JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Zimbabwean actor Daves Guzha faced a challenge when he agreed to play the role of an African dictator loosely based on his country's president, Robert G. Mugabe:
What, he wondered, makes a leader like Mugabe, whose repressive regime has plunged his country into economic and political chaos, tick?
In his search for an answer, he pored through biographies, rode buses and stood in bread lines to hear citizens' complaints, studied the cadences of Mugabe's speech and explored nervous tics that he imagined might afflict an 80-year-old leader. Then, before rehearsals began, he watched a film for inspiration: Charlie Chaplin's 1940 satire of Adolf Hitler, The Great Dictator.
Guzha's portrayal of the African dictator in the play Super Patriots & Morons must have gotten something right because it so annoyed Mugabe's government that the production was banned.
Citing an entertainment control act passed in 1967, Zimbabwe's censorship board ordered the production shut down in May. It was the first play to be banned in the nation's history.
The ban was just the latest clampdown on Zimbabweans' ability to express themselves. Irked by widespread criticism from Zimbabwe's independent news media, Mugabe's government harassed and finally shut down the country's independent daily newspapers and has been debating the possibility of censoring the Internet.
With few other media outlets available, Zimbabweans have been left to get their news from state-run newspapers, television and radio dominated by anti-West, pro-government propaganda.
One of the few places for Zimbabweans to turn for independent voices is the theater, Guzha says.
"The last battle of Zimbabwe is being fought with the arts," says Guzha, who produced and stars in Super Patriots & Morons. A number of artists and musicians have chosen to flee rather than battle censors, including Thomas Mapfumo, who sang about the abuses of white rule before turning his lyrics against Mugabe. Mapfumo now lives in the United States.
For the artists who stayed, self-expression has been a cat-and-mouse game of testing the limits of government tolerance. Super Patriots & Morons was performed more than 20 times before government censors decided to ban it.
For all of the difficulties of working in Zimbabwe, Guzha says, there have been few moments in the country's history so rich with material.
"We have been given so much content. ... I could be creating a play every other day," Guzha says.
Not to be outdone, Mugabe's government continues to pour money into nationalistic concerts and television programming to win the hearts and minds of a disgruntled population.
If the ban of Super Patriots & Morons was expected to make the play disappear, it failed. Soon after the play was shut down, Guzha's phone started ringing with requests for performances elsewhere in Africa and in Europe.
This month the play found a new home in South Africa at Johannesburg's Market Theater, where it will run until the end of the month before moving to theaters in Norway and Sweden. The show's producers have appealed the ban in hopes of performing again in Zimbabwe.
Super Patriots & Morons tells the story of the graying dictator of an unnamed African country who rose to power overthrowing white colonial rulers but after decades of corruption and mismanagement lords over a population racked by hunger, unemployment and fuel shortages.
Haunted by imaginary ghosts and voices who question whether his people still support him, he cowers in fright in his presidential office.
"Look around you, you have failed! Throw in the towel if you care about the people. Go whilst there is still time!" the voices scream. Troubled by the possibility that he is no longer loved, the dictator dispatches an assistant to find out what the people think of him.
The assistant visits a poor township, where people seething with anger and frustration at their country's leaders wait in line for much of the day for bread or fuel.
There he meets a teacher, a pregnant mother, an unemployed young man and a ragged civil servant who all dream of someday changing their country.
"Picture this," the mother says, "Thousands or millions of people - children, mothers, pregnant women like me, unemployed men, the underpaid civil servants, everyone - marching toward Government Square beating our empty stomachs. Our containers raised high in the air, singing the song `Enough is Enough.'"
Although it would be hard not to mistake this country for Zimbabwe, the show's producers and writers say they were careful to leave it unnamed - not only to protect themselves from lawsuits, but to make a broader point about the lack of democracy in Africa.
"The idea was to tell a story that would be relevant throughout Africa," says Raisedon Baya, who co-wrote the play with Leonard Matsa. In writing the play he was inspired by what he saw going on day to day in Zimbabwe.
"I believe artists are supposed to mirror what's happening to the society," he says.