Advocacy Theatre

Horror, in the mouths of babes

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AVERT your gaze from this atrocity. The cast of ‘Eclipsed’ at the Market Theatre. Photograph by Hoek Swaratlhe.

IT IS A great rarity for a theatrical work to be able to touch the nub of a complex issue that bruises a society, with potency, conviction and directness. It is even a greater rarity when the work in question is the product of unseasoned performers. And while you may lean back in your chair and murmur ‘that’s the role of the director’, you’d be only half right. Eclipsed: Phifalo Ya Ngwedi is one of those productions which speaks to the very core of corruption in our society, with the unwavering and fierce voice of the youth: the ones who may indeed be capable of changing the world.

In 2015, arguably one of this country’s most shameful moments began to unfold. One-hundred-and-forty-four psychiatric patients, formerly homed at the Life Esidimeni centre, in Randburg, north of Johannesburg, were moved to unlicensed non-government organisations across the province of Gauteng. Most of these patients, unable to defend themselves or even to describe the levels of cruelty, neglect and abandonment to which they were being subject, died ignominious, lonely and by all forensic accounts, painful, brutal deaths.

When the Life Esidimeni scandal broke in the media, the cast members of Eclipsed were young teenagers, in junior high school. The work which they brought to life, engaging with all the issues surrounding loss and disability, disempowerment and the facts that appeared in the newspapers, was adult and honest, sophisticated, important and hard hitting. Director Sylvaine Strike brings her characteristic magic to the work, but has infused every one of these young students with a gripping sense of empathetic ownership, of the work and of their position in the world when this horror was happening.

But more than just a conveyor of a message, this play encapsulates the eerie muscularity of choral work as it offered a segueing of choreographic wisdom, the sinister reuse of mundane objects such as lever arch files, and a deep understanding of the potency of the names of the dead. All of these elements cohere to give the work a sense of sacredness but also a sense of accountability.

You may have seen this group of first year Market Theatre Lab students performing in Koleka Putuma’s play No Easter Sunday for Queers, but in Eclipsed, their cohesion and coherence is ratcheted several levels higher. The work echoes elements of the narrative finesse and layering in William Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission and the surreal energy in Xoli Norman and Sue Pam-Grant’s operatic work of 2009, Guard on Shift in terms of how it shapes and reshapes the space of the theatre, giving you a sense of the decay of hospital bureaucracy and of the horror of being vulnerable and abandoned.

And yet, armed with rude implements, such as the disused lever arch files and chalk, a sense of weird magic is invoked and bottled in this work. The files become great winged harbingers of badness. And the names, written in unabashed handwriting become ciphers of mourning to those bereft and those whose lives were lost.

The season of Eclipsed: Phifalo Ya Ngwedi in September of this year was very brief. The performers are students and their other curriculum needs muscled their way into the time frame, as they do. But the work was seen by enough people – stakeholders in different projects that touch the work’s focus – for it to see light of day again. Don’t miss it, at all costs: These youngsters are the professional giants of next generation’s theatre industry. You will remember their names.

  • Eclipsed: Phifalo Ya Ngwedi is directed by Sylvaine Strike and written in collaboration with the creative team and cast. Featuring creative input by Gina Shmukler (text development and voice); Phumlani Mndebele (choreography), Sylvaine Strike and Andrea van der Kuil (set) and Andrea van der Kuil (costumes), it performed by the 2019 first year Market Theatre Laboratory students: Chaunees Bokaba, Siphesihle Fakude, Scout Fynn, Rethabile Headbush, Moagi Kai, Thuthukani Lombo, Amukelani Mabaso, Tebogo Malapane, Kgothatso Makwala, Tshepo Matlala, Melusi Molefe, Kgomotso Moshia, Sydney Ndlovu, Okuhle Ngxe, Nicola Niehaus, Lesedi Nkosi, Philangezwi Nxumalo, Asime Nyide, Pretty-Boy Sekhoto and Khanyisile Zwane at the Ramolao Makhene Theatre, Market Theatre square in Newtown, Johannesburg for a very brief season in September.
  • It will be performed during May 2020 at a two-day conference on trauma-informed practice in schools, hosted by Bellavista School in Birdhaven, Johannesburg.
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