FORTY YEARS AGO the Market Theatre was established in Johannesburg. It was the same year as the Soweto Uprising. South Africa was suppurating in a mire of apartheid, to the backdrop of sanctions, disinvestment and states of emergency. Terrible people were doing terrible things. This period was the incubator for some of this country’s most articulate and outrageous and important protest theatre. Enter Jefferson Tshabalala and the theatre narrative continues in this generation with as much aplomb, bravery, terrifying hilarity and hilarious terror as you can stomach.
Secret Ballot is conceived and written for the Facebook-twitter-instagram generation, the young people who in a few weeks will be voting for the very first time in their lives. And it very skilfully weaves a flagrant thread of cynicism through all the currently trending political rhetoric, from the tenderpreneur to the permissiveness of an entitled middle class, coloured by its naivete and its inability to not have its attention frittered away by Pokemon GO.
Featuring “the Brotherhood”, four men with red gloves, shades and bling, offset against “Number One”, it’s a beautifully crafted, hard-hitting piece of theatre which goes chillingly close to the bone in touching the nuances, lies and twisted choreography around the truth, that we see in real life.
The work often has the momentum of a mob in itself, in terms of the political tints and tones it casts on everything from popular songs and slang to the national anthem, bringing in everything from sexual innuendo to hero worship in a way that gets its audience into a froth of enthusiasm.
Tracing the levels of corruption against the trajectory of the lives of contemporary political figures in South Africa, the work is not, however, two-dimensional. It speaks of children’s temptation to steal sugar as a metaphoric extrapolation on how an entitled society is born and grows, as it casts a powerful net of fresh and feisty political diatribe and satire for the next generation.
But this is no dull evening of clever words – the play is very cleverly woven into song, and the songs are splayed around the stage into some seriously funny choreography, backed by a diverse and interesting set, in which unfortunately the swings were only decorative, but the playground metaphors, bringing in childish songs like the nursery rhyme ‘Row, row, row, your boat…’ or clapping routines habitually practiced by toddlers and filtering them with economic, political or seriously sinister overtones.
There’s no happy closure to this roughly Orwellian play – you will leave it with your heart beating fast from the energy of the material, but your brain ticking over about the future. Having said that, more than the work as a self-standing play, this piece heralds a new generation of political satire. Jefferson Tshabalala: remember this guy: his work is important. And it’s brilliant.
- Secret Ballot is written and directed by Jefferson Tshabalala assisted by Mbali Malinga, with design by Karabo Legoabe (costumes and set) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting). It is performed by Zabalaza Mchunu, Tony Miyambo, Lereko Rex Mfono, Micheal Mazibuko and Tsietsi Morobi. It is part of the Wits 969 Festival and performs again on July 21 at 7pm in the Wits Downstairs Theatre. wits.ac.za/witstheatre/whats-on/969-festival/969-festival-programme-information/