The Old Lady and the Hipster: Reps Theatre and Book Café in Harare
There are two performance locations in Harare, both influential in “creating” the cultural image of Zimbabwean societies. However, they could not be any more different: The Old Lady is a theatre in between the northern wealthy suburbs with a long tradition: The Reps (Repertory Players) are playing theatre since 1930. The Hipster is much younger. The Book Café – founded 1997 – is located in the heart of Harare at Samora Machel Avenue between the City Centre and the Avenues. Not only theatre is staged here, also music, poetry and spoken word. Notably, storytelling and spoken word contests like “The House of Hunger” make it a hip venue for young artists.
The Reps Theatre seems to be the most important stage for the White communities. Entering the foyer and its bar you feel very British. Looking around the audience you get the sense that you are somewhere on the island, but not in Zimbabwe. However, both the Old Lady and the Hipster are Zimbabwe, and doing this in an impressive artistic way. The Reps stages a lot of theatre plays, and at first glance they seem older than hundreds of years, like one of their authors, Noel Coward. His plays from the 1920ies – funny comedies with mistaken identity – are presented in a very illusionistic way, like many decades ago. But this mirrors the ironic situation of many White Zimbabweans: Of course, the country is changing and so are their living conditions, but their cultural image and interests in the arts have barely changed, the reference to old Europe seems to be still weighty.
Compared with the Old Lady, the Hipster seems to be more flexible, just “hip”: The Book Café is the talent tool of young artists, who present or apparently create a new cultural image of Zimbabwe. There are hundreds of performances a year. But at a second glance, there isn’t a lot of “changing” here, as well. The “House of Hunger”, as an art format, has existed for many years, also the team and the producers of Book Café, not to mention the storytelling, which refers to a long, long Shona tradition.
But this is good or even essential for Zimbabwe. Because both – the Old Lady and the aging Hipster – show the importance of established cultural sites: They give space for performances, shelter for traditions and freedom for creating cultural identities. Fancy does not always mean new and ephemeral: The variety makes it, and the continuity.