THEATRE REVIEW: RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS
WITH A POTENT nod in the direction of the 1981 classic South African play, Woza Albert!, Mike van Graan’s Return of the Ancestors is a provocative essay on what has become of the world in which we exist. It offers a premise that brings two icons of South African society murdered under apartheid – Steve Biko and Neil Aggett – back to a world infested with stupid bureaucracy, riddled with hypocrisy.
And you may laugh the hollow laugh of recognition in this beautifully performed fierce indictment of the collapsing structures that would not recognise such enormous figures as Biko or Aggett and may indeed destroy them as they did in the dreadful 1970s. Both Katlego Chale and Tshepo Bugzito Seagiso shine in the complex physicality and rapid exchange of roles demanded by this work.
Rather than present a clear narrative unfolding, the work is represented in several scenarios in which the cast of two perform either Biko or Aggett or the contemporary South Africans they encounter, in their visit from heaven. It’s an interesting device which enables the work to be peppered with jabs at everyone, from Nelson Mandela to the xenophobic beggar in the street, and a good sense of balance is achieved here: just a little more staccato commentary, and the work would be a stand up comic show.
In one of the proffered vignettes, however, there is a lack of prescience. A Jew travelling to Israel encounters an Afrikaner and they speak of taking money out of the country in an underhand, dirty way. That generation of South Africans left the country literally decades ago, when it was still illegal to take money out of the country, and the value of the jibe articulated is not clear. No other white minorities are stereotyped as crudely in this work.
Featuring a very potent set with items of clothing hung through the space, like broken bodies, the work is eerie, but tight, and musically engaging. Like Woza Albert, Return of the Ancestors is a plea to the gods for help. It’s a portrait of a time which paints an image of a society riddled with dangerous foolishness. As a work it is generally cohesively written and skitters between humour and punches that cut very close to the bone. You occasionally find your smile freezing onto your face as you are taken where you don’t want to be – watching Marikana unfold and gazing it from Aggett or Biko’s point of view.
As is van Graan’s wont, this is another theatrical piece which is sharpened to a very direct point and a sense of hopelessness is articulated in this foray into the problems of the SABC and Eskom, the catastrophe of Nkandla and the embarrassing ignorance of our leaders. Humour coalesces with bitterness and the values offered, which you take away with you in your head and heart, are not pretty.
- Return of the Ancestors is written by Mike van Graan, and directed by Zimkitha Kumbaca. It features design by Noluthando Lobese (set and costumes), Namhla Blou (lighting) and Mandla Mkaba (sound). It is performed by Katlego Chale and Tshepo Bugzito Seagiso, at the Ramolao Makhene Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until 4 April 2020.