A play that makes the world turn on an avocado

Fruit

Lucy and me: Matshediso Mokoteli embraces the harrowing tale of Paul Noko’s ‘Fruit’ with wisdom and depth. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

A YOUNG girl quietly talks of life, the universe and everything to her plastic doll, with the kind of illogical quietude and gentle give-and-take that little children adopt when in conversation with their toys. Thus opens arguably one of the most powerful, well defined and  ingenious plays that we in this city have been privileged to see, in a long time. Paul Noko’s Fruit brings together all the central principles of grand theatre in this low-budget, taut work, where the main grown-up protagonists are stones with faces drawn onto them, and an urban geography is cast by small cartons and pieces of community detritus.

But avocados will never be the same again. In a tour de force performance which recalls what Lara Foot did to the understanding of a cabbage leaf in Karoo Moose and what Lionel Newton and Andrew Buckland did to the understanding of a watermelon in The Well Being, 19-year-old performer Matshediso Mokoteli renders the humble avocado a repository of hope and violence, terrible cruelty and great loss.

As you take your seat in the audience, you are immediately and irrevocably plunged into the quirky chilling blend of fantasy and reality that unfolds in the whimsical portrayal of a community in an informal settlement. The characters are well developed and curious. Their interface is about the camaraderie that comes of living with scant resources, but also of being in the proverbial same boat as your neighbour. And the trajectory is an unstoppable one which you know will end with tears and horror, but you can’t look away.

There’s ugliness and drunkenness and loss and brokenness, but there’s also beauty and felicitation. And there’s a baby, who suffers the horrors of neglect, abandonment and abuse in the most harrowing context. But the whole trajectory of this baby’s life is relayed in a sing-song frankness, which not only embraces it with the kind of sophistication that doesn’t allow you to turn away even through accounts of incest and arson, but rather it mesmerises you to your moral core.

This is the kind of play which defines powerful storytelling in the least sensationalist and wisest way possible. In so doing, it soars above and beyond the notion of artifice, as it conveys the nub and texture of the horror yet joy of life in an indigent society. There is no romanticising of poverty here, no political grandstanding. The story is told as it happens, and this frank splaying of happenings makes it sing.

  • Fruit is written and directed by Paul Noko. It is performed by Matshediso Mokoteli and was the winner of the Zabalaza Theatre Festival in Cape Town in 2015. It enjoyed a short season earlier this month at the Pop Arts Theatre, in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg.
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I see you: the voice of a new generation

'I See You' Play by Mongiwekhaya performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, UK

Hey Wena! Buthelezi (Desmond Dube) takes on Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi). Photograph by Alastair Muir.

How well do you know your own history? Would you be able to talk to it under scary scrutiny by a cop with a past replete with anger? With this premise, playwright Mongiwekhaya makes his debut in a beautifully constructed piece of theatre which feels like the opening lines of a brand new chapter in South African narrative.

Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi) is a 19-year-old law student at Wits University. He’s armed with the casual high-spiritedness of youth, his virginity and a personal history which took him out of the South African context as a very young child. Skinn (Jordan Baker) is about the same age. Does she turn tricks or is she just a good-time girl? We don’t get to find out.

Their rendezvous is intruded upon by members of the South African police who are on a mission, and Ben and Skinn just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, forcing Ben into a terrifying merry-go-round of mockery, brutality and cultural identity. This hard-edged piece of work cuts deep into an understanding of contemporary politics, fears and vulnerabilities. It features a smooth cleavage between performance and script – the work is well-written, the characters, satisfyingly three-dimensional and the narrative boldly constructed.

Similar in many respects to Steven Sidley and Kate Sidley’s recently staged play Shape, I See You offers potent and important insight into what it means to be a young South African right now, 22 years after democracy and Mongiwekhaya takes no prisoners in flaying open the issues of black privilege as he looks on abandoned roots and history of resentment.

It’s a high octane, visually minimal set, which is dotted with choreographic moments and a dj, that from the outset feels like a novelty that doesn’t really contribute to the work. Looking beyond a red herring of a prologue which sets a night club scene, you will find extremely fine performances by Desmond Dube as Buthelezi as well as Gbadamosi and Jordan, as you will find an engagement with the audience and the space and the narrative which belies the youth of the performers.

While the cast does seem unnecessarily large, there’s a maturity in the unpacking of this fresh young tale that offers hope to the theatre industry going forward. This is the voice of theatre’s future: it’s bold, it’s bare and it knows where it is going.

  • Read further social commentary on I See You here.
  • I See You is written by Mongiwekhaya and directed by Noma Dumezweni. It features design by Soutra Gilmour (set); Richard Howell (lighting); Luyanda Sidiya (movement); and Giles Thomas (sound) and it is performed by Jordan Baker, Desmond Dube, Bayo Gbadamosi, Austin Hardiman, Sibusiso Mamba, Amaka Okafor and Lunga Radebe. The work is a collaboration between the Market Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre in London, and it performs at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre Complex in Newtown until May 1. Call 0118321641 or visit co.za

And now for something completely shapely

shape

MUSCULAR MAYHEM: Stuart (Craig Hawks), Stella (Camilla Waldman) and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze) test their steel. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Whatever else we may be, South African society has become virtually paralysed by the godalmighty demon of political correctness. Enter writers Steven Sidley and Kate Sidley. Not playwrights, but highly skilled and creative professionals, they have put all the mumbo jumbo of new fitness lingo and a whole gamut of potentially derogatory terminology into a splinteringly fine theatrical mix which braces like a tonic.

Featuring scalpel-like retorts which tear into the South African context with utter hilarity and scant mercy, the text ripples with wisdom and poetry, but more than just that, it’s a well-developed, satisfyingly structured piece of brand new theatre that should not be missed.

The context is an upmarket gym in Johannesburg. The characters, Stella (Camilla Waldman), Stuart (Craig Hawks) and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze) are carefully fleshed out stereotypes that reflect astutely on a viable cross-section of South African society. Well-crafted, they’re characters you would recognise in any gym: The do-gooder human rights worker, in her late 40s, Stella is trying to bounce back from a divorce. Stuart is an advertising executive labelled ‘sensitive’ by his parents when he was a child, who is vehemently still fighting to win back his masculinity and as much casual sex (with girls) as he can get. Vusi is a young maverick, with a privileged education and a street savvy that will make your head spin.

The gym, premised physically and contextually between the universal emblems for male and female lavatories, fits into the core of this niftily constructed and delicious work. It’s the context for not only an utterly hilarious extrapolation of the bleak and grotesque mysteries of the male or female cloakrooms, but it’s also the repository for some astonishingly blunt and fabulous political incorrectness, in the field of everything from fat-shaming to homophobic jibes and crude racism. Armed with all the tools of our confused society, this play never teeters into abject silliness or even offensiveness: the writing is crisp, the performances convincing and tight, and the whole narrative completely compelling.

The work features a “disembodied voice” played by Zimkitha Kumbaca, which does lend a small red herring to it, however: Kumbaca sits in the audience; the stage presence of her voice begins as a public address system, but slips into the folds of the characters’ conversation. While it is scripted to say some really pertinent things, its existence is not meaningfully developed. Is this an inner dialogue that the audience is privy to? Is it the voice of conscience? You don’t get to find out.

While Shape won’t have the longevity of a classic, or the universality to travel the world, it goes admirably head to head with a refreshing boldness for any curious South African, grappling sensibly and wittily with the verbiage and garbage and potholes in which we find ourselves today. And it will make you laugh. A lot. In spite of – or because of – the morass into which South Africa has tumbled.

  • Read this piece on Shape as well, here.
  • Shape is written by Steven Boykey Sidley and Kate Sidley and directed by Greg Homann. Featuring design by Denis Hutchinson, it is performed by Nyaniso Dzedze, Craig Hawks, Zimkitha Kumbaca and Camilla Waldman at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until April 16. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za