[The JRB Exclusive] Read the first act of Petina Gappah’s new Dambudzo Marechera play, Black Sunlight

The JRB presents an exclusive first look at Petina Gappah’s new play, Black Sunlight.

Gappah’s first play, adapted from her critically acclaimed story collection Rotten Row, was performed in Harare in October-December 2019. Black Sunlight, her second, will premiere in Harare in November 2020. A ‘fish out of water’ drama set in 1982, Black Sunlight uses the return to independent Zimbabwe of the writer Dambudzo Marechera from an eight-year exile in England to explore themes of censorship and freedom, writing and responsibility, alienation and buried trauma.

Scene 1

We open on the airport, a small, worn and rather shabby doorway to the British Empire’s last outpost in Africa. It is early in the morning of 6 February 1982. Rhodesia has been Zimbabwe for just under two years, and its capital Salisbury is two months away from becoming Harare, so a stale, colonial provincialism still hangs in the air.

To the left of the stage is a large sign that reads IMMIGRATION. 

The immigration counter itself is either in darkness, or off the stage, unseen by the audience. The audience hears the OFFICER’S disembodied voice, and the only part they see of him is his hand, when he shows one of his many signs.

TANNOY V/O: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is 5.30 am. Air Zimbabwe flight UM707 from London Gatwick has now landed. It is 5.30 am. Air Zimbabwe Flight UM707 from London Gatwick has now landed.

From UP, STAGE RIGHT stumbles a young man of about thirty. A black bag with a long strap hangs heavily from his left shoulder. In his right hand, he carries a large duty-free bag, whose contents, clearly bottles, clink against each other as he walks to the immigration counter. He has dressed up for the flight in a black, baggy suit that looks ‘tried on’ on his slight frame. His attire is completed by a garish waistcoat and jaunty tie in a thick Windsor knot. For all his smart, debonair appearance there is nonetheless something dishevelled in his appearance. 

This is DAMBUDZO MARECHERA. He occasionally brushes his hand over his short and uncombed hair—his famous dreadlocks are just at the beginning of sprouting. His face, open and artless, displays his every emotion. His accent, when he speaks, is contrived and stilted, a Rusape boy’s version of an Oxford voice. He has conquered a childhood stammer, but it occasionally asserts itself.

 Electric and arresting, he moves with nervous energy towards the immigration counter.

DAMBUDZO: Wow, wow, wow. I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it. Salisbury. I’m in Salisbury.

OFFICER: Passport and arrival form.

DAMBUDZO: Do you know, the first thing I did when I got off the plane was to kiss the ground? I actually kissed the ground. It’s just as uncomfortable as you would expect. Not so easy on the lips. It’s quite hot too and tastes exactly how you expect it to taste. But still, I want to do it again. 

He drops his bags and, his back to the audience, theatrically kisses the ground. 

OFFICER: Sir, it is not permitted to kiss the ground.

DAMBUDZO: (Rising) What, you mean there is actually a law against kissing the ground? I’m just celebrating! 

OFFICER: It is not permitted.

He takes out a sign that says: IT IS NOT PERMITTED TO KISS THE GROUND.

DAMBUDZO: You mean, it is actually a written rule? Ha! That is de-de-delightfully ludicrous. It is so delightful that I could embrace you right now. I want to embrace everyone, I’m that happy.

OFFICER: It is not permitted to embrace immigration officers.


DAMBUDZO: How about if I jump up and down with joy?

OFFICER: It is not permitted.

He takes out a sign that says: IT IS NOT PERMITTED TO JUMP UP AND DOWN WITH JOY.

OFFICER: Here at Immigration, it is not permitted to kiss the ground or jump up and down with joy or embrace immigration officers. Here you present only your passport and your arrival form.

DAMBUDZO: Do you know, it’s the darndest thing. I think I know you.

OFFICER: Perhaps you saw me the last time you were here.

DAMBUDZO: I haven’t been here in the last eight years. Fresh from England, me. It’s this exhilarating feeling like, um, um, um, like I am here but not here. But I know you: it’s your voice, your head, the shape of it.  Were you at St Augustine’s, Penhalonga? Did you live in Rusape? Or were you at the University College of Rhodesia, ’72 to ’73?

OFFICER: None of the above. You need to complete your form. 

DAMBUDZO: Oh I am a Zimbabwean. I’m a new creation. A brand-new man in a brand-new country. Do you know that song? We sang it at school. St Augustine. 

(Breaks into song

I’m a new creation, I’m a brand-new man! 
Old things have passed away, I’m Zimbabwean! 
More than a conqueror, that’s who I am!
I’m a new creation! 
I’m a brand-new man!

I’ve obviously adapted it to suit present circumstances. But good God! Look at you! I don’t have the most, well, the most me-me-mellifluous singing voice, but it hardly calls for such a hangdog face! We are all, all of us, new creations. Brand new men!  We can imagine this country exactly how we want it. 

So you see, I don’t have to fill in a form. This is 1982, we are not in Ka-Ka-Ka-Kansas anymore, and by Kansas, I mean Rhodesia. This is Zimbabwe for God’s sake. Salisbury Airport. I’ve just arrived from England, and man was I happy to leave. You ever been to England? As the bishop said to the duchess, England is a bitch. It’s a real bitch. I’m home, but look, here you are, making me fill forms just like in England. 

OFFICER: It is not permitted for anyone to enter the Republic of Zimbabwe without completing Form 22A.

He hands over the form to DAMBUDZO who takes the form and reads it. He screams with laughter. 

DAMBUDZO: Good God. Look at this first question. Why are you coming to Rhodesia?

OFFICER: We are still printing the new forms. Until then, everywhere that says Rhodesia should now be read as Zimbabwe. 

DAMBUDZO: Even so. Why. Why. Why. Why. Why are you coming to Rhodesia read Zimbabwe? You make it sound like it’s the last place anyone wants to visit. Abandon hope, all who enter here. 

OFFICER: You need to state your reason for entry. One Transit, Two Tourism, Three Business, Four Visiting Friends And/Or Family, Five Returning Resident, Six Other.


OFFICER: Yes, Six, Other.

DAMBUDZO: What is Other?

OFFICER: Anything that is not related to One Transit, Two Tourism, Three Business, Four Visiting Friends And/Or Family, or Five Returning Resident is Six Other.

DAMBUDZO: In that case I am not Other. I feel like a bloody tourist, but actually I am returning home. First time in eight years. I am a very famous writer. There’s a whole gang of people waiting for me once I get through those doors. There’s even a film crew waiting to film my arrival.

OFFICER: Returning Resident? You are in the wrong queue. 

DAMBUDZO: But I was told to go right.

OFFICER: For you, the right queue is the wrong queue. 

DAMBUDZO: So right is wrong.

OFFICER: That is correct.

DAMBUDZO: And left is right.

OFFICER: That is also correct. The left queue is the right queue. You also have to complete Form C25, Customs and Excise, and declare what you are carrying, and if you are carrying dangerous goods such as arms and ammunition, corrosive, toxic and explosive materials, flammable solids, liquids, gases and aerosols, or compressed, liquified and dissolved gases, you have to declare them in Form C27.

DAMBUDZO: (With cheer and great laughter) The only explosive material I have to declare is what’s up here. It’s a proper mind blast.  Do you get it, do you get it? I have nothing to declare but my genius!

OFFICER: It is not permitted to declare genius.

He takes out a sign that says: IT IS NOT PERMITTED TO DECLARE GENIUS. 

DAMBUDZO: Good God. No kissing the ground, no jumping for joy, no embracing, no declaring of genius, no sense of humour about anything. What is this place?

OFFICER: Welcome to the Republic of Zimbabwe. We hope you enjoy your stay.


Scene 2

LIGHTS on DAMBUDZO who has now cleared both Immigration and Customs but has not been collected. He sits on a row of joined-up airport chairs, literally twiddling his thumbs, his suitcase and bag next to him. He takes out a rolled TIME magazine from his bag, and an empty packet of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and shakes it, as though willing a cigarette to fall out.  

TANNOY V/O: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is 6.30 am. Air Zimbabwe flight UM028 from Nairobi has now landed. It is 6.30 am. Air Zimbabwe Flight UM028 from Nairobi has now landed.

BLACKOUT then LIGHTS on DAMBUDZO, head now slumped against his hand luggage, asleep.

TANNOY V/O: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is 5 past 7 am. Air Zimbabwe flight UM055 to Victoria Falls is now ready for boarding. Passengers please report to Gate 5. Air Zimbabwe Flight UM055 to Victoria Falls is now ready for boarding. Passengers please report to Gate 5. 

BLACKOUT then LIGHTS on DAMBUDZO, who has abandoned the bench and is now sleeping, fully stretched out on the floor, against a background of busy airport noises. Covering his face is the now unrolled Time magazine, it is the edition of 8 February 1982, with the cover tag:  UNEMPLOYMENT, THE BIGGEST WORRY. 

TANNOY V/O: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Air Zimbabwe flight UM057 from Bulawayo will arrive late. Expected landing 10 past 8 am.  Air Zimbabwe flight UM057 from Bulawayo will arrive late. Expected landing 10 past 8 am hours.

OFF: (A medley of happy voices, welcoming passengers)

Mauuuuya. Hindava kunonoka so?

Cheers. Welcome, welcome, welcome. 

I see him, I see him daddy, he is right here.


Scene 3

There is a sudden blast of music in the darkness. It is David Scobie’s ‘Gypsy Girl’. Lights up on DAMBUDZO who wakes up, startled. Behind him, a small restaurant-bar has opened from which the music is pouring out. Mounted on a wall is an animal head, glaring sightlessly at the audience, next to beer and cigarette posters that read YOU MAKE CASTLE GREAT and HOLD ON TO YOUR MADISON.  Behind the bar sits the bartender, REX, a man with a closed face and a bald head. He is pristinely dressed in a white shirt, black trousers and a black bow tie. He is laboriously reading ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and consulting a pocket Shorter Oxford Dictionary when he comes across an unfamiliar word. He licks his finger before he turns each page. 

REX reads aloud from his book and consults his dictionary.

REX: The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons, the proletariat.

Proletariat, proletariat, ah, here: proletariat, working class people collectively regarded.

DAMBUDZO gathers his belongings and walks up to REX, taking the bar in with evident delight.

DAMBUDZO: Hesi, hesi, hesi. Uri right?

REX: (Looking up from his book, with studied politeness) Good morning sir.

DAMBUDZO puts his things down and sits on a bar stool like it’s a throne from which he surveys his dominions.

REX: What can I offer you sir?

DAMBUDZO: (Indicating the beer poster) I‘ll have one of those. I may as well start by making Castle great.

REX: I am afraid we don’t serve alcoholic beverages before the hour of 12 midday sir. May I offer you a pot of tea instead? We also have a full English breakfast with your choice of eggs, poached, scrambled, boiled or fried sir. You can also have toast, brown or white sir, and ham and cheese sandwiches and bacon and tomato and …

DAMBUDZO: Good God, I have just escaped the land of English breakfasts and p-p-pots of tea.  You have no beer, no spirits, rum, vodka, even wine, something red?

REX: Not before 12 midday, sir. No alcoholic beverages are to be served before 12 midday by Order of the Establishment. 

DAMBUDZO: Fine. Just get me a Coke.

REX: Yes sir.

As REX pours a glass of Coke, DAMBUDZO looks around with a childlike, delighted interest.

DAMBUDZO: Can you believe this place? And that music. 

REX: Sir?

DAMBUDZO: (Peering at his name badge) R-r-rex? Is that your um, um, name? Did they name you after an English Bulldog? Or a German Shepherd? Rex. 

REX: Sir?

DAMBUDZO: You can’t serenade me with ‘Gypsy Girl’ on my return home Rex. It’s hardly the um, um, you know, the fitting music for the Return of the Native. Play some real music, Rex. Something grand and operatic. Something majestic. We need a march, yes, a triumphal march, with flutes and oboes and a, um, um, a big brass band. Even a fandango will do Rex, not this Godawful colonial din. The Bolero, that’s what you should play, play me Ravel’s Bolero.  

REX moves to turn off the music and as he does so, DAMBUDZO slyly pours himself a drink of rum from his own bottle. 

REX: Sir, it is not permitted for you to bring or serve your own alcoholic beverages in this Establishment.

DAMBUDZO: It is not permitted, it is not permitted. That’s all I’ve heard since I got here. This is not permitted, that is not permitted. Nothing, it seems, is permitted. Come on Rex, where is your sense of occasion. This is me! Home! First time in eight years. Eight years Rex. 

REX: Perhaps if you were to order breakfast sir.

DAMBUDZO: You are out of luck Rex because that Coke is just about the only thing I can afford. I have exactly, um, um, let’s see.

He takes out his wallet with great ceremony and whips out his book, ‘Black Sunlight’, from his jacket pocket.

I have exactly zero pounds and zero dollars on me. This is my only currency. Can I tempt you to some Black Sunlight?

REX: Black sunlight sir? Is that a type of Marie-Joanna?

DAMBUDZO: (Hooting with laughter) I wish it was marijuana! But it has the same effect on the mind! It’s my latest book. And as for your establishment, well, I won’t be troubling your fine establishment for much longer, I am supposed to be collected, but the flight was an hour early. I will be out of your hair soon enough. Actually, out of your zuda.

(He laughs and makes a whooshing motion above his own head with his hand

Do you get it, out of your zuda? I’ll be out of your bald head soon enough. 

Scene 4

As he laughs delightedly, WILLIAM GOTO enters, sits at a bar stool a distance away, and looks quizzically at DAMBUDZO.  He carries a briefcase, which he puts on the floor. 

DAMBUDZO: (Stops laughing abruptly and stares at REX with suspicion) Hang on. I know you from somewhere. I have seen you before. 

REX: I don’t think we have ever met, sir.

DAMBUDZO: There is something about your face, about the shape of your head.  And your voice too. I’ve seen you before. At the bar at the Africa Centre. You know. In London. You were there the night those ba-ba-ba-bastards kicked me out. 

REX: Africa Centre sir? 

DAMBUDZO: Are you some kind of spy? Is that why you have that zuda? Do you work for the see, see, C-10? Or the Special Branch. I saw you just hours ago at Immigration, and now here you are, pretending to be a waiter. Were you se-se-sent here to watch me?

REX: I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, sir.

DAMBUDZO: (Mimicking) I’m-sure-I-don’t-know-what-you-mean-sir. This-Establishment-does-not-serve-alcoholic-beverages before-12-midday-sir. Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full sir. What Shona bar-bar-bartender talks like you?  And why are you reading that Communist nonsense? 

REX: It’s for my night school sir. I am studying Education with Production.

DAMBUDZO: (Suddenly laughs) In that case, I should write Novels with Production. Plays with Production. Poetry with Production.

WILLIAM: Charles? Is that you?

DAMBUDZO: Excuse me?

WILLIAM: Comrade Charles Marechera?

DAMBUDZO: Good God. Am I surrounded by spies? Who the hell are you? Are you with him? 

WILLIAM: It’s me, Comrade William Goto, we were at St Augustine’s together. Penhalonga. I was two years ahead of you?

DAMBUDZO: St Augustine’s!

WILLIAM: Hauna kufunda  …

BOTH: (In exaggerated Manyika accents) … kana usina kufunda kwaTsambe!

They rise from their bar stools, shake hands and pat each other on the back enthusiastically as they laugh. 

DAMBUDZO: Good God! St Augustine’s. Best years of my life! William the Conqueror. Sweeper of every literature, history and drama prize between ’69 and ’71. Do you remember that hiding we gave you in ’71 when Michael and I found out you were sniffing around after our sister … 

WILLIAM: Remember it? (Indicates his chin) I have this scar from the Marechera brothers to remind me not to touch any Marechera sisters. I was running from you guys and fell and hit my chin. It felt like all my teeth were going to leave my mouth.

DAMBUDZO: Serves you jolly well right. 

REX: (to WILLIAM) What can I get you, Sir?

WILLIAM: Ita mushe shamwari, Sir, sir kuita sei. Haugoni kuti Comrade?

REX: Sorry, Comrade sir. What can I get you, Comrade sir?

WILLIAM waves him away. 

DAMBUDZO: How the hell are you?

WILLIAM: Good, good, how’ve you been Charles? 

DAMBUDZO: Well, it’s Dambudzo now actually.

WILLIAM: Oh, so not just a pen name then? Congratulations on everything Comrade! We have all heard of your success.

REX: (Animatedly) Ha. Dambudzo Marechera. I got my things and left.

DAMBUDZO: That’s it, I got my things and left.

WILLIAM: I got my things and left. 

They all laugh. 

DAMBUDZO: (Happy and gratified, to REX) You’ve read it! Better than Marx and Engels, hey. 

REX: Most definitely sir. But not as good as James Hadley Chase. Those I very much enjoy.

DAMBUDZO:No Orchids for Miss Blandish’?

REX: That’s a good one sir. 

DAMBUDZO: It’s in my new book, you know, ‘Black Sunlight’. So you get your Marechera with a chaser of Hadley Chase. 

(Laughs happily

Now get me another Coke.  

(Turning to William)

You were a bit of a dabbler yourself weren’t you? And is the rumour true? That you went to war? Did you kill anyone?

WILLIAM: (Slightly resentful) Yes, I did train in Mozambique, but there was little combat by the time I finished. And yes, I am still writing if that’s what you mean by dabbling. I have had three books published by the Literature Bureau. This is my latest book here.

He takes out a slim published volume and a sheaf of manuscript bound up with rubber bands and hands the book to DAMBUDZO.

DAMBUDZO: (Looking at it like it’s a quaint curiosity) Good lord. The Literature Bureau! They are not still churning out their drivel are they? Don’t tell me you are still writing that juvenilia, all those Shona poems?

WILLIAM: (Frostily) As a matter of fact I am. And novels too. Three so far.  Here, I have a copy of my latest poetry collection. 

DAMBUDZO: You really should write in English, It’s the only way to get anywhere.

WILLIAM: Actually, since you mention it, I have written my first book in English. I have sent it to a few publishers in England.  If you wouldn’t mind, could you take a look, and maybe share it around with people you know in London?

He hands over the sheaf of paper.

DAMBUDZO: Catchy title. ‘Love at Midnight.’

WILLIAM: Yes, it’s a love story set in the independence war. It is sort of autobiographical. It’s where I met my wife.

DAMBUDZO pushes the manuscript aside and holds up the poetry collection by a top corner. 

DAMBUDZO: The best thing about being out of the country is that I haven’t had to see any of this stuff. I haven’t read Shona since school, since our Standard 6 texts, Kutonhodzwa Kwachauruka and Ta-ta-tambaoga Mwanangu. I offended the teacher, do you remember, Mr Churu, with the sta-ta-stammer, by saying the authors had copied Shakespeare. It’s true! One is just a poor man’s Hamlet and the other a poor man’s Macbeth

How much can you possibly have to say in such a provincial language? Do you know there are only five named colours in Shona? I mean tsvuku, is red, right. But there are reds and there are reds. There’s crimson, maroon, scarlet, cherry. 

WILLIAM: Well, it has its …

DAMBUDZO: Claret, cardinal, vermilion, carmine, blood red, wine red … 

WILLIAM: Why don’t you check it out and let me know what you think. But the manuscript is the more important. Do read it if you can. Here’s my card, call on me some time. I am at the Ministry of Information. In fact, I’m here to meet my Minister, he was in Paris, at a Unesco conference. I didn’t go this time, but I will next year. So get in touch, any time, if only to let me know what you think of the book.

DAMBUDZO: Well I don’t know how much time I will have to read it. I will be quite busy you see. Say, you wouldn’t have a fag on you, would you?


DAMBUDZO: You know, a fag, a cigarette.

WILLIAM hands him a packet of Kingsgate cigarettes and a silver lighter. DAMBUDZO lights up. WILLIAM also takes a cigarette and DAMBUDZO lights it for him. 

DAMBUDZO: Oh I needed that. I ran out just as we were flying over Ca-ca-ca-Cairo, and had to ca-ca-ca-cadge from one of the hostesses. What was I saying?

Oh yes, I am just here for a short spell, to make a film, a sort of autobiographical film, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, that sort of thing. It is going to be shown in all the cinemas, it’s bound to be a big hit. And then there’s Black Sunlight

WILLIAM: (Uneasily) Right, Black Sunlight, but that’s …

DAMBUDZO: It’s kind of exhilarating you know, to come all the way here, and have a new book out. House of Hunger is my exile book, so to say, but Black Sunlight, is something different. I mean, can you believe it, this is me, man, in Zimbabwe, talking about my new book with William the Conqueror, I mean good God!  

TANNOY V/O: Good morning, Ladies and gentlemen. It is 5 past 10 am. Alitalia Flight AZ678 from Rome via Blantyre has now landed. It is 5 past 10 am. Alitalia Flight AZ678 from Rome via Blantyre has now landed.

WILLIAM: (Stubbing out his cigarette and putting his cigarette box into his pocket) Listen, my Minister has arrived, I have to go …

DAMBUDZO: Well, if your Minister is here …

WILLIAM: You have my card.  Tell me what you think of the manuscript.

DAMBUDZO: Hey, can I have a couple more to tide me over?

WILLIAM hands him over his packet. DAMBUDZO empties the entire box, save for one, and gives the box back to WILLIAM.

DAMBUDZO: You’re an absolute brick. Cheerio old boy.

WILLIAM exits right but forgets his silver lighter on the bar. 


Scene 5

Thirty minutes later. DAMBUDZO has still not been collected and has now eaten breakfast and drunk at least four Cokes, with his now diminished bottle of rum almost empty. His jacket is off, his speech is faster, and he is clearly inebriated.  He mops up a plate with bread. REX clears the empty bottles. 

DAMBUDZO: Good suggestion, that breakfast, Rex. Don’t worry, now that my friends know I am here, they’ll pay. 

REX: Yes sir.

DAMBUDZO: You know, I remember clearly my first ever English breakfast. It was at the College up in Mount Pleasant, in Manfred Hodson Hall. There was no English breakfast for us in Rusape, oh no Rex. We used to have fettkoeks for breakfast. You know fettkoeks, those big dollops of dough, sizzling in oil.

REX: I know fettkoeks sir. 

TANNOY V/O: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Tambudzai Kaseke, please report to the Information Desk. Tambudzai Kaseke, please report to the Information Desk. 


Tambu. Tambu. Tambu. 

DAMBUDZO, about to light a cigarette, drops the lighter with a start. 

DAMBUDZO: Did you hear that?

REX: Hear what, sir?

DAMBUDZO: It sounded like someone calling me. It’s what they called me at home. They called me Tambu.

TANNOY V/O: Tambu, Tambu. Tambu. 

DAMBUDZO: There it is again.

REX: There was an announcement sir, but it was not for you.  

DAMBUDZO: (Speaking faster and stammering) Ta-ta-ta-tambu, that’s what my mother called me. That’s what she said to me that morning. Come with me. Tambu.

REX: What morning sir?

DAMBUDZO: (Speaking even more rapidly, waving his unlit cigarette) The morning I was telling you about. With the fettkoeks. It was after breakfast, only it was not English breakfast, we had fettkoeks. 

TANNOY V/O: Tambu, Tambu.

DAMBUDZO: Yes, she called to me just like that.  She wanted me to see my dead father.  But I didn’t want to look.  He was killed by the Rhodesians. 

REX: I am sorry to hear it sir. It was a terrible war. Myself, I lost three brothers. They died in a keep in Mt Darwin. 

DAMBUDZO: In a keep?

REX: Yes sir, a place where people were locked up.

DAMBUDZO: You mean a protected village? Or a concentration camp?

He picks up the lighter and lights another cigarette. 

REX: Myself, I am a man of little education sir. I don’t know what that is. But I hope your mother is quite well sir. Is she meeting you here today? That is the best thing about working at the airport, seeing all the families uniting. One time, I had to help revive an old lady from Enkeldoorn who fainted with joy.  It will be a happy occasion for your mother.

DAMBUDZO: (Brusquely) Fuck my mother. I haven’t seen her in eight years, and I don’t plan to see her now that I am back. But she’s a survivor Rex.  Bitches always are.

(Suddenly ebullient)

Can you believe they were expecting me tomorrow, those guys? They are making a film about me, did I tell you. It’s going to be a hit. I am very famous you know, in England. And in Germany. I am very big in Berlin. I can’t believe I gave them the wrong date. Just as well you let me use the phone so that I could call. They will be here any time now. 

REX: You are most welcome sir. 

DAMBUDZO: And can you believe that guy. William the Conqueror, fancy him being the first person I see, out of everyone. He is an old boy. And an odd boy. 

(Speaking confidingly to Rex)

He was always a bit dull. A plodder and a dabbler. All this Shona this, Shona that, going on and on about the nobility of the language. Good fellow though. A limited but a good fellow. Clever too, very academic. It’s why we called him William the Conqueror, he got lots of prizes.  


Rex, you can’t imagine how it feels. It’s like I have woken up from a dream in a strange place to find myself here.  And to be here too with my new book. Shall I read it to you. 

(Gets his book)

It starts off with this Chief, and his men are chucking these spears and he has this huge erection, almost as big as he is and this guy who is having the spears chucked at him, I call him Christian, is in trouble because he has laughed at the Chief’s erection and …  

OFF STAGE: Hey Dambudzo, there you are. 

DAMBUDZO: Good God. There you are. And here I am.

He gulps his drink and takes his duty-free bag and suitcase. He leaves behind a now empty bottle of rum and WILLIAM’S manuscript. He disappears into a crowd of voices off stage. Then he runs back to get his hand luggage bag and seeing William’s lighter, looks at it for a moment and puts it in his pocket. As he walks off again, he lifts his arms in the air, and turns back to Rex.

I am home Rex. I really am back home. For the first time in eight years, I’m home. 

REX: Sir, your bill, your bill, sir. And you forgot your papers. 

Silence. DAMBUDZO is gone. REX picks up the manuscript and runs off to follow but doesn’t catch up with him. When he returns, WILLIAM has come back.

WILLIAM: I think I left my lighter behind. One of these refillable ones.  It’s heavy, solid silver, quite valuable. Quickly please, my Minister has had to go on without me.  

REX: Your friend took it with him Comrade Sir. 

As WILLIAM is about to move off.

REX: Your friend didn’t pay his bill, Comrade Sir.

WILLIAM: (Chuckles and shakes his head as he hands REX a 5-dollar bill)  Here. So it’s true what they say, that Marechera never pays a bill if he can help it. 

REX: Saka ndiye Dambudzo Marechera mbune. I read his book. 

WILLIAM: (Curtly) So you said. 

REX: He offered to pay with his second one, maybe I should have taken it. 

WILLIAM: Just as well you didn’t. You would have committed a criminal offence if you read it. 

REX: Sir?

WILLIAM: His book, this ‘Black Sunlight’, it’s been banned.

REX: Who banned it?

WILLIAM: The Censorship Board. It cannot be printed, imported, purchased, sold or otherwise distributed in Zimbabwe. That book will not be read by anyone here. He’s just lucky no one thought to search him, they’d have taken it from him.

REX: Well no-one seems to have told him, sir.

WILLIAM: Oh he’ll find out soon enough. I‘m just glad that I‘m not the one who has to tell him. 

REX: He left this behind.  

He hands WILLIAM the manuscript, who looks at it with an expression of anger on his face. WILLIAM exists, leaving REX alone on stage. 

REX: I got my things and left. That’s just what he did. He got his things and left. Hey. Inga pane basa. 

(He laughs)

But kanamba kanofamba aka. 

He turns up the volume on ‘Gypsy Girl’, looks around to make sure no one is watching, and starts an energetic dance as he wipes down surface of the bar. The music plays out the first act. 

The author is grateful to Flora Veit-Wild, Ben Williams and The Marechera Trust for permission to use the title of Dambudzo Marechera’s novel Black Sunlight as the play’s title, and for permission to quote extensively from his work.

  • Petina Gappah is a novelist and playwright. Her latest book, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, is published by Faber. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo credit: Dambudzo Marechera at the entrance of his flat, Harare – March 1986. Copyright the Dambudzo Marechera Trust.

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