Children's Theatre

Magic in a tree at the National Children’s Theatre

Telling it to the kids: Mamohato Askew with Paige Schmidt, Boitumelo Phaho and Nandipha Backler. Photograph supplied.

Telling it to the kids: Mamohato Askew with Paige Schmidt, Boitumelo Phaho and Nandipha Backler. Photograph supplied.

There’s a certain kind of magic that comes of nostalgia onstage; it needs to be nipped in the bud before it sinks into maudlin silliness or utter irrelevance. When grownup nostalgia is mixed with child audiences, the dangers are obvious: you could lose their attention in a slippery self-indulgent jiffy. But magic really does happen in the presence of a baobab tree created for another project by Stan Knight, which the theatre inherited; and some quick thinking around storytelling models on the part of director Francois Theron makes Under the Baobab Tree have the infectious potential of a child’s classic. <<A version of this review appears in the SA Jewish Report of September 5. Visit >>

It’s the kind of story that can embrace other stories. A good old man dies and he leaves the children in his community a great big treasure casket. It’s big. It’s heavy. And it’s filled with possibility. But maybe it is filled with a monster? After all, the script earnestly tells us that children know a monster can be anywhere.

Perhaps it is filled with money, and there’s a ruse in the tale that picks at this.

More significantly, the suitcase is a memory box of a whole range of triggers to happy memories. Including technology from the 1980s.

And the most important ingredient in all of this, is the music. From Johnny Clegg to Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba to Mango Groove, the sacred space created beneath the baobab tree is allowed to resonate beautifully with sound.

The production features three casts of three children, who lend it tone, cuteness and texture, but are tightly directed and not allowed to dominate. The telling of it is carried with precise and fleshed out performances, by the ilk of JT Medupe, Suzaan Helberg, Nonhla Mkhonto, Emkay Khanyile and Mamohato Askew, all of whom we have seen on this innovative little stage before.

While the absence of a tight choreographic hand is patent and bruises the show a little, it is the bright colours, sense of enthusiasm and genuinely fresh takes on old tales, from an African version of Cinderella, to a tale of a monster in a cupboard, to one of ant soccer that makes this play a joy.

More than all of this, Under the Baobab gives Afrikaans a voice. Helberg plays the kindly auntie who black kids in the audience roar at with mirth and disbelief when she uses a “white” body and a “white” voice to jive and click like the rest of them, in South African standards that will leave your eyes a little dewy.

There are tales of happily-ever-after, one with realistic and heartbreaking twists in its tail, and others bearing an unmistakable political thrust, but ultimately, this is a grand feel good show that instructs the littlies on how to celebrate themselves.

  •  Under the Baobab Tree, conceived and directed by Francois Theron and Sihle Ndaba, is designed by Stan Knight (set), Greg Angelo (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Mamohato Askew; Suzaan Helberg; Emkay Khanyile; JT Medupe; Nonhla Mkhonto; Mamohato Askew; as well as child performers: Nandipha Backler; Kopano Kutama; India Milne; Khawulani Myaka; Trent Kgodu Peta; Boitumelo Phaho; Paige Schmidt; Rufaro Shava; and Casey Watson. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 12. 

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