Botswana Lit: From Stage to Page to Screen

March 28, 2016

A Conversation with Donald Molosi

In January The Mantle published We Are All Blue, a collection of two plays by the Botswana actor and playwright Donald Molosi, including an introduction by Quett Masire, former president of Botswana. One of these plays, Blue, Black and White, is the longest-running one-man show in Botswana’s history and the first-ever Botswana play staged off-Broadway in New York City, for which Molosi won a best-actor award.   

Michelle Johnson: The Mantle has recently published a book, We Are All Blue, which consists of two of your plays. I understand that one of these two plays is about Botswana’s former president and is the subject of an upcoming film. Can you tell us a little bit about each play?

Donald Molosi: First of all, thank you for speaking to me about my work. I was fortunate enough to find a publisher, The Mantle, who had the vision to publish two of my off-Broadway plays in one volume. Blue, Black, and White is about the epic love story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, an interracial couple in 1940s England. The play is also a love letter to my nation’s transition from being a protectorate to being a republic exactly fifty years ago. The second play, Motswana: Africa, Dream Again, is my imagination of Africa without borders; it traces the pleasures and pitfalls of the past fifty years that Botswana has existed. Both plays mark the first time in Botswana that theater has gone from the stage to being a book and also the first plays ever about Botswana off-Broadway.

MJ: While bringing Botswana drama to off-Broadway with Blue, Black, and White, you won a best-actor award. The play has won several awards and been performed around the world. What chords is it striking?

DM: Blue, Black, and White moves people, I think, because it is a truly humanist real-life story that restores your faith in humanity. Since I also wrote it from the heart and did the necessary research on three continents for a decade, my performances of the story must have something sincere about them that, when coupled with professional performance, are moving. I speculate because only the audience knows what chords the show strikes with them.

MJ: This is the first print publication of Botswana drama. Can you tell us about the publishing scene in Botswana? Why is Botswana drama only now, in 2016, coming into print?

DM: There are plays that have been written in Botswana and about Botswana, but they did not move from the stage to the page the way I chose to do it. I like the plays to be edited by constant performance. The publishing scene in Botswana favors textbooks, and so it is extremely difficult to publish and sell nontextbook material in Botswana. What We Are All Blue offers is an opportunity to engage with Botswana of the past, present, and future at the same time.

MJ: How does being a performer inform your writing?

DM: I classically trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and I have been performing professionally literally for half of my life, so I am always conscious of creating texts that give the performer the opportunity to create. I am aware of the meter because I was trained with Shakesperean texts, for example. Also, I try to write characters that have depth and intrigue and complexity so that when actors embody the work, they are able to truly shine if they apply their tools well.

MJ: In an interview for CNNAfrica, you said that you feel a responsibility for making sure that you’re not an anomaly but seen as part of a broader pool in Botswana. Could you tell us about this literary pool? Who are other writers from Botswana we should be reading?

DM: There are many, and we all have such varying styles. Andrew Sesinyi, who wrote the first Botswana novel, is a joy to read. I have just reread a book called Very Brave or Very Foolish: Memoirs of an African Diplomat, by Sir Quett Masire, and it is a truly fantastic insight into Botswana. Another writer I respect is Lauri Kubuitsile, who was in fact shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. I am honored to have my books on the shelves alongside all these preternaturally talented writers who are also from Botswana.

MJ: Earlier in that same interview, while speaking about African identity, you drew a distinction between an “elastic identity” and “a little box.” Could you elaborate on that?

DM: I think that colonialism created a false narrative that Africans are all the same and can be put in a neat, reductive African box. That reductive and insulting perspective oversimplifies the African’s story and therefore oversimplifies the African’s humanity at least in the imaginary of the world. In actuality, however, to be African is to be multicultural, multilingual, and to be in a constant wrestle with the postcolonial condition. It is messy and beautiful and full of the richest of stories, and the stories of our past are what dare to expand our identities beyond the European-drawn borders. In that way, my identity as a Motswana is not confined to Botswana because the borders were drawn specifically to divide ethnic groups. It is an identity elastic beyond borders.

MJ: Last year you won the Bessie Head Short-Story Award. Are you working on a collection of short fiction?

DM: Yes, I am putting out one or two short stories a year for publication around the world, and in a few years I will be ready to publish a collection of the stories. But for now I believe in putting my fiction out on platforms where I get to edit the work with the readers’ reactions in mind. I was so honored to win the Bessie Head Award, and that provided a platform for me to pay attention to readers’ reactions as I go forward and refine the work.

MJ: What other projects are you working on now?

DM: I am having my directorial debut this year directing a new play by Kenyan actor John Sibi-Okumu. I am staging it through my company, Folk Tale Theatre Company. The play opens in April in Gaborone, and I am excited to be working on it with the really finest actors in Botswana. It is an honor for me, and I am learning a lot from the experience.

MJ: The US is in an election year. Former Botswana president Quett Masire wrote the foreword to your book. What leadership skill of Masire’s would you most like to see the next US president embody?

DM: Following the US presidential campaigns has been quite interesting to me partly because so much is at stake but also because of the theater of the whole affair. Rre Masire has a prudent and unifying leadership style that makes people want to love and visit Botswana. I hope the next US president will have the skill and prudence to heal US relations with the rest of the world, relationships which as we know are often charged with inequality, imperialism, intolerance, and so on.

MJ: When you were living in New York City and performing, to what extent did you engage with the city’s literary and theater culture?

DM: I am still extremely involved because it is through engagement with other artists that I grow. For example, I marched in protests all the time, I belonged to reading and writing groups, I attended many literary events. New York, when things are going well, has a lovely quality to make someone feel like they can do anything. I quite like that!

MJ: Where was your favorite place in the city?

DM: My heart is always in Harlem around where the Apollo is on 125th Street. All my dreaming and my longings happened there. That place is magical because it is so validating to someone like me, of African origin. The Harriet Tubman statue, the Ghanaian fabric, the Colin Powell statue in its fierce poise, the peppery Senegalese food . . . It is all exciting!

MJ: Where is the heart of Botswana’s literary scene? Its theater scene?

DM: It is hard to tell because the writerly community in Botswana is a very fragmented one. But I suppose the real incubators of the writing scene are literary workshops, which are always happening in the country despite getting little support.

MJ: To close, I have three questions I’m hoping you can answer in a word each: 1) What is your favorite play? 2) What are you reading now? and 3) What are you reading next?

DM: (1) Anowa by Ama Ata Aidoo; (2) Making Men in Ghana by Stephan Miescher; and (3) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. 

March 2016

Michelle Johnson is WLT's managing and culture editor.