Bra Gib warrants more

Kente

AN UNDERSTANDING OF the contribution of South African theatre-maker Gibson Kente (1932-2004) to local stage history cannot but be an important addition to the reading list of any SA theatre lover. And accordingly, Robert Mshengu Kavanagh’s book A Contended Space tries hard to be everything to every reader with these priorities in mind. Sadly, he makes so many promises in this book that it is the legacy of Kente himself that ends up being compromised.

Arguably, Kente’s vision was central to the amorphous beast we recognise as SA township musical theatre. It vies from a European avant-garde reflection on narrative, audience and other formalities and weaves into the ideas of performance espoused by German 20th-century theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. It’s independent and unapologetic, playing to majority audiences and influencing many significantly. Kente, who was a contemporary of writers such as HIE Dhlomo, RRR Dhlomo and Sam Mhangwane, penned political theatre at its richest.

“No”, shouts Kavanagh, arguing that there is a difference between political theatre and theatre for the people. And he’s entitled to his opinion. The thing is, whether you feel Kavanagh’s definition of political theatre is too wide or too narrow, becomes academic: the book is so riddled with writing errors you emerge feeling battered even if you’re a champion of Kavanagh’s approach.

The first great sin in this book is the omission of an editor (whose brief is the content’s flow) and a sub-editor (who fixes grammar, spelling, consistency and style). Instead, you get visual errors, spelling errors, errors in the language’s flow and errors in repetition that make what could have been a beautiful and informed read, tortuous.

This reflects a shoddy understanding of the final product: A Contended Space is not a blog post which can be fixed anytime: it’s the fruit of years of work. It bears the stamp of a publishing house. It’s meant to last forever. The least you deserve, as the reader, is attention to the visual presence of the thing to say nothing of the focus of the language.

And alas, as you feel roughly trod on by this book’s errors, so are you are offered promises which do not deliver: Examples plunge into too much detail too quickly, leaving your head spinning in an inchoate understanding of Kente’s work and influence.

Other detail is skirted around. When mention is made of an “Israeli who penned a play called Sola Sola”, for instance, you might be curious to know the name of this person, but nay, ‘tis lost among lots of facts.

Indeed, on the topic of facts in this book, expect to be assailed by them in the form of shopping lists. Armies of them. Pages and pages of references to plays with their dates of performance are shoved before your eyes – so many examples that the basic assertion they illustrate is lost. There is insufficient use made of footnotes in this material.

And all of this happens before you reach the focus on Kente himself. Indeed, you’re subject to four sections (that’s 11 chapters) describing what Kente is not. Granted, you do, eventually get to read his context, but this happens after more than 100 pages of comparison, contemporaries and other asides. One or two well-placed tweaks in the flow of this books focus would have turned it around.

Try as you might to go head to head with the density of the text, the third hurdle you encounter is voice. The writing slips between third and first person all the time. Yes, it’s a problem when the verb tense of the material is inconsistent; the casualty is clarity. But when suddenly Kavanagh himself pops into the thus far formal descriptive, historical narrative as a character – be it as someone in Kente’s audiences, or a fellow playwright in a given programme, festival or season – something else happens: it’s no longer clear who this book is written for or what it aims to be.

Is it an academic overview of Kente, the man and his work? If so, why is there a comment that goes “I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Kente’s house was robbed”? Betting of bottom dollars or clichés of this nature sit curiously with academic writing principles. Maybe A Contended Space is an informal overview of the man and his work, plus the author and his work? Maybe. This feels kind of in line with the crusading lines Kavanagh takes, writing about “white” and “black” theatre, and reflecting upon the injustices of apartheid in a reductionist capacity.

Wade through this and toward the end of the book, you will be rewarded with detailed readings of several key Kente works, including Lifa, How Long, Too Late and Sikalo. Here, you may want to heave a sigh of relief, but alas the problem doesn’t end: Kavanagh plunges head first into character analyses, offering great chunks of quoted text from the plays in question; he doesn’t really explain why. Is this book meant to be a textural analytic tome? Maybe, but it doesn’t do this convincingly.

The book’s final sin is the dismissal of the principle of ‘show and tell’ in the writing. Kavanagh tells you things about apartheid, about the challenges of theatre in the 1970s in South Africa, about Sharpeville, without showing you the broader trajectory. If you don’t know the basics of the history, you may well feel abandoned in a morass of roughly sketched scenarios.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel: the further into this book you read, the more developed its approach becomes, but you have to steel yourself against its focuslessness quite heftily. Ultimately, you emerge with a modicum of appreciation of the giant Kente was, but it’s a messy read, which could have been a fine contribution to Kente scholarship, under a good editorial pen.

  • A contended space: The theatre of Gibson Mtutuzeli Kente by Robert Mshengu Kavanagh is published by Themba Books, Harare, Johannesburg, Cairo, London (2016).
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From the mouths of babes

thwala

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

Our mother’s dignity, at all costs

isithunzi

ME and my brother: Scelo (Sipho Zakwe) and Muzi (Musawenkosi Kumalo) in tandem.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if your mother was publicly humiliated by someone who you considered a friend? Would you want to kill him? Would you have the capacity to turn the other cheek? Would your impotent rage find another outlet? This is the central focus of Isithunzi, a powerful and important play about the complexities of respect, which headlined the 2016 Zwakala community theatre festival.

In 2008, a group of white Afrikaans-speaking students associated with Free State University played a series of appalling and humiliating pranks on black domestic workers employed by the university. The pranks were filmed and went viral on the internet, sparking seething anger across the board, raising and inflaming the race card, to say nothing of sheer respect issues. This became known as the Reitz Four incident, premised on the fact that the four whites who had enacted the humiliation, were from the Reitz res on the university campus.

Young playwright Sipho Zakwe, who plays the role of Scelo here has taken this narrative and run with it, focusing it on two young men, brothers, and the sons of one of the women subjected to having to drink the urine of white Afrikaans boys – amongst other revolting humiliations. The plot thickens: Scelo is a UFS student. His squash buddy is one Schalk van der Merwe, one of the boys responsible for the prank. Muzi (Musawenkosi Kumalo) is his brother, at home, the brother who made sacrifices so that his brother could be educated.

The dialogue about different responses to this scenario are tossed hither and yon in the work, with muscularity and passion. Featuring some exceptionally fine set and audio-visual decisions, the work is utterly riveting and will make you weep with anger at the crudeness of the behaviour and the iconic presence of the mother herself.  While the literalness of the violence – there should be a strobe warning in the theatre – and the predictability of the tale itself mar this work slightly – you know how it will end – it remains a very fine showcase of performative skill on our stages.

Thoughtful and angry, respectful and context-driven, Isithunzi is constructed with broad, yet sophisticated narrative tools. There is some wonderful shadow play details which infuse the piece with mystery and energy, enabling two performers to embrace a whole campus in outrage. With the use of simple costume changes and a grotesque coir wig, the perpetrators are referenced and caricatured, as are students on campus. The work reflects with mature astuteness the harsh realities confronting the poor, without being maudlin or self-serving, and is not difficult to understand if English is your only language. In short, it’s a work of its time, offering a strong voice into what matters.

  • Isithunzi is written by Sipho Zakwe and directed by Luthando Mngomezulu. It features creative input by Ntshieng Mokgoro (mentor), Omphile Molusi (dramaturge), Jurgen Meekel (audio visual), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Shilongane Nkoana (set), Nthabiseng Malaka (costumes) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), with DAC incubates Hlamalani Ntando Makhubela (lighting), Ratang Mogotsi (costumes), Mbali Silvia Nkambule (set) and Maggy Selepe (sound)and it is performed by Musawenkosi Kumalo and Sipho Zakwe, with voiceovers by Dawn Thandeka King, at the Ramoloa Makhene Theatre, Market Square, Newtown, until June 18. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 838 7498.

Hillbrow’s people, great and small

Young@Home

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.