Lessons from the moon

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DOWN boy! Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi in A Man and a Dog. Photograph by Jan Potgieter (NAF).

THERE’S AN INSTANT in A Man and a Dog in which you fall irrevocably in love with Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and it happens right at the beginning of this piece. It has something to do with the gusto he injects into his performance and something to do with the utter sense of brazen vulnerability which infuses the characters he sketches as the piece unfolds. Reflecting a careful portrait of a dog with all its canine foibles, from the outset, the work takes you through the terrain of a young Zulu man: it’s a rocky terrain that is pocked with crevices, but you know you are in very safe hands.

A Man and a Dog is a foray into the values of community, and the idiosyncrasy of traditional storytelling and oral narrative. Interwoven into the text – which is about five minutes too long – is a sophisticated reflection on the tough socio-economic challenges that millions of South Africans face, from being raised by grandparents in the city to being rejected by a mother’s husband in the village; challenges that reflect how a world can shatter and shift with the smallest of accidents and challenges that force one’s mother to become a maid to a rich madam, taking her away from you again.

It’s a heartbreaking and true tale peppered with digressions into beliefs and legends, and the boldness with which Mkhwanazi performs conflates beautifully with the way in which the texture of South African society is revealed. It’s never a pretty image, and the work is evolved to contain elements of nuance which angrily reflect on how men have let down women and how women are impossibly burdened with trying to keep it all together.

While the anger in the text towards the end becomes, from time to time, so pervasive that some of the magic at the work’s outset loses some of its spark, the piece is a strong and convincing extrapolation on the underbelly of life in South Africa. It’s mottled with Catch-22s, which sees a young Nhlanhla of eight being tossed in this direction and that, his dog a loyal follower.

But you always hurt the one you love most, as the saying goes, and the work presents with a couple of sharp bends in the flow of narrative: Unexpected ones that will make you weep.

A Man and a Dog is a strong piece of theatre, told with sophistication and directness. But it is Mkhwanazi’s presence on stage that sets it afire.

  • A Man and a Dog is written and directed by Penny Youngleson based on a story told by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. It is also performed by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and features set and costume design by Penny Youngleson. It is performed in the Amphitheatre as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University, tonight (October 7) at 7pm. Visit webtickets.co.za or www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre
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The things we’ll do for rain

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CASTING light: Hannah Van Tonder is Ntombizonke. Photograph by Tahlia Govender.

AT FIRST, IT’S difficult to believe or understand that that small incident which corrupts a great sheet of fabric covering the stage, is a human being, and yet as the play unfolds and takes you hither and yon through ritual and ancient tradition, contemporary quasi-urban values and a whole litany of prayer, you get to understand how the gesture and belief, the need for water and the love of the land interface, under the steerage of this one performer.

The work is brought to astonishing life by a concatenation of props which recalls, in a sense, Paul Noko’s earlier work Fruit, in which the props held the nexus of the material. Here, though, there’s more, but there is also less. Ntombizonke is the young woman born of a bride who is not a virgin. It transpires that her virginity becomes the suggested sacrifice that must be made to appease the gods in the name of much-needed rain.

Thus follows a tale of fantasy and religious-evocative gesture, but one bruised by too much enthusiasm — the kind of enthusiasm that packs the work so full of references, that it leaves scant space for the simple act of breathing. As a result, everything is brought into the mix, including envelopes of what seem to be seeds cast among the seating, sugar and water for the audience to dip its collective hands into and a pervading sense of ceremony, much of which becomes a red herring as it is not caught up with clarity in the work’s logic. Indeed, even the title of the work becomes sensational in its sense of taboo.

While Hannah Van Tonder in the title role, represents all the voices of this community, which reach back through generations, sometimes her diction is a casualty to too much speed. She is, however, beautifully choreographed, and the work takes on its own dance momentum, which is almost more compelling than the words themselves.

The value of this play which engages a fantasy ceremonial past cannot, however be understated. As it stands, it feels like a young draft in the development something that warrants growth and maturity.

  • The Cursed Vagina is written by Hannah Van Tonder and Paul Noko and directed by Paul Noko. It features design by Thulisa Phungula (music) and Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography) and is performed by Hannah Van Tonder, in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University. The work performed on October 5 and performs at the Nunnery on October 7. Visit www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre or www.webtickets.co.za

Poppie and her beastly baes

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TAKING the cake: Poppie Plaatjies of Khomasdal, Windhoek (Abby Molz). Photograph courtesy Obett Motaung.

A YOUNG WOMAN’S quest for acknowledgement and the kind of basic ordinariness that comes of marriage and babies in a world fraught with abuse, sexual interference, utter loneliness and other irrevocable and intimate disruptions is the focus of this compelling one-hander. But this ain’t no pity party. Poppie Plaatjies comes home from work, where she is a Checkers cashier, discards her high-heeled shoes and her push-up bra in the same dismissive sense that a man would discard his tie – but with more complex manoeuvring, and tells us her tale.

Abby Molz becomes the character with a ferocity that is potent and emotional and the performance she yields is strong and three-dimensional. She offers an insight into Poppie’s life and universe in a way that will make you consider the socioeconomic realities of the Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community of Namibia and South Africa. It’s not dispassionate, but it will leave you with the sense of a whole evolved world, all its grit and filth intact.

The character’s sex is important to the machinations of the story: it features in the title – koek being Afrikaans slang for vagina – and throughout the gestures she makes and the narrative that unfolds. It’s about brothers and lovers, old men and violent men, it’s about her mother’s boyfriends and the way in which she is putty in their hands. But ultimately, it is about the lone voice of a chronically vulnerable young woman fraught with fragile bravado and aware of the complexity it takes to be human in a world which has conspired to break you because you’re a girl and that’s what the culture allows.

Molz’s performance is, however, slightly bruised by her miming in parts of the piece, which reveals a sloppy engagement with the imagined objects at hand. You’re often not sure exactly what she’s doing as she mimes the kitchen chores or pages through a magazine. She irons with a gusto that would break any iron – mimed or not – and she twists things in a way that renders their identity blurred.

The work is scripted with a literalness and a sense of the predictable, but in being so, it comprises a rich and palpable texture that does credit to the medium of the monodrama and the slice of life it promises. Molz’s is certainly a name to watch, in this industry.

  • My Koek is Moeg (My Cake is Tired) is written by Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja and directed by Obett Motaung. It was performed by Abby Molz on September 29 and October 1 in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o festival, hosted by Wits Theatre. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre

Thwarted gems; stones in my shoes

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MY history, my disappoinments: Ameera Patel in Black. Photograph by Jan Potgieter (NAF).

SHE LIES UPSIDE down to gather herself amid a beautiful slew of keyboard jazz, before she begins to perform, and half way through this one-hander, you wish you could too. The nastiness of the venue, in the Wits Amphitheatre plays such a prominent role in stultifying this play, it’s painful to watch.

Based on Carolann Davids’ 2013 novel, The Blacks of South Africa, Black weaves a tale around political betrayal in a South African context. In doing so, it presents a rich array of characters, but spends a long time in getting to the nub of the piece, such a long time, in fact, that your own body begins to complain very aggressively.

When you’re trying to watch a play but cannot help focusing on the comfort of your body, knowing that if you move an inch this way, you will kick the poor hapless sod in front of you in the head, and if you move an inch that way, the feet of the person behind you will be on your shoulder, then you know it’s virtually tickets for the dignity of the creative team you’ve actually paid to watch.

Part of the problem lies possibly in the fact that too many characters are fleshed out in this work. It stretches Ameera Patel’s skills beautifully, but makes the story unnecessarily complex. As the denouement unfolds in all its shocking travesty of a friendship forged between a black man, a Coloured man named Black and a white woman, over a history of a town where diamonds smuggled in the shoes of the grandfather represented the complicated solution out of poverty, as told by the daughter of said Coloured man, you reach the peak of your physical discomfort and the shock effect of the volte face in the scenario is tempered and dulled.

It’s a dreadful pity: with Daniel Geddes on the keyboard and Patel performing literally a whole community, the play has enormous promise on paper. Once you are embroiled in the characterisations and the petty history, offering a family tree sodden with the complexities of being Coloured under apartheid, you realise it is the beauty of the writing and the music which gives it hope. This could have been a gem of a play, given a space with an iota of dignity for the audience. But it isn’t, because of that. Instead, it becomes a difficult chore.

  • Black is adapted by Penny Youngleson from the book Blacks of Cape Town by Carolann Davids; it is directed and designed by Jade Bowers. Featuring creative input by Daniel Geddes (composer), it is performed by Ameera Patel and Daniel Geddes (on keyboard), as part of the Wits 969 Festival, in the Amphitheatre at Wits University. It performs again on July 29 at 19:30. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

 

Stumped by an Apple: the need for new blood in this industry

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THE FRISSON OF excitement at the start of a new play is in the air. The audience is exuberant but alert, as soon as the lights drop, silence prevails. And focus. The play begins. He walks on stage. And out of his mouth sprout words I do not understand. Is my evening ruined? Should I run out in high dudgeon? The performer has agonised over this work, he’s rehearsed, he might be nervous. What would happen if I stayed and listened?

The actor speaks isiZulu, but he does so with such a directness, with such body language and such engagement that even without a respectable knowledge of the language, you’re swept away in the current of the work. And as you stretch your mind and your focus to attempt to see what he’s doing, as you listen to the response of your fellow audience members who do understand, something remarkable happens. Actually two things happen.

Firstly you quickly gain some inroads into the language. The more you listen, the more you begin to recognise things. You recognise the names of characters. You recognise repeated elements in the story that lead to a climax in pace, in narrative. You begin to make assumptions about the prepositions in the language and the beauty of the sentence construction. And the use of timing. The props clearly represent different characters, and the dialogue with the props flesh these things out. It’s a very interesting – and humbling – exercise which is as much about seeing a work from the outside in, as it is about the idea of empathy.

Secondly, it’s a fascinating South African exercise. I do not understand isiZulu because I am white, because I was educated in the 1970s and 1980s during the thick intensity of apartheid, and because I was raised by a family who didn’t think it necessary for me to do so. And the years have passed and the enthusiasm it takes to learn a new language sits on a back burner.

Sitting in an audience where everyone is falling about with laughter at the tragicomic elements unfolding on stage and not being able to understand them is intensely disempowering, but it also puts you almost in the shoes of thousands and thousands of South Africans for whom English is maybe their eighth language, and their awareness of the nuances and asides you can conjure up in English might not be that strong. It’s a case of almost because most black South Africans without the privilege of an English-medium education who work in urban centres are able to use English as a tool, by necessity. Us locally-born whiteys managed to live for generations without the need to learn anything beyond, perhaps, Afrikaans, which was, in any case compulsory in the schooling curriculum.

Yes, given that English is generally the language of common parlance in Johannesburg theatres, it was remiss of the theatre in question not to have advised that the play is all in isiZulu. But having said that, had they done so, I would not have elected to see it. My Zulu is far from sufficiently sophisticated to understand the words, let alone the nuances of a play. And had I not seen the piece, I would not have encountered the focus and energy and intensity of Sifiso Zimba, a performer who I will be interviewing on this blog shortly.

So, what does this mean? I saw Apple, a piece by Zimba, directed by Omphile Molusi. I know Molusi’s work and have been following it for some years, which is why I elected to see the piece. I loved it, and I was moved to tears at points in it, but I didn’t understand why. Maybe I didn’t understand anything at all, and was simply influenced by the people around me. So, I cannot review it. But there are so many young South Africans who could.

The arts writing industry, thanks to social media and the apparent immediacy it presents, makes every person with a Wi-Fi connection and a keyboard able to tout their own opinions, no matter how foolish, biased or downright vicious they are. What lends art criticism credibility? Not the sensation or the glamour but the track record of the critic. So many young publications, or young editors, fall into this trap of getting people who know not what they do to voice a critical opinion on the arts, because with the current machinery of publishing, you can and it’s cool and trendy to give the next generation a chance.

Traditional art critics, who write not for that shimmer of sensationalism, but for the value they believe they give the industry, who go the extra mile in ensuring their criticisms are balanced and justified, are fast becoming a dying breed. Why? No jobs. No money. No interest.

But what happens when a young Zulu-speaking person in the audience reaches for her keyboard or pen to say something about this work? Whether she says it in English or isiZulu, suddenly something begins to turn on its axis. Maybe her theatre opinions need refining or justifying. Maybe she’ll shoot from the hip and voice an emotional opinion which feels raw. But the investment she will make of her time to do so, has the power to begin the momentum that will in time make that pendulum swing back.

And back it shall swing to a world of proper arts writing, but it shall swing with the added bonus of a respectful multiculturalism: an acknowledgement of the joys and horrors of how language can empower and can handicap you. A fantasy? Maybe. But one worth articulating. Congratulations to Wits969 for giving Apple, straight from the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a platform.