Enter Astronautus Afrikanus
By Dave Mann
The play Astronautus Afrikanus is the world of Edward Mukuka Nkoloso and his dream of beating America and the USSR in the space race with his team of Zambian ‘afronauts’. The play and its setting at Rhodes University, makes for a fascinating project.
Theatre is a space for creative works, dreams, and visions to come to life. The stage is transformed into an entirely different world, illustrated through performance, music, lighting, and shrewd set design. Sometimes these dreams are just too large to be confined to a single stage, and in the case of Mwenya B. Kabwe’s ‘Astronautus Afrikanus’, she needed an entire drama department.
If you’ve seen a performance or two at the Rhodes University Drama department, you’d be used to the high ceilings of the foyer, the expansive main stage, or the intimate performances of the box theatre, but you’d never have seen the drama department like this before:
Two dampened lights drape a blue filter over the entrance foyer as strange silver suits flit in and out of the crowd, mumbling to themselves and frantically reciting equations, and launch sequences. A wheelbarrow full of dirt, marked ‘fossils’ leans against a pillar and a row of name tags lie neatly spread out on two counters while four or five stony faced security guards keep surveillance from staircases and around corners. Just as you begin to nervously eye the nearest exits, a voice addresses you from the speakers. “Please remain calm. We hope you enjoy your visit to the space station. Remember, there are worlds out there that they never told you about.”’
The world that Kabwe and her cast invite you to enter into in Astronautus Afrikanus is the world of Edward Mukuka Nkoloso and his dream of beating America and the USSR in the space race with his team of Zambian ‘afronauts’.
For a small, start up space academy to beat two world superpowers into space may sound unlikely. Even more so when you consider that Nkoloso and his team were chasing their dreams of space travel under the British colonial regime. For Kabwe, Nkoloso’s story was personal. Being born in Zambia, but having spent most of her time based in the UK, US and South Africa where she currently teaches performance studies and theatre making in the Drama Division of the Wits School of Arts, Nkoloso’s story was a revisiting of many ideas for her.
“The Nkoloso story just crystalised a whole lot of things I care about, like continuing to ask what it means to be African, really exploring and celebrating what we do and how we do it. To acknowledge the various hegemonies we have inherited and get the reactionary stuff out of the way and then to proceed with curiosity. To take ourselves, our stories, our realities seriously and as a matter of course as opposed to a side-line to some other more important narrative,” explains Kabwe. “I think I have had some built in distance to Zambia and stories from there, so the work and the material was very personal, but we were really inspired by Nkoloso’s intellectual and creative agency and surely that is about us all.”
The immersive theatre work which made use of the often unexplored recesses of the Rhodes University Drama Department, allowed for audiences to see an entirely different side of the theatre, exploring what goes on behind the scenes and most importantly, to share in Nkoloso’s dream. Backstage storage rooms transformed into Geo- coding labs, bland passageways housed particle stability and acceleration experiments, and the old theatre house café allowed for the production of unstable rocket fuels and chemistry blunders.
“I really like working in non-traditional theatre spaces, or using traditional theatre spaces in an unconventional way,” says Kabwe. “The theatre is a place where people work and I enjoy revealing the mechanics of the place to people who might take for granted what it takes to make performance work.”
With a fascination for spaces and the various stories they hold, Kabwe and her cast spent four weeks in the devising process, exploring ideas, stories, and slowly re-imagining the drama department as a fully functioning space station.
“I love spaces,” explains Kabwe. “They have stories of their own to tell, like that paint peeling off the walls in the dock-it’s just beautiful, and so fun to imagine all the work that has gone on in that space over so many years to make the paint peel. It was really interesting to pay attention to the interior architecture of the theatre space, its nooks and crannies and treat the whole space as another multi-dimensional character.”
Being an immersive work, the onus really was on the audience member to engage with the story of Nkoloso and the afronauts, and with the amount of detail that went into the production, you made sure to waste no time. If you’re not the type to openly interact with the various crew members of the space station such as the overzealous historian, the bumbling, but wise mogolo, or the fast talking, no nonsense dimension traveller, then a quiet walk around the space station provided you with all the information you needed. Newspaper clippings line the walls of the spacesuit design lab, telling the stories of Nkoloso and his team, and the cluttered ‘ZASA Lab’ and its many shelves housed books, documents, and photographs, all with a comedic twist, but rich in history and detail nonetheless.
Speaking on the topic of South African student theatre acting as an inclusive space or a springboard for African based theatre works, Kabwe explains that now, more than ever, South African theatre schools play an important role in sparking reflexivity in their students.
“I think that it is quite easy to get stuck on trying to define what we mean by African based work. Are we talking about work that is based on African individuals, for example? If so, how are defining them? I am interested in how student work asks this question, much more than I am interested in any specific answer” says Kabwe. “I do also think that more and more South African theatre and performance training spaces are having to figure out how to make our context central to how and what we teach, how we capacitate students to approach the complexities of our many African contexts with openness and curiosity. As you know this is a very telling time for universities across the country and we are all having to confront the colonial legacies we have inherited and perpetuated in our teaching practices across the board, and the teaching and learning of theatre and performance is no exception at all.”
Even with the rich detail of every room, character, prop, and design element, it was one room towards the back of the theatre, tucked away amongst the haphazard docking stations and testing rooms that spoke the most of Nkoloso and his dream.
Behind a narrow doorway, sealed off with a red rope sat a softly lit dressing room which had been morphed into Nkoloso’s office complete with a space suite, soccer ball, books, papers, and a modest director’s chair seated in front of a row of dressing room mirrors.
As much as Astronautus Afrikanus allowed for you as an audience member to quite literally take centre stage, as you walk out of the space station as it converts back to the familiar Rhodes University Drama department, you can’t help but think of the true star of the show- The Zambian science teacher, freedom fighter, dreamer, and head of the afronauts who under the most adverse conditions, fought to pursue a dream.