Speaking of loss and hair in The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri

Tony Miyambo. Photograph courtesy So Solo Festival, Wits University.

Tony Miyambo. Photograph courtesy So Solo Festival, Wits University.

Loss is central to who we are as human beings. It is the ever-threatening fragile hinge that makes us hold tight to our loved ones: and the spice that makes the time we spend with them so achingly precious.  Enter Tony Miyambo, a dignified, under-stated performer who has a sense of deliberateness in his articulation that offers his work compelling prescience.

The idea of loss is magnificently extrapolated in The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, a piece brought to life with collaborative engagement. Repetition forms a kind of Beckettian chorus in the work’s language, touching as it does on how memories, people, ideas, numbers can lose themselves and blur into an overriding obscurity. Central to the narrative is a son mourning his father taken by a stroke.

Without becoming crude or medically explicit, the work confronts the idea of a brain attack, where the gate to a person’s knowledge and values, sensibility and persona can become physiologically locked and that person can become irreparably lost in their own head and body. Geographies of the city, the house, are described with broad brush strokes, but ones which resonate with visual touchstones.

The tale’s life blood and humour, like that underlining the narrative in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, is hair. Indeed: this play should run in conjunction with the hair exhibition currently on show at the Wits Art Museum: ‘s’ curls, dreads, being killed by burning chemicals, having your hair as your crowning glory: everything about hair is intrinsic to this piece.

It’s an intimate yet universal work, made all the more compelling with a curious yet theatrically fresh use of wooden blocks on a table, arranged and re-arranged to form a city, a metropolis, a cemetery, a miniature reflection on urban busyness. This microcosm of the main protagonist’s world is both robust enough to be tossed hither and yon and fragile enough to break apart at will. It’s a beautiful device, knocked into focus by its clean simplicity.

Sadly, two elements in this work bruise it quite badly and make your engagement with a really wonderful text and performance very difficult: the lighting and the venue.

At a certain point in the piece, a light, constructed to illuminate the miniature set on the table blasts directly into the eyes of the audience. It depends on where you are seated, but that’s a difficult decision to take before the work begins. Shining a light into the eyes of the audience makes them close their eyes. And having them close their eyes might put them in danger of falling asleep. This work is too visceral and tight and big and well conceived to suffer this consequence.

And the venue, Wits theatre aficionados will know as this complex’s worst. It used to be an open air theatre in the 1980s. Later, it was brought into the internal structure of the theatre with a roof and a couple of cushions on the concrete bleachers. It’s neither comfortable nor kind to the production: if you’re not a lithe twenty-year-old, it’s hard on the body and this too can affect your engagement with a work that has the wherewithal to soar beyond petty physicalities.

Physiological challenges aside, The Cenotaph of Dan Moriri celebrates real skill in its writing, collaborative engagement and performance. And if you have known loss in any of its multifarious permutations, it will touch you deeply.

The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri is created by Tony Miyambo and Gerard Bester in collaboration with William Harding. It is performed by Tony Miyambo, directed by Gerard Bester and features dramaturgy by William Harding and design by Julian August (lighting); Phala Ookeditse Phala (set). Part of the Wits So Solo Festival, it performs at the Amphitheatre on October 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18 and 19.

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