Aspiring to Give Zimbabweans a Voice

Danai Mandebvu
Danai Mandebvu would like to return to Zimbabwe one day and use her Hope education as a double major in theatre and global studies, with a concentration in global societies and cultures, to impact her community by cultivating a culture of transparency and agency through theatre.

Rising junior Danai Mandebvu’s dream to start a theater production company in her home country of Zimbabwe led her all the way to Washington, D.C., where she presented her plans as part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

“I would like to highlight Africans’ stories and tell them honestly from their perspectives to uplift and empower them [Africans] in a way they haven’t traditionally been,” said Mandebvu, referring to her theater company plans, which she pitched during the festival.

Mandebvu was one of only eight students selected from colleges and universities across the country as a National Aspire Arts Leadership Fellow for 2023, earning her an invitation to the national theater festival in D.C. this past April. While there, she participated in weeklong Aspire programming.

Aspire is designed to cultivate a new generation of artistic talent with a focus on engaging Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and members of other groups consistently underrepresented in the field. Mandebvu earned her spot as an Aspire fellow by participating in a series of Aspire workshops and courses where she presented how she planned to help her community through theatre.

She dreams one day of starting Kuda Kwedu Theatre Company in Zimbabwe. Kuda kwedu means “our will” in her mother tongue, Shona, as in “the will of the people.”

This nonprofit company would also give talented Zimbabwean artists a way to sustainably earn a living through the arts, something that is only possible for a rare few in her country, Mandebvu said.

“Our political history is rough, to put it lightly,” she added. “There’s no room for people to present their views or opinions — to tell their stories, especially stories that go against the political agenda at the time, but are honest.”

Zimbabwe was recognized as an independent nation in 1980. The new country experienced political and economic turmoil, which reached its peak during a coup in 2017. Mandebvu said, over the decades, millions of Zimbabweans were either forced or chose to leave because of these economic and political challenges.

“But they still want to participate in what’s going on in the country,” she said. “After I left Zimbabwe to come to Hope, I realized how little you can impact things from afar.”

She would like to return to Zimbabwe one day and use her Hope education as a double major in theatre and global studies, with a concentration in global societies and cultures, to impact her community by cultivating a culture of transparency and agency through theatre.

“Danai has embraced the concept of becoming a citizen artist, someone who uses their work to impact their community,” said Michelle Bombe, professor of theatre and chair of the department at Hope. “She’s really taken that to heart. I’m extremely proud of her.”

Mandebvu called her experience as an Aspire fellow in D.C. “transformative.” In the evenings, students went to different venues during the festival and attended a variety of performances, some of which were debuting.

During the day, Mandebvu and the other students attended workshops to discuss topics concerning equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism as well as leadership building.

“It was an honest, transparent space to get to know each other so well,” Mandebvu said. “Some very unpleasant experiences birthed our passions. How can we help? How can we be agents for change? We talked about how to uplift voices that traditionally haven’t been heard.”

One of the most valuable experiences was getting a behind-the-scenes look at all aspects of theatre and working with high-ranking theatre professionals who took time to share their expertise in the industry with the students.

Mandebvu said she was most inspired by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, vice president and artistic director of social impact at the Kennedy Center.

“He said he doesn’t have to sacrifice himself [his creativity] to be in this [more corporate] space because his goal is to uplift his community — wearing all these different hats [as a creative and working in a company] in the industry are the methods he uses,” she explained. “You must come back to what you value and your mission, thinking of yourself as an instrument to serve a community and a people.”

Mandebvu’s experiences at Hope College are preparing her well for her mission to bring about community change through theater. Hope College has given her the education she needed because of its supportive theatre department and the flexibility to incorporate global studies with a theatre major.

“Cultures fascinate me,” Mandebvu said. “The nature of the stories I want to tell in the future requires that I have more background knowledge of different people and cultures. Moving continents [from Africa to America] taught me so much about how our environment shapes us.”

On campus, Mandebvu has participated in “IMAGES: A Reflection of Cultures,” a celebration of the global cultures represented on campus. She has also written and performed spoken-word poetry at events organized by the Pan African Student Association and the Black Student Union, which focus on community building within the African and Black student communities on campus.

By far her biggest time commitment has been involvement in three different theatre productions on campus: The Wolves, exploring the intricacies of navigating female adolescence, identity and coming of age in a complicated world through a high school female soccer team; William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; and The Boy Who Hates Everything, a whimsical, playful production that combines original music, puppetry and elements of absurdist farce. In addition, she has been a full-time acting intern with Hope Repertory Theatre with roles in Three Little Birds, Tuck Everlasting and Rock of Ages.

“Danai has multiple gifts. She is a talented actor; her range is impressive,” Bombe said. “I commend her for her work as a scholar and student in our classroom as well. She ultimately brings forth the most creative, interesting, thought-out work.”

Bombe doesn’t only rave about Mandebvu’s many talents. She also deeply respects her as a person, noting that “she’s humble, kind and generous.” She has all the makings to fulfill her dream, Bombe said.