And the kabeljou’s name was Elvis

BIG fishes for Johanna. Photograph courtesy

SHOLEM ALEICHEM COULD do this. As could Isaac Bashevis Singer. And in the vein of great Yiddish tales told through a humble cipher, this week, you will get to hear, in Afrikaans, the work of Hendie Grobbelaar which reflects a base yet deep and rich understanding of local colour, texture and energy that contains a tragic narrative, but offers delicate and rough insights into a broader community that will make you laugh and cry simultaneously. This is Johanna se Elvis which broadcasts this evening (5 November) on Radio Sonder Grense.

Johanna Apolis (Simoné Benjamin) is a champion fisher. She was raised by her father and was never schooled in the niceties of being a stereotypical girl child. Knowing better how to tie a line around her toe for stability than how to set a table or cook a stew, she’s tough and sardonic, yet loving and direct in her conversation at the helm of the fishing rod with her husband, Gert (Dann-Jacques Mouton). Replete with the kind of insults and jibes that you can only find in languages such as Afrikaans – or Yiddish – the material of this radio drama is clustered with delicious nuggets.

The work begins with almost vignettes of their conversation about life, fish and the universe, interjected with snatches of musical quotes from Elvis Presley. It is 1965 and the couple live on South Africa’s west coast. And then, with a mistaken step in the wrong direction, a little too much bravado and a desperate grasp, the world turns on its axis for the Apolises.

Playing very successfully with a poetic balance of wit and horror, loss and levity, the work is simple and beautiful in the characterisation it offers and the lines it draws around big kabeljous and bigger hearts. Resonant with old tales about fishermen and the magic of the sea that takes and gives back, this is a pragmatic tale of being in the world. It’s a real gem.

Johanna se Elvis is written by Hendie Grobbelaar. Directed by Amor Tredoux, and featuring technical input by Cassi Lowers, it is performed by Simoné Benjamin, Neels Coetzee, Zenobia Kloppers, Dann-Jacques Mouton and Denver Vraagom. It broadcasts on RSG on 5 November at 8pm, will be rebroadcast on 9 November at 1am in Radio Sonder Grense’s Deurnag programme, and is also available on podcast.

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