Robyn Sassen

One puff and all resistance crumbles into hell


CAUGHT between the devil and the deep blue sea. Zenzo Msomi is Sipho. Photograph courtesy

LIGHT FROM HAND-HELD torches tears striations in the theatre’s darkness, causing great big unfriendly shadows to loom against the walls as the police take the suspect down. Stage smoke is choreographed to rest and swell with a discomfiting energy as the dealer and his ‘victim’, the ‘cheese boy’ smoke. The stage is crafted in red, white and black, with the frame of a metal bed and several red plastic chairs comprising the set. The tone of Ulwembu is cast with fierce focus and unrelenting directness. It is a tale of street drugs told in the context of community values, that is crafted to soar amongst the most noble of theatrical constructs.

Directed with a muscularity and sense of conviction, this beautifully researched and deeply felt performance takes advocacy theatre which talks to the man on the street to a level that is considerably deeper and theatrically more developed than convention dictates. Normally, you might hear the words ‘community theatre’ or ‘advocacy drama’ and shrink away from the product’s aesthetic value, understanding it to be a mere one-dimensional extrapolation of bald ideologies.

But the adjective ‘mere’ doesn’t fit in any understanding of this poignant and hard hitting play about Sipho Mthembu (Zenzo Msomi), the 16-year-old son of a woman police lieutenant (Mpume Mthombeni). Painting a portrait of the South African street drug commonly known as whoonga or nyaope (a lethal concoction of various substances including rat poison, soap powder and antiretrovirals, it is often mixed with tobacco or dagga and smoked), the play is subtle and not gentle as it crafts a web of horror connecting the need of the dealer with a vulnerable youngster, a police officer and everything from xenophobic terror to the nauseating splay of addiction, which starts as one small experimental puff that opens a chasm of pain and destruction. And the more pain there is, the more the need for yet another puff. It’s a tale of money and torsion, of blackmail and the agony of a mother.

It’s a beautifully cast piece and arguably the standout performance is Mthombeni’s. She’s a woman with a very photogenic physical presence. She’s tough and she’s disciplined, as a cop, but when she’s confronted with the most horrendous nightmare that any mother could contemplate, she doesn’t resort to histrionics. Her sense of shock is so rich with realness that your mouth goes dry in empathy.

Told in both English and isiZulu, the work is magnificently constructed to tell a tale with piercing clarity. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand either language, the momentum of the work is crafted with nuance and heart but without allowing itself to sweeten the edges of this bitter reality.

Ulwembu, a spider’s web in isiZulu is an immensely significant piece of South African theatre. Not only because it takes advocacy material up many notches in the theatre construct, but also because, similar to initiatives conducted by Benoni-based theatre company Sibikwa, it melds an understanding of the people and the play. Set in KwaMashu, an area of KwaZulu-Natal, Ulwembu is performed by several professionals who call KwaMashu home. This is their story – or the story of their loved ones. And it must be heard.

  • Ulwembu is co-created by Ngcebo Cele, Neil Coppen, Vumani Khumalo, Dylan McGarry, Zenzo Msomi, Mpume Mthombeni, Phumlani Ngubane and Sandile Nxumalo and directed by Neil Coppen. It is performed by Ngcebo Cele, Vumani Khumalo, Zenzo Msomi, Mpume Mthombeni, Phumlani Ngubane and Sandile Nxumalo at the Hillbrow Theatre, 14 Kapteijn Street in Hillbrow until January 26 and on January 27 at Wedgewood Gardens. Visit

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