Diabetic habits and histrionics for dead strangers

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THE power of prayer in the face of reality: Brenda (Awethu Hleli), Karabo (Chuma Sopotela) and Andiswa (Motlatji Ditodi) mourn; Pumla (Faniswa Yisa) jives. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

FOUR FIERCE BLACK women toss caution and values to the wind in this carefully crafted take on hypocrisy, the culture of mourning and too much sugar in the African diet. Laced with political barbs and advocacy ciphers, the work is funny and crass, moving and evolved and little escapes the pen of the inimitable Mike van Graan in presenting a township world where three women get together to form The Substitutes, a professional mourning syndicate.

Darting along similar social fringes presented by films such as Radu Mihăileanu’s 2009 Le Concert which reflects on crowd sourcing as a political hook and a financial saviour, and Hal Ashby’s 1971 Harold and Maude, that presents a cemetery-centred romance, Another One’s Bread takes apart the  idiom about one man’s meat being another man’s poison. Tumbling through the cultural preciousness of loss and sadness, it focuses on the business of death with a capitalistic eye and presents a platform for farce at its most shouty.

Pumla (Faniswa Yisa), Karabo (Chuma Sopotela) and Andiswa (Motlatji Ditodi) live in a household where they need a little more money for jam, proverbially speaking. With a mix of vegetarianism, a spot of poetry, a story of Karabo’s niece Brenda (Awethu Hleli) needing a change of climate after a stint in jail, for crimes of passion involving sweets which were not hers, and a vegetable garden, they develop a repertoire and a funeral resource. Bringing in several references to Brenda Fassie, the work blends feel good social values with a shrieking intensity that forces you to go with the flow.

There are some hilarious choreographic moments and a richer understanding of loss wrapped up in the over-the-top characters and how they interface, which enables this work to soar, but Brenda’s very shrill antics and her lumpy costume sometimes hurts the work’s integrity.

Either way, the madcap subtleties of Karabo and the vulnerability of Pumla, who is the oldest of the four, lend the piece the kind of balance and charm that gives the notion of a fresh food stokvel, a plan to feed children in the environment, and the harsh and scary predominance of death in society to be presented without coyness, crude advocacy or blandness. And the political barbs fly with abandon, touching everything from Jacob Zuma’s school education to the #MenAreTrash tweet that went viral to Oscar Pistorius and his declarations of innocence.

It’s a lovely work, but the turning of the vocal volume all the way up, throughout does tend to bruise some of its more developed assertions, contexts and story lines.

  • Another one’s bread is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Pamela Nomvete. It features design by Jacqueline Kehilwe Manyaapelo (choreography), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Karabo Legoabe-Mtshali and Nthabiseng Makone (set and costumes) and is performed by Motlatji Ditodi, Awethu Hleli, Chuma Sopotela and Faniswa Yisa until February 4 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. Call 011 832 1641 or visit www.markettheatre.co.za

From the mouths of babes

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SINGING to make the world feel beautiful. (from left) Violet Ledwaba (partially obscured); Tisetso Masilo; Zinhle Mnguni; Sakhile Mlalazi; Luyanda Mahlangu; Surprise Seete and Nyiko Kubayi. Photograph by Adriana MC

WHEN YOU KNOW there are children in the cast of a staged work, you instinctively lower the parameters of your expectations. They’re not professionals, after all. Theatre’s a difficult thing to do, if you’re a child. And it’s a truism that the fact of children on stage means that the mommies and daddies in the audience are the ones to whom it is addressed. But when you see Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi’s Thwala, you realise from the get-go that this is simply something extraordinary and you will be swept away by the muscularity of the performances, the wisdom implicit in the work’s structure and quite simply the value and ethos of this story.

Comprising an all-girl cast, aged between 11 and 16, the work conveys a simple and bold story about a pastor taking sexual advantage of little girls who live in an orphanage. Already it’s a focus that seems too complex and too sophisticated – not to mention too disgraceful – for these angel-faced children to be confronting, and yet, tragically, this kind of story is par for the course, given what contemporary youth have to face all the time, in this day and age.

While the performers, led by Sakhile Mlalazi as Sebendzile Skhosana and Amehle Mene as the priest are completely wonderful in their sense of self, their sense of cohesion with their peers on the cast and their understanding of character, full credit is due to Dlamini and Mgeyi: the staging of the work, the use of props, which are drawn by the cast, the discipline of the cast and the sense of context they present is exceptionally well developed.

The priest gets his comeuppance and the young girls’ headscarves are uses to represent not only a sense of female modesty but the bars on the prison, in a poetic touch. And in telling all of this, in an amalgamation of languages, the work doesn’t miss a beat: a marimba band lends the work its soundtrack and singers and a chorus add to the energy and fire generated here. It’s not a happily-ever-after fairy tale, but one coaxed into life by the horrors that are endemic to our society, playing very directly into the focus of the #metoo movement.

Will these young women, who put many a professional stage production in this city to shame, get to see professional careers on the back of a university degree in performance? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. With their socio-economic context, it is not a given that the expense of higher education in a field such as drama is something that any of them will be able to take for granted.

While you might weep at the beauty of their understanding of characters bruised and torn by corrupt figures of authority, you need to reflect on the potential future of these girls. It bodes well for the possibilities of theatre in this country, and serves to lend a very developed reflection on what projects such as the Hillbrow Theatre’s Outreach Foundation continues to do. But this is no pity party. Whatever happens in the future of these children and this initiative, the magic seeds that engender values and creativity have been sewn. The seasons of Thwala have been brief, but there deserve to be many more in the future of this production.

  • Thwala is directed and created by Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, in collaboration with the cast who are from Centurion College. It features creative input by Bigboy Ndlovu (choreography), Themba Moyo (musical direction), Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi (costumes), members of the cast assisted by Gift Dube and Benjamin Sambo (set) and is performed Neliseka Malinga, Thobeka Malinga and Hope Mwenda (voice coaching) and is performed by Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Luyanda Mahlangu, Tisetso Masilo, Amehle Mene, Sakhile Mlalazi, Zinhle Mnguni, Hope Mwenda, Bontle Ndlovu, Nthabiseng Ndlovu, Tumelo Nkoele, Gugulethu Nxumalo, Aminathi Radebe, Surprise Seete and Pearl Segwagwa, supported by a marimba band, comprising Matham Fokane, Pearl Mmamorare, Bridget Moyo, Abigail Skhosana and Ukho Somadlaka. It performed in the Inner City Drama Schools Festival in August, the Drama for Life Sex Actually Festival in September, and was hosted by Drama for Life at the Emkhaya Theatre, Wits University between November 3 and 5. The work is hosted by the Outreach Foundation at the Hillbrow Theatre. Call 011 720 7011 or visit outreachfoundation.co.za

A dance for the tree gods

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MYSELF my forest: Nicholas Aphane in footage from With Nothing But Silence. Photograph courtesy Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.

IN 2005, PJ Sabbagha put his choreographic name behind a most exceptional project. Still Here was earth shattering in its delicate sense of raw beauty and was important for that reason. But as an advocacy piece engaging with HIV/Aids, it was important for other reasons too. Over the years, Sabbagha and his company the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative have unrelentingly challenged boundaries in terms of issues and aesthetics, possibilities and the substance of dance. This work, With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is no different: structured with the complexity of videoed work, shadow and articulation through costume and context, weeping and filmed trees, it confronts the sticky and grotesque mess that our planet is in. It is an extraordinary piece of performance, for our time.

Melding together dance with hand drawn dance costumes, Greek extrapolations with a soundscape that touches water and wind, landscapes and trees, it takes place in a set that is transfixing in its detail, astonishing in the sum of its parts, and the sense of authority commanded by Mazarakis. It is here that a hat of flowers takes on virtual sinister attributes, that bodies move like mercury, curving against one another, casting the light in a way that gives voice to shadows that dominate and liaise with the visual clout of the piece.

Like Still Here, it’s a complex, almost abstract work with forays in a range of directions, and during its 60 minute duration, you get the urge to shout “Stop! I didn’t see exactly what that was! Do it again!” Many things happen at once in this work which takes you from the magnificent bluegum trees of Mpumalanga to the here and now on stage. You see dancers emerging from piles of leaves and sheets of crumpled paper, engaging the world with its brokenness. The sound track is bumpy with pimples in the technology and the give and take of movement coheres uncomfortably with that of the sound, forcing the dancers over terrain which is as tough and unsettled as the world they’re depicting. The dance work is twisty and inchoate and offers a unique language of movement, which distinguishes it and grabs you by the eye, again and again.

And all too soon, suddenly it is over, leaving you with a sense of loss: the work’s structure is repetitive and patterned, rather than chronological. You’re sucked into its dynamics and find yourself mesmerised by bodies contorting themselves into torn and emotive positions, by dancers who shout, shouters who dancer, and a collaborative mix which leaves your heart uneasy and your mind racing. More’s the pity that the work only had a single performance in this year’s Wits 969 Festival.

  • With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is directed by Athena Mazarakis and choreographed by Athena Mazarakis and PJ Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast. It features creative input from Nicholas Aphane (Music/Sound score/Composition and performance); Sasha Ehlers (production and costume design); Thabo Pule (lighting) and Jessica Denyschen (videography) and was performed by Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lorin Sookool on July 15, in the Main Wits Theatre as part of the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

Hillbrow’s people, great and small

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CELEBRATING the Gogo in a flurry of love. Young@Home, photographed by Mark Straw.

THERE’S A VERY precious kind of gem being honed in the poor suburb of Hillbrow, which without Pollyanna high-jinks or saccharine overstatement, has the potency and power to literally change the world. Young@Home is an initiative which, like Donkey Child, a couple of years ago, is parented by the Hillbrow Theatre, and like Donkey Child features the melding of skills and experience great and small, and what you get out of it ultimately is a theatre experience so cogent and rich that it reaches right back to the sacred roots of what theatre-making is about, for the community, with the community and by the community.

It’s an assemblage of real stories, melding a cast of young people and one of old people:  the elderly on stage are residents of the Tswelopele Frail Care Centre, which is in Hillbrow and the children on stage are members of the Hillbrow Theatre Project. While you might anticipate a bit of a Christmas pudding of a show, given the wide range of amateur performers, and the largeness of the cast on stage, it’s not what you get. This community-centred cast is honed and shaped into a level of poetic articulation, by the work’s creative team, and whether or not you understand the languages used to tell the stories, almost becomes irrelevant: there’s a flow of energy and empathy between the nubile young people with their white costumes and red scarves, and the frail old ones in a dignified black and white, which articulates that give and take between generations that makes the world turn.

As tempo and volume, song and layering of words infiltrates the piece, the sway and rhythm of narrative is allowed to unfold, allowing everyone – from the Tswelopele resident who is confined to a wheelchair yet tells her tales and sings, to the one who flits silently through the choreography, her arms outstretched, like a small and determined, yet crumpled bird – a place in this narrative that matters.

It’s the kind of show that will touch you very deeply. Advocacy theatre at its most profound, like Sibikwa and other projects addressing and giving voice to the poorest of the poor, Young@Home has artistic integrity, but also presents a value for society at large that is real and filled with the texture that makes us all human and skirts and confronts the meaning and sense of theatre at its core. This is a theatre experience that will change the world, if it’s given the chance; it’s something you should include among what you consider a ‘must-see’.

  • Young@Home is told by the cast, written by Jefferson Tshabalala assisted by Phana Dube and directed by Gcebile Dlamini consulted by Peter DuPont Weiss. It features design by Sonia Radebe and Nhlanhla Mahlangu (choreography and music), João Orecchia (soundscape), Gcebile Dlamini (set) and Phana Dube (lighting). It has a cast from the Hillbrow Theatre Project: Nonjabulo Chauke, Rendani Dlamini, Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Sbusiso Nkosi Mabethu, Brandon Magengele, Tisetso Masilo, Amahle Mene, Zinhle Mnguni, Jackson Moqotlane, Lesley Mosweu, Dakalo Mulaudzi, Abongiwe Ndlovu, Lihlithemba Ngcobo, Prince Nyathi, Aminathi Radebe, Surprice Seete and Bayanda Junior Xolo; and a cast from the Twelopele Frail Care Centre: Harry Card, Florah Nkoana, Benjamin Pule, Milton Sibiya, Adelaide Tukuta, Vicky Walker and Themba Xaba. It opened on April 1 at the Hillbrow Theatre, and travels to the Olive Tree Theatre in Alex on April 3 at 2pm; to the South Rand Recreation Centre on April 4 at 10am; to POPArt Theatre, Maboneng on April 8 at 3pm, to the Drama For Life Conference at Wits University on May 6 and to the Assitej World Congress and International Theatre Festival for Children and Young People in Cape Town on May 23-24. Visit facebook.com/HillbrowTheatreProject or call 011 720 7011.

At Sibikwa, there is always more

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THE sky’s the limit when you’re jiving in pink takkies. Children from Luyolo Primary School in Emdeni, Soweto. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the frenetic, sweaty joy of being in a theatre full of children, who are cheering their peers on, in the name of dance and drama, music and art-making. It lends an unequivocal sense of possibility to the ether. And this is not just Pollyanna values or shallow advocacy in theatre: Sibikwa’s annual Artists in Schools Programme ended today; being in the midst of the celebrants is not only humbling, it’s a real privilege.

The programme, in place for the last six years, and in association with the National Department of Arts and Culture, involves the deployment of 38 artists – who have been trained in the arts and in facilitation – in 38 schools across the Gauteng province. None of these schools have a permanent creative arts teacher, and the role of the Arts in Schools is to rustle up the innovation muscles in the children. It’s about intervention. It’s about skills transfer and it’s about positive impacts. So say the PR documents.

But when you watch the children sing and dance, when they explain what a musical canon is, when you watch the best of each artist’s school experience, strut its stuff in Sibikwa’s theatre premises in Benoni, you also realise it’s about a supreme sense of self. It’s about bodily confidence and it’s about fun. But there’s so much more.

Children from Vezukhono Secondary School, in Benoni, for instance, all dressed in black T-shirts and tights, articulate a work that is about loss and anguish, about sadness and disappointment, and when you look at these beautiful children, expressing the nub and texture of a community in disarray, you cannot but consider the pragmatics that they face in townships where their daily lives are fraught with enormous challenges.

Conversely, children from Kgalema Secondary School have taken apart and reworked the image of a painting by Irma Stern. The effect is disparate but fresh, the engagement with the material, real.

Will any of these children who’ve had a seed of art planted in their heads and hearts over the past six and a half weeks, develop into artists? It’s difficult – and unfair – to make predictions. But what Sibikwa, under the steerage of its co-founders Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba, is forging in this kind of context is something else. It’s that nebulous gift you give to a child when you tell them there’s more. More to life. More to their possible futures. More to who they are. More than what their impoverished circumstances tell them. Sibikwa, since 1988, has been one of those stalwart initiatives which has gone head to head with dire realities of abuse and poverty, illness and abandonment, and has created theatre that rides over the basic notion of advocacy theatre and into the true heart of what the arts are about.

 

Haunted by Prettina

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SEVENTY per cent pretty: Klara van Wyk is Prettina. Photograph by Lauren Buckle.

BLENDING TENDERNESS WITH bravado, prickliness with utter vulnerability, Klara van Wyk has crafted a character which warrants status as the poster girl of contemporary high school bullying. Her work, You Suck and Other Inescapable Truths is a piece of advocacy theatre which stands its own ground in a regular theatre, but which will haunt you and make you remember bruises that you inflicted as a child – and/or the bruises and scars that were inflicted on you during those very same years. Beautifully constructed and performed with the clownish acumen you might have seen in van Wyk’s representation of Chalk Girl in collaboration with Jemma Kahn some years ago, this is one of those pieces that irrevocably is the voice of an era.

Prettina considers herself almost material for the ‘A’ group. She believes she’s 70% pretty and nearly there in terms of the popular set of the high school which she attends. Granted, she’s awkward in some ways. And she has a strict mom and she’s not really sure of the value of her Afrikaans heritage, other than as a stumbling block. But she knows the ropes of hip-hop, is an expert in the odd cultural skill of Eisteddfod, and can sing. And furthermore, she can see through the flaws of the class queens with ease, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be one of them.

Until she finds out why, that is. Rendered with the kind of dead-pan irony that evokes Nathaniël’s storytelling, the work is at once utterly breath-takingly hilarious and totally tragic. You want to embrace Prettina and tell her that there is so much more out there in the world, and yet, you cannot help roaring with (albeit utterly empathetic) laughter at her social faux pas. And the reason for this is as simple as it is complicated: You, too, are Prettina. Or you have been shades of her in your own way. And that’s true, whether or not you like to admit it, an inescapable fact which ramps up your laughter even more – even if it serves to camouflage old tears of rage and injustice.

There’s a deeper thread underlying the work, however, and structurally, this is supported with a level of brilliance that runs through it like a thread of quicksilver. It has to do with a mouse. And that mouse is present from the very first line in the script, as the lights come up, infused with prescience, like in a Greek tragedy. Constructed with a denouement that will give you goose bumps and make your hair stand on end, You Suck doesn’t pander to an audience. It is an unrelenting piece of potency which holds up the phenomenon of social media bullying to a very frightening mirror: this is the flailing voice of youth in our contemporary times. And it’s weeping, silently. Whatever else You Suck does, it will make you sit up and take notice – particularly if there are young children in your life.

  • You Suck and Other Inescapable Truths is written by Klara van Wyk and directed by Francesco Nassimbeni. Featuring design by Francesco Nassimbeni (set) and Richard de Jager (costumes), it is performed by Klara van Wyk, on demand at Western Cape schools. It will also enjoy a commercial run at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, June 29-July 9. Contact klara@gmail.com