The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
MEMORY Kumbota is a worried man. After almost four decades in the arts, he sometimes feels like retirement is being forced onto him.
For five years he has not set foot on the stage, but he is about to make a return and while that bit of news might make the average theatre lover’s heart flutter, his comeback will not bring jubilation to everyone.
It’s time for new faces in theatre, his detractors will say, time to give fresh talent a chance to shine. Kumbota has had his day in the sun. A good dancer knows when to leave the stage, they will say, and it is time for Kumbota to hang up his dancing shoes. This is despite the fact that there does not seem to be a successor worthy enough to tie his shoelaces.
“I realised that I have been retired a lot by other people, I think. People say when will you leave this and open up the way for others? But for me, I can’t retire from the art. Retiring from the art will be retiring from what I truly am. I think I will be an artiste in different forms forever because being an artiste is not like driving a train. You can stop driving trains. I might rest for a while but I’ll always come back to this,” the 55-year-old told Sunday Life in an interview.
The last time Kumbota was on stage he left a lasting impression. Playing the lead character in the sensational historical play Umbiko KaMadlenya, Kumbota gave spellbinding performances, putting the country’s younger performers to shame.
Kumbota won an outstanding actor gong at the Namas for that portrayal and went on a prolonged hiatus afterwards. For those eager to see him retire, that award winning performance would have been a great swansong, a perfectly executed farewell at the ripe age of 50.
“Sometimes our theatre, in comparison to South Africa where older actors like John Kani are still performing on stage, people want to retire us. As it is I feel like I’m too young to retire. At the end of the day when you reach the level where you take a 30-year-old young man, no matter how good an actor he is, and try to make him act 70 already we are at a sketch level.
“That kind of theatre can’t be sold overseas where there will be veterans really performing their roles. So let the veterans perform with the young depending on the roles wanted. The only people who I remember performing well past their 60s are the likes of Walter Muparusta. I’ve not seen anyone else do that. I myself am regarded as one of the ancestors and I’m relatively still young. I also can’t play a 70- year-old guy. I would be stretching it myself,” he said.
Perhaps the fact that people are even asking about Kumbota’s retirement is a great betrayal in itself. This, after all, is the same man who overlooked other more lucrative careers after finishing his A-levels, choosing instead to make art his life and the stage his home. Kumbota has come a long way from the young man who went against his parent’s wishes, enrolling under the Bulawayo City Council and the Canadian Universities Services Overseas’ flagship Theatre Arts project. Since those days, he has dedicated his whole life to theatre, to an extent that he sometimes wondered if fellow actors, directors and stage props would be the only family he would ever know in life.
“My life in theatre affected me. Right now I’m an old man yet I started having children late. My oldest son is in Form Three. Because of travelling I never had time to build a relationship. I was always here and there. I stayed for a long time as a bachelor to a point where I was wondering whether I would ever have a child,” he said.
Kumbota remembers the birth of his first child as the turning point in his life.
“In terms of relationships, you would find that you travel too much and you leave the person in your life at home. When I went to the States, when my boy was born, I left him when he was three months old. So that thing really anchored in my mind because now it meant that I’ve got to call all the time. Can you imagine now I’m an older man yet on the other hand I have a young child and I’m anxious.
“The boy was now always on my mind and for the first time I felt that separation that comes with not being home. Earlier in my career I wouldn’t even call home. I would tell the others whenever they started calling loved ones that they shouldn’t do so because they’d start sharing their problems with them and we wouldn’t work well. I could do that because I really had no one because I had family but they could all take care of themselves really because they were adults. So I could separate my personal from my professional life. I started missing home when I started building my family,” he said.
Sacrifices made for his first love, theatre, came early for Kumbota. He remembers the days that his father called him istandari (Nyau/Gule Wamkulu masked dancer) for trying to balance his tertiary education and stage performance.
“People who grew up with me in the industry call me ustandari, because I’m of Zambian origin and also because of those people that used to move around dancing. Besides the people I grew up with, most don’t know how I got that name. I got it because my father once said I was behaving like a standari when I’m moving around performing wearing traditional clothing. After my first expensive show I bought him very expensive shoes and gave him money. He loved them to the extent that when he went to a funeral he burnt them when he was moving closer to the fire trying to show off the shoes that had been bought by his son,” he said.
It was his father, a World War II veteran, who had accidentally ignited the love of theatre in his son.
“My father was an old man. I’m the last born in the family. He fought in the Second World War so he belonged to an association of those that fought in that war. So it happened that there was a time when a touring group came to the theatre. It was doing a comedy on what happened during the world war. So they called these veterans and gave them free tickets.
“I remember I went along with my mother and father. It was the first time watching a live theatre show. I don’t remember the story clearly but to me the experience was just wow! For the first time I sat alongside white people and it was a fascinating experience. My father must have forgotten about it but I never did. For me that’s where the theatre bug bit. So when I started doing it full time he was very resistant but my mother tried to understand because I would remind her of that experience of ours at the City Hall,” he said.
At 55, Kumbota has had time to reflect. He now mentors younger artistes while he prepares for his return to the stage. A self-described shy man, he is as eloquent and polished off-stage as he is on it and this perhaps has led him to be disappointment in some fellow professionals who take seriously the job of being “istandari”.
“It saddens me when artistes try to behave like “artistes” even off stage. They start acting out even in real life like I always say, you don’t see a doctor going around injecting people around town or carrying a stethoscope even in the bar.”