Philip Dikotla recently completed a run of his play ‘Skierlik’ at the Soweto Theatre. The work has received much attention and acknowledgement since its professional debut at last year’s National Arts Festival, but it’s not without flaws and it is curious as to why it seems no one is helping this work develop into something really great.
Your biggest challenges in watching Skierlik are its one dimensionality and its pacing. It tells the horrible and true story of a racist fanatic young Afrikaans-speaking farmer, descending one day in January 2008, out of the blue, gun at hand on Skierlik, an informal settlement in the North West Province. He killed at least four people.
Soon’s the story’s impact is declared, it vanishes. Other than a focus on the eye of the narrator through which the story is told, there’s no character development, no nuance, no pondering of reasons behind this atrocity. In many ways, the horror becomes as small a blip on the radar as it tragically probably was at the time, in the news.
So, how does one tell of a horrible event onstage? Tom Fontana invested wisdom, humour and poetry into the bad men he scripted in the TV series Oz. As did the writers of Yizo Yizo, screened several years ago on SABC. The writers of A Human Being Died That Night, onstage recently, walked this thin path too. We must look evil square in the eye, even or especially if it fries our brains and moral instincts.
But further, the pacing of Dikotla’s words – while it may sparkle in the stand-up comedy format, for which he’s known – in the context of relating a story that horrifyingly damages an understanding of what life means to those who stand in the wake of a shooting of this nature, it doesn’t gel. There is no build up, no climaxes, no ebb, no flow. The words are beautiful, but they roll out with such a regularity that the drama falls between them. And with it, the narrative’s impact shatters.
And that is all: the work is without a set; the performer wears industrial overalls, everything for this work to fly is contingent on the content and delivery of the story.
My perplexity comes to a head in reflection on responses Skierlik has garnered from the industry itself. While it’s fabulous that 24-year-old Dikotla has the drive, courage and spunk to take the event, which touched him, as an 18-year-old, and steer it not only onto community stages, where it first saw light of day, but to the National Arts Festival and beyond, the work needs help. Before it needs awards. Or unmitigated praise.
In 2012, Dikotla won the Arts and Culture Trust Impact Award for Theatre. Last year, Skierlik was play of the year in the Zabalaza Community Theatre Festival and it’s an easily traveller, which makes it appealing for would be funders. But the laudatory awards and money floodgates should help to grow a work to greatness, and not yet let its maker rest on his laurels.
Its story it hits you in the face and then stops. Dikotla as a writer and a performer, with a tweak here and a nudge there, surely can make his audiences feel hit in the face, but also turned inside out and ravaged and forever scarred by a tale told well.