Amakhosi Cultural Center is a Zimbabwean theatre company based at the Amakhosi Township Square Cultural Centre in Makokoba township, Bulawayo. Founded in 1981, Amakhosi is known for producing award nominated plays such as The Madalas and The Song of a Woman, among many other acts. Amakhosi's main objective is training and talent developing in performing arts. In 2014, the center joined Bulawayo's 120th anniversaries by staging some of its memorable plays.
Founding and History
The group's origins go back to 1979 when Mhlanga and his Dragons Karate Club colleagues turned up one day for their training session at Makokoba's Stanley Hall and found the hall booked for a theatre workshop. The karate club members attended the workshop out of curiosity, and it was during this experience that their enthusiasm for theatre was first ignited. Cont Mhlanga began to attend theatre workshops in Bulawayo and Harare in 1980 and 1981 (in the newly independent Zimbabwe), from which he would return to share newly acquired skills with his karate club. In 1981, the Dragons Karate Club officially renamed itself “Amakhosi Productions”. It started off as a youth karate club before being turned semi professional in 1988. Amakhosi went on to create its first pilot arts training Centre, Amakhosi Performing Arts Workshop (APAW) that produced and toured nationally and internationally with theatre plays written and directed by Cont Mhlanga. By 1995 Amakhosi had established Zimbabwe’s first privately owned Cultural Centre located in the boundaries of the city Centre. It became known as Amakhosi Cultural Centre (ACC). Two years down the lne, Amakhosi moved to the new premises and established a full arts business operation at the Centre in 1998. Since then the Centre holds its own as key anchor for the arts and creative cultural industries, not only in Bulawayo but the country as a whole.
Each year Amakhosi recruits about 30 talented students that would have finished their Ordinary levels with passes in the arts subjects. It offers National Certificates and National Diplomas in Drama, TV and Video Production, Dance, Music and Arts Management.
120th Bulawayo Anniversary
On the 24th of May, Amakhosi will be at Pumula Hall between 2pm and 6pm staging some of its best plays. This is part of celebrting Bulawayo's 120th anniversary which, Mhlanga the founder of Amakhosi, said is part of giving back to the community.
As artistes who have benefited a lot from the structures of our local government, we would like to make sure we take part in the celebrations by partnering the city and carrying out a community outreach to the townships he said.
Cont Mhlanga has been described by theatre expert Jane Plastow as "a product of urban township life", in contrast to many other African playwrights who hail from the elite classes.
Mhlanga's first plays – Children Children (1983), Book of Lies (1983) and Diamond Warriors (1983) – were performed in English, with little dialogue and extensive use of karate. Their themes were political – about colonisation, the theft of Africa’s cultural heritage and its natural wealth. Ngizozula Lawe (1984) was the first play in isiNdebele, the local language of Matabeleland, and was consequently a breakthrough for Amakhosi. It involved elderly dancers from the Bulawayo Traditional Dancers' Association, whose participation in the performance, according to Professor Caleb Dube, "legitimised Amakhosi’s existence".
The theatre group had an agenda, as Mhlanga recounts: "The intention was to make the group known in Makokoba, make it a local institution…We wanted what we did to be of significance to a local audience, and they should be able to recognise themselves in what we were doing. So the lines in the plays were to a large extent based on what I heard people saying and the way they talked, in the workplace, in bars and so on."
Having captured the attention and admiration of the Makokoba people with Nansi Lendoda in 1985, which won five National Theatre Organization awards, the theatre group expanded beyond the township.
From 1985 the actors began to engage their audiences in 'discussion theatre', often entering into controversial social, political and cultural topic areas.
One such 'discussion theatre' performance – Workshop Negative (1986) – which the group had wanted to take on tour in Botswana and Zambia, was cut short as it did not receive "the Government’s blessing", due to its highly critical portrayal of the country’s leaders as hypocritical and corrupt. The controversial banning of the play, and the implications this had for other artists' freedom of expression, caused a deep sense of unease in the arts community. The Writers' Union saw the episode as a fundamental challenge to free speech, and it was to signify just the beginning of Amakhosi’s many issues with oppressive authorities.
Citizen Mind, produced in 1986, urged a revitalisation of Zimbabwean traditional cultures, arguing that they should be the basis for future development. Cry-Isililo (1987/88) dealt with the capitalist system and its perpetual repression of workers, as well as sexual harassment of under-privileged women. "Stitsha" (1990) dealt with many serious issues of crime, unemployment, corruption, and the suppression of women. The play was taken on a European tour in 1990.
In 1990 the company branched out to radio with Ngokwako Sgadula (a popular serial about family planning), and TV with Tshada Laye, a screen play about marriage and divorce (13 episodes).
Many plays and European tours followed in the 1990s. Several Amakhosi dancers and actors, such as Alois Moyo, have risen to prominence in the Zimbabwean theatre scene, or have headed abroad to advance their careers in South Africa and Europe. Zimbabwe's significant political and economic upheaval since 1999 has created serious setbacks for the theatre, both financially, and in the stifling of free expression. Cont Mhlanga has won several awards for his work, including the Freedom to Create Prize in 2008, for "practising protest theatre and challenging state ideologies in Zimbabwe for over 25 years. He has been the target of state surveillance, intimidation, harassment, arrest and detention."