Theatre is by nature fleeting. A show happens, and then it’s gone. It’s only the best plays though that will stick with you forever. Such characterises the work of the departed prolific playwright, Stephen “Uncle Steve” Joel Chifunyise, who succumbed to cancer at his home in Harare, Zimbabwe, in August in 2019. Having been born on 21 September 1948, the icon was 70 years of age and was only 46 days away from his 71st birthday.
Uncle Steve’s career in theatre began in 1973 while he was still a student at the University of Zambia where he became national chairman of Zambia National Theatre Arts Association. In a career that spanned 46 years, he lived a life dedicated to creative and cultural expression, not only in Zimbabwe but Africa and the wider world through his work with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and as the go-to guy for various continental and international bodies. His body of work in television includes the groundbreaking race relations as well as Zimbabwe’s first sitcom “Waiters”, post-independent series “Solo naMutsai”, various Children’s stories, books and folklore.
Including the classics listed above, his résumé also boasted over 80 known theatre plays. Amongst some of the globally recognised titles are, “Rituals” (an exposition on the spiritual ramifications as a result of some of the politically motivated killings of 2008 elections and the subsequent societal degradation), “Strange Bed Fellows”(Zimbabwe’s most travelled play), the iconic “Medicine for Love”, “Roki and Maneta” (based on Zimbabwe’s two entrants to the highly charged MNet reality TV show “Big Brother Africa”), “Lovers, Friends and Money”, “Indigenous, Indigenous, Indigenous”etc.
A lover and caregiver of children, he co-founded the Children’s Performing Arts Workshop (CHIPAWO) together with Robert McLaren, Farai Gezi, Julie Frederikse, to identify and nurture young talent in the arts industry in 1989. Some of the talent which passed through CHIPAWO include Black Panther star Danai Gurira, the late singer Chiwoniso Maraire, and Chipo Chung.
Even with a prolific career behind him, Uncle Steve continued to work on until his death, returning to the stage with acclaimed works that illuminated new light onto the theatre scene while exploring rampant world epidemics, psychology, drama, social issues, economic collapse and environmental disaster. In 2013, he penned Cancer in Our Blood, which prefigured the disease that took his life. He also started thinking about the afterlife through his play, Taking Home a Spirit? (2013). In 2014 he wrote, Of course, You Need Help Fast (2014), which in hindsight spoke to the urgent medical help he needed, and during the same year, he wrote, Please Mother, Don’t Cry for Me.
A quick google search of his name yields so many heartfelt tributes by his colleagues, friends, family and those whose lives were impacted heavily by his work.
Arterial Network Chairman and filmmaker Daves Guzha, who doubled as his producer, described Uncle Steve as,
“…representing the best of whatever he had set his mind at yet remained humble, good-humoured and accommodating regardless of who sought his counsel or friendship.”
UNESCO revered him as a “theatre authority… a cultural master practitioner” and a “UNESCO cultural expert who produced many trainers and cultural practitioners in Africa and across the globe,”.
American news-based television channel CNN (Cable News Network) in its tribute tell-of said Chifunyise was a “cultural connoisseur”.
Despite creating a compelling series of works which remains influential to the historical and contemporary creative and cultural expression, his ideas, theories, and practices on theatre have not been collected and analysed for the benefit of future practitioners, as argued by Samuel Ravengai. Let alone Chipawo’s efforts to stage his plays timeously, little has been done by the arts sector to immortalise his legacy.
Providentially, conversations with industry relatives namely, University of Zimbabwe, Savanna Trust, CHIPAWO, National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (NACZ), the Chifunyise Family, Peter Churu et al. yielded and cemented the thought process to start the Stephen J Chifunyise International Theatre Festival with its first edition scheduled on the 26th-28th March 2020 at Theatre in the Park, Harare Gardens. By design, the festival will coincide with World Theatre Day which is commemorated on the 27th of March.
“We have ensured this festival happens on the coattails of the World Theatre Day (WTD). We are saying let’s domesticate the messaging of WTD and contextualise it by ensuring our own people are written in the global context,”
Daves Guzha told the media at a press conference called on last at Theatre In The Park to announce the festival.
The three-day programme will be an eclectic mix of sessions, performance and exhibitions by children, universities, practitioners, filmmakers that will look into his plays, novels, films, dances, academic papers.
As such, a book entitled Thoughts On Stephen Chifunyise will be published and will include a compilation of presentations by academics from the southern African region.
Zambia, Tanzania, Botswana, Malawi and South Africa are some of the countries who have already confirmed participation.
Royalties from the festival will be made out to the Stephen J Chifunyise Trust which is administered by the family as per the wishes of the late. Whilst Rooftop Promotions and Theatre in the Park will be the implementing agency, an independent Advisory Board is being put in place.
Nicholas Moyo, the Director of the National Arts Council, acknowledged the impact that Stephen Chifunyise made and highlighted that the festival was a step in the proper documentation of the lives and works of Zimbabwean artists. He added that there should be a Stephen J Chifunyise Theatre, and a culture of naming places, scholarships and monuments after local icons.