Rough diamonds and ‘Kullid’ identity

Sweet drunk: Kelly Eksteen embraces the stereotypes of Colouredness at full throttle. Photograph courtesy Leonie Ogle.

Sweet drunk: Kelly Eksteen embraces the stereotypes of Colouredness at full throttle. Photograph courtesy Leonie Ogle.

What does it mean to be Coloured in contemporary South Africa, backgrounded as it is by a context replete with all manner of insulting histories and stereotypes, which teeter between hilarity and deep tragedy, simultaneously? Young theatre practitioners Leonie Ogle and Kelly Eksteen have cast this curious and rich identity under their collective loupe, realising Kullid.

It’s a new work, segueing three historical and theatrical texts that tease the Coloured phenomenon apart, which are laced with a concoction of everything from beer to methylated spirits, and which offer the construction of Sofia (played by Kelly Eksteen), a character who carries the three tales with an engaging sense of exuberance, threading hilarity with tragedy in a way which often finds you laughing at the deep sadness – not because you’re inherently callous, but rather because of how the characteristic Coloured ethos is handled: as with Yiddish narrative where there’s a motif called a tragic story – a bittere gelegte – which is self-deprecating and wise, self-mocking and sad and hilarious, all at the same time.

Eksteen is a supple performer, who moves fabulously in sync with the lurid colours of Coloured slang. Her performance is slightly hurt, however, by her lack of nuance in her interpretation. All of her characters are handled full blast, and the casualty is sometimes the clarity of the language, and the narrative and context it describes.

The work’s unequivocal gem is an interpretation of a young Coloured child, central to the piece: Eksteen embodies the crispy innocence of this child with such developed and empathetic veracity, it is like watching magic unfold and time reverse before your eyes. The other two characters are handled with too much of a similar technique for them to be distinguished; ultimately, you are left with a generalised smearing over of Coloured idiosyncrasy rather than as devastating and crafted an approach as we see with the child.

Eksteen is the kind of performer you want to see stretch her interpretative acumen in surprising directions. She embraces the flaws and faults of her own people with a brilliant and authentic sense of alacrity and directness, and Kullid is a deliciously entertaining production which feels alas too brief. But in line with much of the pickings of the So So1o festival, so far this year, there’s been a tendency to focus on identity. It’s an obvious but not unengaging solution to the festival’s defining parameters, but hopefully next year, and as this festival grows to maturity, more metaphor and nuance will filter into its programme.

  • Kullid is written and directed by Leonie Ogle, based on texts by Oscar Peterson and Heinrich Reisenhofer (Suip), Lueen Conning (A Coloured People) and Rehane Abrahams (What the Water Gave Me). It is designed by Leonie Ogle and Kelly Eksteen and performed by Kelly Eksteen, as part of the 2015 So So1o Festival at the University of the Witwatersrand theatre complex.
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