorbed (i.e. flow) in the improvised activity. The consequences of their actions are minimized as they are protected by the sanctity of the theatrical space. The ‘sacredness’ of the theatrical space therefore seems to allow participants to experiment with even the most sensitive issues in safety.


Aesthetic Frames

In this paper, the term ‘aesthetic frame’ will be used to refer to the process by which discovery, recognition and understanding occur to participants during and/or after a theatre performance. For instance when playing a game, participants require not only a space marked out for play but the game also confronts the players with certain tasks and risks. The game cannot be enjoyed without affecting the players’ attitudes, purposes and behaviours. Thus the playing process itself becomes a way of making something come into being. Judith McLean (1996), describes an aesthetic frame as an art-making process that offers participants the experience of ‘coming to another world’ and ‘a feeling of growing insight and mastery.’ The participants may not even think of the aesthetic process as learning until the event is over. Similarly, theatre as a means of metacommunicating through bodily performance consists of aesthetic frames as ways of constructing certain kinds of knowledge concerning reality. Such frames enable participants to operate through two forms of existence simultaneously, the inoperative frame of ordinary reality and the operative frame of fictional reality. In the process, they are able to explore new possibilities of existence for themselves.

During my fieldwork on theatre for development practice in Zimbabwe, I observed a number of aesthetic frames that were being employed in communicating development. My analysis of these frames will be based on play which theorists regard as the meta-device of both theatre and drama (see Schechner, 1993; O’Toole, 1992; Izzo, 1997). Play has the capacity to operate beneath the conscious level of participants by breaking through the frames of ordinary existence to create its own ‘framed reality’. I cannot discuss all of the aesthetic frames of theatre within the limited scope of this paper but can only single out a few for illustrative purposes as follows :

(i) Paradox

The American anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972) first drew attention to the idea that the meta-message, ‘this is play,’ sets off play from non-play. It metacommunicates a logical paradox by indicating that, "These actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote" (Bateson, (1972:180). The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite. In other words, the meta-message, ‘this is play,’ shows that the material contained within the play frame can be ‘read’ as distinct from, yet related to, the out-of-frame material. A clenched fist may be different from a punch but refers to a possible, though not yet existent punch. Hence the actions of play communicate, in a paradoxical way, the actions of not play.

Adam and Allee Blatner conclude that the aesthetic lies in the mental juggling, in play’s ability to manipulate seemingly irreconcilable opposites thereby creating a paradox, "a condition in which something is real and not real at the same time" (1997:11). In fact, Richard Schechner (2002) extends Bateson’s paradox by arguing that the playful nip is not only not a bite, it is not not a bite. That is, the playful nip may not be the bite but it is what is meant by the bite.

Thus paradox as an aesthetic frame enables participants to operate within the fictional context while simultaneously reflecting on the real context. In theatre for development workshops, reality is momentarily suspended as the co-players participate in the act of reconfiguring and ‘transforming’ their unfavourable circumstances. Participants release their focus on their individual selves in order to understand what the unfolding ‘playful’ activity will bring forth. It is through such paradox that workshop participants are able to question their assumptions, look for root causes to their problems and reflect on alternative courses of action.

(ii) Freedom

In his summary of the defining characteristics of play, Johann Huizinga stated that:

we might call it a free activity standing consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. ... It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means (1955:13).

Apart from freedom, Huizinga’s description includes other aesthetic features such as enjoyment, space, flow, rules, secrecy and disguise. Huizinga regarded freedom as "the first characteristic of play" (1955:675). During the process of enjoying the fun of playing, freedom liberates the players from the world of familiarity. In other words, as an aesthetic frame, freedom exists outside the boundaries of time, space and even responsibility. It creates a different order of existence that gives participants a sense of freedom from the constraints and obligations of social reality. They are afforded the opportunity of experimenting with and generating new symbolic worlds for themselves. Thus freedom enables them to participate in a novel ‘frame breaking’ and ‘frame creating’ experience that minimizes the consequences of their actions. It combines with fun, jest or enjoyment to communicate messages that cannot be easily transmitted in ordinary life. Jerome Bruner (1976) concludes that freedom provides an aesthetic space for players to try out combinations of behaviour that would, under normal circumstances, never be tried.

In theatre for development, participants are usually confronted with sensitive situations that may not be easy to address through normal channels of communication. Freedom permits the participants to deal with the constraints and contradictions affecting their well-being without threatening the social structure with destabilization. In fact, freedom enables participants to feel more secure as they explore sensitive issues like gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and oppression. However, it is important to note that freedom can also operate between the two polarities of licence and restraint. It still remains subject to the making or breaking of rules, and also to historical and cultural prerogatives. For instance, different forms of censorship may be imposed to limit or obstruct freedom.

( iii) Make-Believe

Inge Bretherton (1984) asserts that human beings are symbol creating creatures with a capacity to manufacture mental variants of situations they face in life. Either consciously or unconsciously, they construct their subjunctive ‘as if’ or ‘what if’ worlds to represent potential insights into how they interpret and understand the world. Thus make-believe as an aesthetic frame functions to stimulate discovery, recognition and the process of learning by experiencing. It liberates the imagination to make ‘everything’ possible. In Augusto Boal’s words:

Dead people are alive, the past becomes present, the future is today, duration is dissociated from time, everything is possible in the here-and-now, fiction is pure reality and reality is fiction (1995:20).

As an act of the imagination therefore, make-believe gives birth to ‘concrete dreams’ (Boal, 1995: 20) by making present the absent. It creates the quality of possibility, of bringing forth the not yet existent and being able to sustain such illusion.

Theatre for development, like other drama-making processes, also involves this subjunctive capacity to step outside of this world and enter into an other world of make-believe, what Erving Goffman (1974) called frame slippage. In a way, participants distance their ‘selves’ from ordinary reality in order to find themselves again. Make-believe requires them to suspend their disbelief, to allow themselves to be played by the play in order to attain the ultimate state of ‘make-belief’. It is this make-belief phase of make-believe that enables participants to turn their attention onto something other than themselves. It (make-believe) makes them question, or even subvert the status of what is real. By suspending ordinary reality through the ‘as if’ or ‘what if’ transformations, participants come to believe in the new frames of reality they are creating. Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) concludes that make-believe is a distancing mechanism for the outrageous behaviour of making new belief instead of merely following ordinary belief, and for making new realms rather than accepting the world as it is.

Similarly, theatre for development also aims to dismantle the structures of fixed reality and replace them with what is perceived as desirable. It is an art of estrangement that seeks to generate alternative models for living and influence the behaviour of those in authority or those wanting to change the existing order. The narratives that come out of the workshops and form the basis for reorganizing people’s experiences are premised on the ‘as if’ or ‘what if’ constructs of make-believe. As an aesthetic frame therefore, make-believe can be regarded as an anti-structural device through which participants can subvert or dissolve an order experienced as lacking or oppressive.


Case Study of HIV/AIDS Workshop

Of all the hardships confronting the majority of African people such as poverty, hunger, malnutrition, homelessness, unemployment, lack of resources and inadequate infrastructure, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has become perhaps the most critical calamity of them all. According to the United Nations AIDS Report for 2002, AIDS will kill 68 million people in developing countries over the next 20 years (see UNAIDS, 2002). From their report on the impact of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, Erica Barks-Ruggles, et al (2001) point out that this region has the worst epidemic threatening its development, security and economic growth. In Zimbabwe alone, it was estimated that there were over 2 500 HIV/AIDS related deaths each week (see Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2004). In fact it appears as if HIV/AIDS was made for Africa.

It was with the purpose of helping to alleviate the impact of poverty and the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Bulilima-Mangwe district of Matebeleland South in Zimbabwe that the International Donor Organisation, W. F. Kellogg Foundation launched an integrated rural development program (IRDP) in May 2000 (see CARPP, 2002). Kellogg Foundation commissioned the Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS) of the University of Zimbabwe to coordinate its rural development program. But Kellogg’s IRDP program was by no means the first of its kind in both Africa and the developing world. According to Norman Uphoff (2001), IRDP programs had started in the 1960s and 1970s but failed mainly due to a ‘top-bottom’ or blueprint approach to planning, implementation and evaluation by development workers. Uphoff (2001) argues that for real integrated rural development to occur, what is needed is a combined learning process for all the stakeholders. The development effort needs to be adapted to local conditions so that it is not only community-based but also community-driven. It was with such a conviction in mind that CASS engaged a popular Bulawayo-based theatre company called Amakhosi Theatre Productions to use theatre "as a tool that would effectively engage rural communities" (Sibanda, 2002:4).

By then the Amakhosi Theatre was already using what its founder and artistic director, Cont Mhlanga, calls Theatre for Community Action (TCA) as an innovative popular theatre approach. Mhlanga applied the TCA approach to mobilize and engage the Bulilima-Mangwe community for action. Amakhosi began by facilitating planning meetings of all the stakeholders. From these meetings, a community strategic plan was drafted. Some of the agreed goals were the development of a public forum for HIV/AIDS policy formulation and advocacy; creation of opportunities for empowering women and youth; and ‘professionalizing’ the grassroots through interaction with policy makers, researchers, health experts, government bureaucrats, technocrats and popular theatre activists. The idea was to enable all the stakeholders to join hands in helping to empower the community with organizational, management and production skills for dealing with development issues. Amakhosi Theatre, as the theatre catalysts, launched the TCA program by performing an AIDS play entitled Vikela (Protect yourself).

The idea of an external facilitator coming into a community to demonstrate what could be viewed as the model performance may sound rather parochial. But in Richard Schechner’s (2002:28) model of ‘restored behavior’, alternative realities may be created through the aesthetic frame of repetition. Such ‘realities’ can be recalled, worked on and turned into something else. Amakhosi Theatre’s original version of Vikela was not only a way of negotiating the ground rules for development communication but also a means of awakening the creative spirit within the community. The subsequent adaptation of Vikela by the newly formed Bulilima-Mangwe community theatre group may therefore be viewed as an index or frame of reference for local community activity. The performers were simply mediators of the ‘action’ for the community who became the co-players. In this case, the purpose of Vikela was to create a platform for community action on HIV/AIDS leading to public policy formulation and implementation. I will now examine how the different aesthetic frames in Vikela were employed to meta-communicate messages that were regarded as major constraints to HIV/AIDS prevention within the community. These themes include women’s oppression, sexual promiscuity and blaming the victims of HIV/AIDS.

(i) Women’s Oppression

Vikela I opens with a song and dance movement that implicates patriarchy or male domination over women, as a possible constraint to HIV/AIDS prevention in the community. Don Handelman (1977) has argued that song and dance, like ritual, act as complementary forms of metacommunication. They permit the co-players to forget their social selves and become absorbed in the flow of the performance. By the time the performers have created the metamessage ‘this is play’ through song and dance, a patriarchal figure, Baba kaPrisca (father of Prisca) calls out to his wife, Mama kaPrisca (mother of Prisca), to quiz her about the presence of condoms in Prisca’s room :

BABA KAPRISCA: What is this?

0MAMA KAPRISCA: What is what?

BABA KAPRISCA: (coming to her and showing her several pockets of condoms) This! (Wife picks the condoms and bursts out laughing) What are you laughing at?

MAMA KAPRISCA: Prisca’s father, you mean you don’t know condoms by now?

BABA KAPRISCA: What are condoms doing in Prisca’s room? This is what I want to know.

MAMA KAPRISCA: What were you looking for in Prisca’s room? It’s her private room, baba .

BABA KAPRISCA: That is not important. I want to know what Prisca uses condoms for.

MAMA KA PRISCA: Is it not obvious?

BABA KAPRISCA: Condoms are for prostitutes. Are you telling me that my own daughter is now a prostitute?

MAMA KAPRISCA: Condoms are life, baba. They reduce the risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS.


MAMA KAPRISCA: At least we should be happy that our daughter knows about Condoms.

BABA KAPRISCA: I said shut up! Never talk back at me, silly woman. I will ... (The man rushes to her angrily. He tries to hit her but misses as the woman runs away from him) (see Mhlanga and Baya, Vikela, pp. 2-3).

This seemingly domestic confrontation between husband and wife sets the stage for a more serious theme, the oppression of women in patriarchy. The scene therefore acts as a ‘map’ for a much wider ‘territory’. As Gregory Bateson (1972) pointed out, paradox makes no distinction between a ‘map’ and its ‘territory’, that is, between a symbol and what it refers to. Similarly, Baba kaPrisca, as a patriarchal symbol, shows how women’s roles are often defined in terms of biological determinism. For Ndebele women in particular, Wallace Bozongwana (1990) explains that their roles are summed up in the word ‘sigcincele’ (keep her for us). This is often said by the parents of a girl to her in-laws on the day she leaves for her new home. The totality of Ndebele patriarchy is perhaps demonstrated by how the marriage and kinship system is organized. In some African societies, such as those of the Shona people, married women remain full members of their own parental lineage. But in Ndebele culture, Bozongwana reports that a married woman becomes so fully absorbed into her husband’s family that "at (her) death, the man’s, or husband’s burial rite is used on the dead woman" (1990:23).

As a referent for a much wider, even sensitive ‘territory’ like gender oppression, Scene 1 portrays Ndebele patriarchy as responsible for not only the oppression of women but also for the spread of HIV/AIDS by denying women their right to life. Baba kaPrisca’s attitude towards his wife’s defence of their daughter’s sexuality shows that he is more concerned with women’s subservience than with protecting themselves against the killer disease, AIDS. How does Vikela propose a way of resolving patriarchy’s power over women? In her analysis of gender discourse in Yoruba ritual performance, Margaret Drewal argues that:

The formalization of sex roles lends itself easily to deconstruction, not only by ethnographers, but by the performers themselves. In this way, performers use the structure of ritual (or performance) to reflect on gender and sex role divisions (1992:173).

Vikela makes use of symbolic inversion to subvert a cultural system that seems to have forced women to internalize male domination. Symbolic inversion helps to reveal the possibility of changing goals, and therefore, to restructure what culture states to be reality. To that end, the female protagonist, Mama kaPrisca inserts herself into the role of subject by confronting her husband’s male ego. Through laughter and caricature, she turns the show into her own by negating the rules of patriarchy. Her actions are contrary to the usual cultural stereotype which tends to regard women as docile, submissive and obedient to men (see Stratton, 1994; Sanday, 1988; Schmidt, 1992). In typical Batesonian paradox, Mama kaPrisca’s actions become the ‘nip’ for the ‘bite’ in the way she goes beyond customary sanction by defying sexual taboo in order to defend women’s rights, in particular her daughter’s right to use condoms.

(ii) Sexual Promiscuity

The subversive element in play discourse becomes more evident in the portrayal of sexual promiscuity as another constraint to HIV/AIDS prevention. As Schechner explains with reference to ‘dark play’:

play can erupt suddenly, a bit of microplay, seizing the players and then quickly subsiding - a wisecrack, a flash of frenzy, risk, or delirium. ... Play subverts order, dissolves frames, breaks its own rules, so that the playing itself is in danger of being destroyed, as in spying, con games, undercover actions and double agentry. Its end is not integration but disruption, deceit, excess and gratification" (1993:36).

‘Dark play’ not only involves physical, mental and emotional risk but its perils are often masked or disguised by saying that it is only fun, voluntary, leisure or ephemeral, when in fact the ‘fun’ involves playing with fire. For instance, Scene 8 depicts a carnival-like atmosphere in which Bafana, the protagonist in Vikela I, flirts with a girl named Sipho at a friend’s birthday party as follows :

(They sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for Rose. Bafana grabs Sipho’s bums and she moves away. He follows, dances with her, then once more he touches her again and she again moves away. He follows her and whispers something into her ears)

Sipho: (laughs) And what about Mary?

Bafana: What about her?

Sipho: She is your girlfriend. She told me you slept together.

Banana: Once.

Sipho: That is not what she said.

Bafana: Mary is no longer my girlfriend. I dropped her because of her loud mouth.

Too much yap-yap.

Sipho: Did you know that she was seeing our History teacher.

Bafana: Another reason why I dropped her.

(He grabs her again and she pushes him away, teasing and laughing at him. Bafana follows and dances before her)

Sipho: And Sheila?

Bafana: She was just a friend.

SIPHO: But you did it with her?

BAFANA: Only once.

SIPHO: Don’t you ever get satisfied? Don’t you get satisfied? Is it never really enough for you men?

BAFANA: Sipho, I want you. Now! Forget about all the others.

SIPHO: I’m sorry. I don’t do sex. I’ve never done it before.

BAFANA: Everything has a beginning.

SIPHO: No way!



BAFANA: Anything you want but only after we have done it.

(Silence as the girl considers the offer)

BAFANA: I won’t hurt you. It won’t even be painful. Just a few minutes.

SIPHO: What do you mean a few minutes?

BAFANA: I mean a few minutes.

SIPHO: OK. Just for a few minutes.

(Bafana grabs her and leads her out. The party swings on for a few minutes before fading out) (see Mhlanga and Baya, Vikela, pp. 12-13).

Like carnival revellers, Bafana and Sipho dispense with customary sanction to indulge in behaviour that is consistent with the permissiveness of the spirit of carnival. Rose’s birthday party provides an outlet for the freedom which makes the expression of the reveller’s suppressed self possible. In Eli Rozik’s words:

The freedom of carnival lies in giving the individual the opportunity to experience the potential (self) as real, in the context of an atmosphere of social permissiveness in which everybody joins the game (1997:188).

But the seriousness of the carnival lies in the extent to which it can stretch outside its boundaries and turn into a dangerous game akin to Goffman’s(1974) frame slippage. The danger with frame slippage, as Drewal points out, is that, "it destabilizes a situation and throws it into a zone of ambiguity" (1992:16). The ambiguity comes when Bafana offers a gift to Sipho. Gayle Rubin (1975) argues that, while in its original traditional context gift giving and receiving expressed relationships of trust, solidarity and mutual friendship, in the modern setting it has become a form of indulgence.

How does sexual promiscuity become a constraint to HIV/AIDS prevention? The ability of paradox to present seemingly opposing states of being simultaneously can reveal both the celebration of love and the tragedy of death. As the performance unfolds, Bafana and Sipho begin to regret their indulgence in unprotected sex. In Scene 13, Bafana finally realizes that

the youth must take responsibility for their actions by ‘abstaining from promiscuous sex’ and ‘sticking to one faithful partner’. Peter, another character in Vikela even goes to the extent of proposing that, "we should be preaching love without sex" (see Vikela, p. 22). Such realization comes from paradox’s capacity to mediate between the inner and outer worlds of social reality. There are close parallels between the aesthetic frame of paradox and what Peter O’Connor refers to as ‘refraction’ in process drama. In refraction, "we seek to reveal a multiplicity of selves and truths, of possible and contradictory and rejected truths and worlds and perhaps, most importantly, of emergent selves and worlds previously unimagined and yet to be" (O’Connor, 2003:263). Bafana and Peter seem to experience a similar kind of refraction through the manner in which they reflect on a range of possibilities for HIV/AIDS prevention.

(iii) Blaming the Victim

The opening dance that I mentioned earlier compares with Ethel Dhlamini’s (2002) description of the Ndebele isitshikitsha dance that involves what she calls ‘flick, swish and wriggle’ rhythmic movement. This dance originated at girls’ initiation ceremonies to celebrate fertility but has since become multi-functional to include other social occasions such as wedding parties, public rallies and other ceremonial functions. In Scene 3, a song that signifies its purpose as an incriminating metaphor accompanies the isitshikitsha dance. The female dancers, clad in traditional indlukula costumes made from ‘animal skin’ kilts and headgear, adopt a call-and-response technique for the song, as follows; Who spread HIV/AIDS lapa ekhaya (here at home)? You spread HIV/AIDS lapa ekhaya Who? Me? Yes! You! (Extract from Vikela video version). Rozik (1997) explains that costume could be regarded as an expanded mask for the whole body. It fulfils the function of "revealing by concealing" (Rozik, 1997:194), that is, unmasking certain conceptions that people might harbour in the roles they play. After seeing West African masks in a museum, Picasso once said that mankind has made masks as a kind of mediation between themselves and unknown hostile forces to overcome their fear and horror by giving it (i.e. fear) a form and image (in Hutchison, 1994:52). The opening dance, song and costume can thus be seen as a playful way of revealing how people express their fear by blaming others. The tendency of ‘blaming the victim’ has been identified by other popular theatre critics as emanating from ignorance about the causes and effects of HIV/AIDS (see Rohmer, 1999; Breitinger, 1992; Byam, 1999). In his analysis of an AIDS play entitled Zvakamuwanawo (It also befell him) performed by a Harare-based community theatre group called Indaba, Martin Rohmer (1999) identified six instances of ‘victim blaming’ such as: • blaming a woman’s miscarriage on abortion or witchcraft • blaming AIDS victims for promiscuous behaviour • blaming the Western world for creating AIDS • blaming either medical doctors or n’angas (traditional healers) for lack of care • blaming AIDS victims for associating with morally decadent characters. Rohmer (1999) concludes that ‘victim blaming’ seems to be a pan-African phenomenon as it can be observed in many other AIDS plays. A similar problem is depicted in the male character Baba kaPrisca who blames his sister for contracting HIV/AIDS through her husband’s carelessness as follows:

BABA KAPRISCA: It’s nonsense. Rubbish! She has to go back to her in-laws today. That’s my decision. That’s where she got her disease, full stop!

MAMA KAPRISCA (ALIAS LINDA): But she is your sister. She can sleep with the girls. Let her stay.

BABA KAPRISCA: Not here. She will spread the illness to my children. I cannot have her sharing anything with my children. Do you hear me?

MAMA KAPRISCA: Baba (father - as a label for authority and respect), one can not get

HIV-AIDS by sharing a room with an infected person. Also one cannot get HIV-AIDS by sharing kitchen utensils or a toilet with an infected person.

BABA KAPRISCA: Shut up! What do you know? (Grabs her by the neck. She screams calling her neighbour to come to her rescue. MaNdlovu, a female nurse, rushes in to stop the fight).

MAMA KAPRISCA : You are chasing your sister away. Where do you want her to go and die? (see Mhlanga and Baya, Vikela, pp. 6-7).

Play discourse, in Richard Schechner’s (1993) view, is the ground or the matrix that gives birth to multiple realities. The passage between such realities is sometimes experienced as a leap or shock rather than a smooth flow. Ordinary reality, which is culture-bound, time-bound and space-bound, collides with fictional reality to produce the friction that Gavin Bolton describes as "imperative tension" (1992:11). Although Baba kaPrisca, as a symbol of patriarchy, wants to uphold the binary division between male and female, he is shocked when his wife acts against his power and authority. As a meta-device of theatre, play affords an ‘aesthetic space’ for deconstructing existing role relationships by creating new possibilities. The play space serves a paradoxical function. It is a space where events may be experienced as concrete action yet seemingly distanced from the real. The paradox lies in how play can act as a refractive prism, or "dimpled mirror" (O’Connor, 2003:280) for peoples’ dreams and fears. In this case, Baba kaPrisca stands for a distorted mirror image of many others who blame the victims of HIV/AIDS out of a mixture of fear, ignorance and egoism.

The two women, Mama kaPrisca and MaNdlovu take up the task of not only reprimanding Baba kaPrisca about the futility of blaming his sister for her HIV/AIDS status but also of educating him on the need to accept the burden of responsibility for his sister. In a way, they exercise their knowledge to inscribe a ‘new’ reality in which certain ill-conceived attitudes like blaming the victims of HIV/AIDS are negated. The purpose of such symbolic inversion is "a reversal of position, order, sequence or relation" (Babcock, 1978:15) so that such commonly held assumptions are discarded in favour of care for the victims.


Emerging Implications

What are the implications of using theatre to communicate information on HIV/AIDS prevention? Candace West and Don Zimmerman (1987) argue that given patriarchy’s insistence on male domination and female subordination, the sex category ‘female’ has come to be associated with less status, power and authority. For women, freedom of choice and _expression are often culturally and socially conditioned. As a result, theatre performances like Vikela provide both performers and audience with a platform for what West and Zimmerman call "the social doing of gender" (1987:129), the reconstitution of gender through symbolic interaction. Hence the theatre functions as an appropriate medium for deconstructing patriarchal systems of representation and perception of women, and posits women in the position of subject. Through its inconsequential structure, theatre makes it possible to address otherwise taboo subjects relating to gender and sexuality in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Through meta-devices or aesthetic frames located in play theory, theatre or drama can generate alternative frames of existence for the participants. The theatre workshop or performance such as Vikela becomes a ‘play world’ for ‘fixing’, ‘un-fixing’ and, ‘re-fixing’ reality without the fear of social constructs or reprisal. The theatre thus acts as a laboratory for dismantling and reconstituting reality in safety. It affords an opportunity for the community to experiment, reflect and possibly intervene in its own social, political and cultural problems.

© Kennedy Chinyowa (University of Zimbabwe)


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Schmidt, E. (1992). Peasants, Traders and Wives: Shona Women in the History of Zimbabwe. Harare: Baobab Books.

Rozik, E. (1997). Mask and Disguise in Ritual, carnival and Theatre. In South Africa Theatre Journal, 11: 2, pp. 183-198.

Rubin, G. 1975). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex. In Reiter, R. R. (Ed.). Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press.

O’Connor, P. (2003). Reflection and Refraction: The Dimpled Mirror of Process Drama. Unpublished Ph. D. Thesis. Griffith University, Faculty of Education, Brisbane.

Dhlamini, E. (2002). The Role of Dance as Communication in Ndebele Rites of Passage. Unpublished M. Phil. Thesis. Department of Theatre Arts, University of Zimbabwe, Harare.

Hutchison, Y. (1994). Masks Today: Mediators of a Complex Reality. In South African Theatre Journal, 8: 1, pp. 44-63.

Rohmer, M. (1999). Theatre and Performance in Zimbabwe. Bayreuth: Bayreuth African Studies.

Breitinger, E. (1992). (Ed.). Theatre and Performance in Africa. Bayreuth: Bayreuth African Studies.

Byam, D. (1999). Community in Motion: Theatre for Development in Africa. Westport (CT): Bergin and Harvey.

Bolton, G. (1992). New Perspectives on Classroom Drama. Hempstead: Simon and Schuster.

Babcock, B. A. (1978). (Ed.). The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

West, C. and D. Zimmerman. (1987). Doing Gender. In Gender and Society. 1: 2, pp. 125-151.

3.1. Die globalen Probleme des modernen kulturellen Prozesses

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

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For quotation purposes:
Kennedy Chinyowa (University of Zimbabwe): Why theatre? A theoretical view of its Centrality in HIV/AIDS communication. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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