Tafadzwa Zimoyo Senior Arts Reporter
When film and theatre were a preserve of whites in Rhodesia, one black man, Stephen Chigorimbo, somehow found himself as part of the cast in some productions.
That was a rare opportunity at a time when skin colour was a major factor.
Chigorimbo, affectionately known by his legion of fans as John Huni — a role he played in “Studio 263” — found himself acting and directing alongside stars that later made it in Hollywood like Denzel Washington, Sharone Stone, Christopher Lee and Richard Chamberlane.
As Zimbabwe inches towards its 40th independence celebrations on April 18, Chigorimbo — a father of 15 — reminisces on the theatre industry in Zimbabwe.
In an interview, Chigorimbo says Zimbabwe still stands a better chance of establishing a vibrant film industry.
“We can grow from film sector to industry, if we believe and appreciate ourselves. There was a film culture back then where people used to pay their television licences and frequent cinemas to watch international productions.
“We had drive-in cinemas too. We grew up watching television soaps such as “Dallas’’ and ‘‘Dynasty’’, while locally we had ‘‘Tiki’’ and ‘‘Mukadota’’.
“In the past, we were discriminated as the whites did not want us to rise: they knew about our talent and power that we had in the sector. They wanted us to play comical roles only. In fact, we were not given glamorous roles. It was not easy,” he said.
The veteran actor said before and just early after 1980, there were no black films to watch.
“There were no black filmmakers by then, but we used to watch Sydney Poitier’s films from Bahamas, but in Zimbabwe we did not have much to write about because we were not given the platform. Rhodesia was a convenient location for film and movies, hence a lot of Hollywood stars flocked in to shoot.”
Chigorimbo said he decided to do theatre since there were no opportunities in film.
“In that era, I was in theatre together with Walter Mparutsa and Dominic Kanaventi and we formed Harare (Mbare) Theatre Club at Stodart Hall while the white community had Reps Theatre. We then decided to collaborate with the whites from Reps Theatre in 1975 and decided to have Sundown Theatre, that is where I started training acting professionally. So, some Hollywood stars came looking for black actors and then the theatre would supply,” he said.
Chigorimbo started acting as ‘‘Goliath’’ in a church play when he was six-years-old.
His breakthrough was in 1974, when he acted in a movie called “Whispering Death”, popularly known as ‘‘Albino” which featured Christopher Lee, the first ‘‘Dracula’’ actor.
The film was shot at Somerby Farm here in Zimbabwe, featuring the late Midlands Governor Herbert Mahlaba, wrestlers Mike Tshuma and Oliver Tengende.
He also featured in “King Solomon’s Mines” with Sharon Stone and then went on to assist in directing “Cry Freedom” which propelled Denzel Washington to prominence.
Chigorimbo also acted alongside Danny Clover in the first ‘‘Mandela’’ movie.
‘‘I owe it to Susan Heinz and John Indi who taught his wife, Kubi Indi, acting. Kubi later featured in one of the James Bond movies,” he said.
Over the past 40 years, Chigorimbo has realised one can make a living in the film industry.
He remembers his first image published in The Herald newspaper of 1974 as the top insurance man in Rhodesia.
In 1987 he went to Nigeria to shoot a series called “Behind the Clouds” and the movie “Soweto” which catapulted him to stardom.
“I came back from Nigeria and brought VHS footage from the series I shot and met the late Godwin Mawuru. We started working on our own soap. We also discussed “Neria” and “MuHarare Hamurarwe” which was written by Aaron Chiundura-Moyo.”
Currently, Chigorimbo is working on a television series centred on 40 years of Uhuru that is set to be screened on ZBC TV on Independence Day.
“I have engaged the National Arts Gallery and national museums on my latest project. The series covers the period from April 1980 to present day. We have found an actor, Bornfree Santana, who was born on Independence Day. The storyline focuses on how the young man grew up and what Uhuru means to him, being born free and how the country is empowering the young people. I am working with Tarzen Mandizvidza from the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services” he said.
Not many people know that Chigorimbo is a pastor.
“I am a father to 15 children and three grandchildren. I am also a businessman and a pastor,” he said.
Asked about the speculation that “Studio 263” would be returning to thescreens, Chigorimbo said it’s work in progress.
“Unfortunately before Godwin Mawuru died, we had a deal that I should take over the soap and shoot again with old and new actors. After his death, his family had some issues to solve and it is still pending. I am very keen to do just four seasons,” he said.
To date, Chigorimbo has over 160 productions, including films, dramas, movies and series.
He cited some challenges hindering the film sector.
“It is my desire to see the film industry develop. I want people to do what they used to do back then each time Studio 263 was on air. Some could sneak out of their workplaces, rushing to go and watch the soap. Again, we lack film funding and this can be rectified if we have film and video foundations as is the case with other countries. Look, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa are now way ahead of because of support and sponsorships yet they only started much later than us.
“We now live in a world where people focus more on money rather than delivery and this is killing the sector. We should have faith in ourselves,” he explained.