A few years ago, playwright May Sumbwanyambe sat down to watch The Last King of Scotland with his father. The film tells the story of a white Scottish physician who finds himself embroiled in African politics after he treats the former Ugandan leader Idi Amin.
“How did we become comfortable with stories being told like that?” Sumbwanyambe recalls thinking. “No other black man in the film has any agency apart from Idi Amin.”
Sumbwanyambe’s new play After Independence opens at the Arcola Theatre this month. The play aims to shine a spotlight on the deeper complexities of power and politics in post-independence Zimbabwe.
As a playwright, it is details that interest Sumbwanyambe, what he calls “the tangled web you’re allowed to weave together in the theatre” that draw out nuance to encourage a more balanced conversation around African politics.
Sumbwanyambe’s father was himself the physician to the first president of Zambia, so stories of what it means to be black and free have always been part of the playwright’s consciousness.
And although childhood visits to family in Zimbabwe and Zambia have fuelled the material of the play, it wasn’t until the concept of independence touched his own life that Sumbwanyambe decided to write about post-colonial Africa.
Born in Scotland but raised in Yorkshire, Sumbwanyambe was not eligible to vote in the Scottish independence referendum but was nonetheless confronted with the question of identity.
“I have always ticked the box Black-British,” he says. “But now I might have to choose between Black-English or Scottish.”
It was this that led him to think about its parallel in his father’s country. Sumbwanyambe was in Zimbabwe when white farmers saw their land forcibly confiscated without compensation. This created an even more complex political scene in which corruption was rife, and generations of different classes and races sought justice.
“It’s so much more complicated than saying it’s just Mugabe,” he says of some journalism’s tendency to oversimplify.
Sumbwanyambe came to writing relatively late, having completed his undergraduate degree in law. But now he increasingly finds questions of jurisprudence creeping into his work.
“I want to look at these stories in a nuanced and balanced way,” he says. “I’m not in interested in buffoonish black dictators.”
After Independence is at Arcola Theatre, E8 3DL until 28 May