A muscular man in military fatigues and a red beret stands holding a hunting rifle over a prone woman.
The actress playing the helpless villager wakes up, letting out a piercing scream.
“Finish them,” shouts another soldier to gasps from the stunned audience as a summary execution is played out before their eyes.
A new play, “1983: the Dark Years,” is rekindling memories of one of Zimbabwe’s most painful episodes: the “Gukurahundi” massacres, in which thousands of people were slaughtered at the height of the Mugabe era.
That the play is being performed in Zimbabwe at all testifies to the free expression that has blossomed since former president Robert Mugabe resigned last November.
Since then, theatres have staged audacious productions that have both poked fun at officials past and present as well as seeking to shine a light on their alleged misdeeds.
Previously such productions would have been harassed by the government and its supporters or banned outright.
But the fact that a play about Gukurahundi — a term that means “the rains which wash away the chaff” — has been tolerated by officials is even more striking.
Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is widely held to have been involved in the bloody campaign.
The operations, supervised by Mnangagwa who was then the security minister, were intended to crush dissidents in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces but spiralled into a series of civilian massacres.
The 1982-87 crackdown was widely seen as an effort by then-prime minister Mugabe to vanquish his ally-turned-foe, the ethnic Ndebele liberation leader Joshua Nkomo.
Mugabe always refused to apologise for the killings — 20,000 mostly Ndebele victims according to some estimates — by the army’s now-disbanded North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, describing it merely as “a moment of madness”.
‘TALKING ABOUT THIS IS TROUBLE’
Past mentions of the violence, including a report into the killings by the Catholic church and an art installation, drew angry reactions and bans from the government.
Mnangagwa in January insisted that Zimbabwe should look to the future, not the past, when asked about the killings during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“1983” begins with a female character played by 28-year-old actress Proficience Cadder digging into her past after learning that she is the daughter of a soldier who raped her mother at the height of the violence.
“Talking about this is trouble enough already my daughter,” she is warned by her uncle who was there to witness the atrocities. “Forget about it.”
He then described in graphic detail how the soldiers forced the mother of Cadder’s character to kill her own baby.
“You may never know your father unless and until he comes here to this village and says ‘where are my children’,” said the uncle.
The play unusually blends the distressing narrative with elements of song, dance and even humour to recount the dark period of Zimbabwe’s history.
Written by Bhekumusa Moyo in 2011, the play was banned by the government the following year and was only unbanned following Mugabe’s resignation.
‘WE ARE LISTENING’
“There are so many children from Matabeleland who, up to today, they do not know their backgrounds. It affects their living,” director Adrian Musa told AFP.
“Many children from Matabeleland were affected by Gukurahundi — even now they are affected.”
Audience member Bester Moyo, who grew up in Matabeleland’s largest city Bulawayo, said the play had brought back bitter memories of the suffering she endured along with her family.
“We were so troubled during that time as a family that we fled to live in the bush in pits, our property was destroyed. We became destitute,” she said.
“I was young but I still have the vivid memories… it is not enough to say I am sorry.”
Davies Guzha, a director of Harare’s Theatre in the Park where the play was staged, said that Gukurahundi needed to be discussed openly.
The Theatre in the Park was also responsible for staging “Operation Regasi”, a comic play that mocked Mugabe’s final months in power.
“We believe we are doing the right thing. We believe that the discussion around Gukurahundi was long overdue,” he said.
During one performance of “1983”, Guzha introduced the audience to Sello Nare — a retired judge who will chair the government’s recently-announced national peace and reconciliation commission that will investigate the Gukurahundi massacres.
“We are listening. We have heard what has been said and all what the play is all about,” said Nare.