Alice Lenshina brought to life

ALICE Lenshina (Kabwe Mulenga) confronts Kenneth Kaunda (Suzyika Nyimbili) in the Lenshina play at Lusaka Playhouse last Friday. PICTURE: CHANDA MWENYA

THE Lusaka Playhouse last week hosted the Hub Theatre with the play titled “Lenshina: The Bloody Truth”, written by Suzyika Nyimbili and directed by Barrington Kupela Zulu.

The play attempts to focus itself on the historical events of the Lumpa Church, led by Alice Lenshina Mulenga, and the political conflicts it generated in the early 1960s with the colonial government and the United National Independence Party (UNIP), led by Kenneth Kaunda, who was Prime Minister.
Lumpa disturbances that followed in 1964 are believed to have been caused by the fears of the church’s popularity and manner of worship. Approximately, over 700 people were killed and a lot more displaced into mostly Congo DR.
But was this a massacre? Or merely the killing of a few people? Was the despondence an uprising or a rebellion?
These are some of the questions the play attempts to address.
The play is on a double set, and opens to a scene where Lenshina (Kabwe Mulenga) is in a near death state, and mysteriously comes back to life. She starts to declare how she met the High Being, God. She preaches the instructions she received, what people must do and not do, like polygamy, witchcraft and drunkenness.
This is characterised by charismatic preaching of the word by Lenshina and her church stewards, especially one played by Nancy Vikacha Phiri translating the word into ChiChewa. A great show of talent in that church performance, though scene two was largely in the dark, terribly taking away from the actors and annoying the audience in due course. Whoever was doing lights spoiled this scene.
Well, the stage lights in the playhouse are terribly limited and can be a hassle, but a dress rehearsal should sort out some of these glitches. And the scene transitory blackouts shouldn’t have been allowed too long, as was the case at some point.
Plays are written in the present tense, it doesn’t matter the historical, and the language structure/style, mannerisms, costume and other stage properties should help deliver to this note of time.
Also though, within a play, actors can enact a past event and still show the audience it is a past event without confusing. Lenshina is written in the past tense and it has some lines in the present tense too, especially in the preaching, that can be confusing.
However, it is refreshing when playwrights and directors intentionally break the rules; I think that is a point of ingenuity and creativity, but it shouldn’t confuse, let it come through clearly, its choice of style.
But again, why does Lenshina and Kenneth Kaunda (Suzyika Nyimbili) debate like university graduates in this era of the play! It took away a lot from their supposed characters. Language choice and usage, just like with costume, is very important in character identification and consistence with era.
“…for me it has failed to meet my expectations, adequate research should have been done. Kaunda and Lenshina never met in any discussion, and there is more that this Lenshina did besides talk about charms to stop bullets and the urine staff. And just why play Salif Keita and Oliver Mutukudzi as background music when the Lumpa Church has its own music? No!” bemoaned Zarina Geloo, a journalist and Lumpa events follower.
Yes, the play managed to ignite debate and controversy, maybe it’s the angle of artistic expression picked by the writer that needed to shift to more vexing issues. Like, to the Church of Scotland, where Lenshina defected from after ‘meeting’ the Lord, in a near death state; the Catholic church that enjoyed influence in that part of the country and indeed the obtaining politics, from UNIP and the colonial government. That should have given a great deal of flesh to the play.
Equally of note, say, in the Bemba cultural traditions, elderly women are the ones that speak with those in the spirit-realm and the gods. Maybe that was the reason Lenshina was easily accepted as being with the message from God.
And another element why the Lumpa Church grew rapidly was because of its charismatic approach to preaching, the traditional energy singing and dancing which the followers enjoyed and identified with spiritually; and healing did ‘happen’ while the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church worshiped in the docile European fashion.
The Lumpa Church managed to spread into Congo and Malawi, and because it was more of a cult, projecting the beliefs of an individual, the Colonial government didn’t know how to deal with its increasing popularity. Then, UNIP that needed numbers to win an election and govern the country was equally unnerved. Propaganda, scheming to malign and kill Lumpa church ensued.
With all these conflicts, the Lumpa church met from the political establishment and the scheming of the missionary churches, surely there is great material available to enrich “Lenshina: The Bloody Truth”.
What an important historical subject for a play or film, treated with frivolity! And the play was raw, could have used a week’s rehearsal time.
Well, without having to steal candy off the baby, it was a fair attempt.
Other actors are Barrington Kupela Zulu as Petros, husband of Lenshina, Nomatemba Mwilima, Amon Shakemba – Guard, Joseph Mapili and Kumbukani Musukwa, with Abel Musuka working on sound.

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