September 19, 2013

Director From Zimbabwe Theater Finds “Magic” at McCarter

If Patience Tawengwa could lift McCarter Theatre from it’s perch on University Place and deposit it in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she co-directs a dramatic arts organization called Almasi, she would make it happen. Sitting in the office of McCarter’s artistic director Emily Mann a few weeks ago, shortly before she returned home after five weeks at the theater as part of a cultural exchange, Ms. Tawengwa smiled as she imagined doing just that.

“There is a certain magic here,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, and I’ve been trying to figure it out so I can take it back with me.”

Ms. Tawengwa, who is in her 30s, spent much of August and some of this month living on Palmer Square and shadowing Ms. Mann in an effort to learn how a major arts organization works. She was struck not only by Ms. Mann’s abilities as a director, but by the simple fact of her gender.

“I come from a very patriarchal country, a boy’s club. So the fact that she is a woman and so accomplished is very important,” she said. “Then, just watching her process and how she works with the actors has given me such a shift of perspective. Her attention to detail is amazing to me. Everything is so particular and it’s all done so quickly. Just watching how she lets the actors explore on stage has made me realize that I’ve been somewhat harsh with actors. I realize you get a lot more with honey than without.”

It hasn’t been easy for Ms. Tawengwa and her Almasi co-founder, actress Danai Gurira, who is familiar to television audiences from her role on the drama The Walking Dead as well as her extensive work as a playwright. The two founded Almasi, which means “diamond” in Swahili, in 2011 as a “Zimbabwean American Dramatic Arts Collaborative Organization,” as it is written in the website. Through staged readings, educational outreach, and cultural exchanges such as the one just completed by Ms. Tawengwa, they hope to make the arts much more accessible.

“In Zimbabwe, they put very little emphasis on arts education. And there are all these talented kids out there,” Ms. Tawengwa said. “Part of what we’re doing is going into high density and rural schools, with a goal that every child knows what theater is and can get involved.”

Ms. Tawengwa was already known in Zimbabwe as an award-winning film director when she came to the attention of the U.S. Embassy there two years ago. “They wanted to do something for World AIDS Day,” she recalled. “That’s when I met Danai.”

Ms. Gurira was born in the U.S. to Zimbabwean parents and raised in Zimbabwe. Among her plays is The Convert, which appeared at McCarter, the Goodman and Center Theatre Group theaters and is part of a trilogy about Zimbabwe. As part of the exchange, McCarter’s Associate Artistic Director Adam Immewahr will travel to Harare this fall to direct a production of the play.

It was after working together on The Continuum, which Ms. Gurira co-wrote, that she and Ms. Tawengwa decided to form a partnership. “We had some unpleasant experiences with the producer. It was very disorganized,” Ms. Tawengwa said. “So we said to each other, ‘Let’s form this organization.’ We knew our niche would be strictly that we were a Zimbabwean/American collaboration.”

Ms. Gurira and three others run the American side of Almasi, while Ms. Tawengwa and three others are based in Zimbabwe.

In addition to shadowing Ms. Mann at McCarter, Ms. Tawengwa was able to spend time interacting with other members of the staff. “I have come to appreciate how non-profits are run,” she said. “This is what we envision for Almasi in many years to come. There’s a certain excellence and culture about the way McCarter is run that I’ve never felt elsewhere.”

Ms. Tawengwa’s time in Princeton also included investigations into Ms. Mann’s body of work. “I think she does art that matters,” she said. “In our country, you can’t just do art for art’s sake.” Back in Zimbabwe, Almasi will do a staged reading of Ms. Mann’s play, Greensboro.

Mr. Immewahr’s upcoming direction of The Convert at Almasi is another example of the collaboration between the two theaters. “I’m very excited to have this opportunity to direct this play that premiered under Emily Mann, and to let it be seen in the country that inspired it,” he said. “It is a thrilling play set in 1895 Zimbabwe, about women who escaped forced marriages, and I think it will be particularly resonant to see it performed in Harare with Zimbabwean actors and designers.”

Ms. Gurira has been a big part of the exchange between the two theaters. “It’s been a fluid process,” Mr. Immewahr said. “We’ve developed plays. We’ve sent Danai to Zimbabwe, and now we’re developing her next play. It’s a messy process, with many components. It doesn’t fit into a box. And hopefully it will enrich our community here at the same time it enriches the artistic community in Zimbabwe.”

Ms. Tawengwa was planning to do a talk at the American embassy in Zimbabwe upon her return home, detailing her experiences in Princeton and her plans for Almasi’s future. “We play by the McCarter way now,” she said. “We’ve got a new code.”