Here’s looking at you. And you. And you.

Recognition.jpgTHERE’S SOMETHING UNMISSABLY effervescent about a beautifully written short story. It has not only to do with its brevity, but with the way in which its writer crafts a whole universe in a few pages. And with a particularly good short story, it’s a universe replete with everything, a universe that will haunt you forever. This is the kind of experience you can anticipate with David Medalie’s latest anthology of South African short stories, Recognition.

There is not one of these hand- picked, lovingly formed tales that glares out for being under par or without a voice of its own. Cohesively, this anthology offers a uniquely South African voice. It is beautifully crafted, in spite of the fact that stories deal with a wide range of issues, from feeling unwanted to being broken, from remembering abuse to articulating violence. It’s a series of tales which give you insight into the soul of South Africa, from its youngest and most vulnerable to its oldest and most hard done by.

These 22 stories by a range of South African authors – living and dead, contemporary and historical – are powerful testimonies to our ability, as South Africans, to laugh and cry, disparage truths and describe things as they are. It’s the kind of collection that you must take a breath from, every now and then, so that you can keep the memory of each story pristine in your heart and not allow them to merge.

Loosely bound by the notion of recognition, the focus of this anthology splays wide across the Karoo as it burrows into the poorest, most humble township homestead. It’s a discourse about robbers frightened in rich estates and Muslims who digress from their faith and their family, and a series of essays on hunger and meeting strangers on a train. It’s about what might happen to the widows of apartheid’s leaders, and how a blanket feels to a man who has nothing.

Many of the stories are written in the first person, but this is not to say that they are autobiographical. This is South African fiction at its finest, offering you a taste of everything in a rich and fulsome smorgasbord. Medalie is to be celebrated for putting together this brand new collection – on some levels, it evokes Encounters, a book of South African short stories, also selected and edited by Medalie, that slipped into school curricula and first saw light of day in 1998. Recognition is  the kind of book – if it does become part of South African school syllabuses – with which you know your children will be in safe hands, if they are taught with it, or gravitate toward reading it of their own accord.

As you read this book, many diverse South African voices will fill your head. The brilliance of Medalie’s curation of this selection means that it doesn’t self-censor or mute itself around terminology that is no longer considered acceptable. It doesn’t skew itself apologetically away from racist caricatures or perspectives articulated by writers or their characters. It tells it like it is. And it gives the kind of recognition to South Africans large and small, rich and poor, good and evil, that we all need to read.

  • Recognition: An Anthology of South African Short Stories selected edited by David Medalie is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2017). It features stories by Herman Charles Bosman, Achmat Dangor, Nadia Davids, HIE Dhlomo, Ahmed Essop, Damon Galgut, Nadine Gordimer, Dan Jacobson, Alex La Guma, Mandla Langa, Wamuwi Mbao, David Medalie, Kobus Moolman, Njabulo S. Ndebele, Lindiwe Nkutha, Pauline Smith, Can Themba, Miriam Tlali, Chris van Wyk, Mary Watson, Zoë Wicomb and Makhosazana Xaba.
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Judge this man by his suit

thesuit

LOVE me tender: Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) with Matilda (Zola Nombona). Photograph courtesy The Market Theatre.

EVERY SO OFTEN, a piece of literature is crafted which is simply perfect – in its character development, in its narrative structure, in how the language fits together. Nadine Gordimer’s short story The Train from Rhodesia (1952) is one of those. As is the chapter in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about the horse. And Can Themba’s story The Suit, is another, unequivocally.

Every so often, theatre gurus get together to give theatrical life to a written masterpiece, and sometimes they get it right. It is, indeed, a true rarity for the performed version to meet the written version with such patent values of respect and artistry, that you must hold your breath when you watch it, because you know you are in the presence of true greatness. This happens in this version of The Suit, which has just enjoyed a Market Theatre season.

As you walk into the theatre, you are accosted on two fronts: the seating is arranged as though for a tennis match: audiences are ranged facing one another. This has been done before in different Market Theatre venues and it poses curious and somewhat unnecessary challenges on the audience.  And then, there’s a huge door as a part of the set. It dominates the work with a crazy kind of bombast that alludes to the French windows of a large house. It’s an effective entrance point to the tale, but poses an anachronism – the characters are living in Sophiatown in the 1960s. There are no big double doors in the lower middle income context extrapolated here. Further to that, there are some odd decisions which see the work’s text transposed in projection onto the work.

These issues are ones which you forgive as soon as the cast begins to perform. And you forgive them, because each cast member is so finely focused on the ethos of the character he or she represents, that you have no more space in your consciousness to think of anything but the tale they tell.

It’s a violent story of psychological cruelty, featuring a suit which is dramatised to sinister levels. The tale is a tragedy, but one not unconscious to the magnificence of the music of the era or the dress culture. This work – along the lines of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule – is a adulation of sheer beauty in a time of unmitigated horror, against the backdrop of the cruelty of apartheid.

Matilda (Zola Nombona) is a young woman with dreams to be someone more than just a wife. But then she meets and marries the beautiful Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) and becomes the envy of all her peers. But while he goes out to work, she becomes bored and lonely. And she digresses. And is caught. And she is punished in a way that lends a banal object – the suit in question – a level of horror akin to what Alfred Hitchcock did with sparrows in his film The Birds (1963).

While there are astoundingly fine performances on the part of Twala and Nombona , something has to be said for the magnificent performance of Molefi Monaise, who, within a few seconds of character development, is able to offer such a rounded reflection of the character he represents that his uncharacteristic silence on the bus that preempts the unfolding of the whole drama, chills you to your very bones.

A work of devastating subtlety, of the style and wisdom we saw in The Suitcase written by Es’kia Mphahlele and also directed by Ngcobo a couple of years ago, which also featured Twala in the lead, The Suit is hauntingly unforgettable. Featuring exquisite choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, it offers unvoiced reflection on the Matilda character’s alter-ego. Danced by Lesedi Motladi, it’s an aspect to this work which lends mystery and tender fragility to a story wrenched with betrayal and violence.

The season of this important work coincided with Africa Day, but it’s a work of such wisdom and value that it begs for a longer season.

  • The Suit is written by Can Themba and adapted for stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. It is directed by James Ngcobo and features design by Luyanda Sidiya (choreography), Richard John Forbes (set), Thapelo Makgosi (lighting), Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound) and Sue Sey-Steele (costumes). It was performed by Molefi Monaise, Lesedi Motladi, Andile Nebulane, Lindani Nkosi, Zola Nombona and Siyabonga Twala, in a season at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, from May 5-28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Impeccable Crepuscule

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

It’s relatively easy to glamourise the 1950s. The fashions are beautiful and dignified. The architecture is poetic. The times were ripe with sex and possibilities: the world was on its knees after two major wars, and the cultural pendulum was swinging back: anything was possible. Truth be told, the period, in South Africa, in particular, was very far from glamorous. Apartheid was rife, and while the fashions were indeed beautiful and the Art Deco buildings of the time were indeed poetic, social and human values were rotten and injustice was like a cancerous rash spreading dully all over society. Enter Khayelihle Dom Gumede. This young man has taken a magnificent piece of prose by Can Themba and brought it to life on stage in a manner which not only celebrates the cultural nuances of the 1950s, but opens up the social underbelly of the period with a searingly sharp tool, aided by an exceptionally fine cast.

In short, Crepuscule is a doomed love story, based loosely on fact, between Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can (Leroy Gopal). Not only was their love hampered by moral taboos of the time, she being white and he, black, but it flew in the face of their other relationships, to say nothing of the miscegenation laws of apartheid that got lascivious cops checking bed frames for evidence.

But in the hands of Gumede, this impeccable piece of theatre is so much more than this simple yet complicated love story. It’s an essay on shebeen culture, and a reflective and full representation of characters in all their dimensions.

There are no real villains in this tale: you might expect the cuckolded husband, Malcolm (Conrad Kemp) to be reflected upon as the classic colonialist, the tight-fisted white man who lacks social savvy and nuance, and is easy bait for mockery in the vernacular, but under Gumede’s direction and with Kemp’s own developed reflection of the role, a great level of empathy is evoked and honed.

Similarly, Themba’s mother, played with astonishing charisma and authenticity by Thami Ngoma reflects not only a woman resigned with disappointment at her son’s love choices, but one who loves her son and must respect him, and one who has the emotional sophistication to tease and contextualise her own feelings.

Further to each rounded character development, which also features the extraordinary Lerato Mvelase who can be a drunk man as well as she can be a shebeen queen, Liquorish and Gopal raise the stature of the characters they perform to historical and emotional icons. You will be seduced by the delicious crispness of the give and take between them, and the succinct and subtle yet ever so sexy representation of their relationship.

But more than that, you will be haunted and intoxicated by the interjection of song – Sophiatown standards – and dance, and physical theatre and movement that gives this work its life blood. With palpably gorgeous language and featuring some truly brilliant set decisions by the inimitable Nadya Cohen, the work is compact and edgy as it is completely engaging. In short, it is flawless: a work where every nuance is thought through and taken care of, a product which offers a portrait of Sophiatown that jives and beats and weeps and lives. See it.

  • Crepuscule by Can Themba, is adapted for stage by Khayelihle Dom Gumede, mentored by Kgafela oa Magogodi. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (musical direction and choreography), Nadya Cohen (set), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Thando Lobese (costumes) and is performed by Leroy Gopal, Conrad Kemp, Kate Liquorish, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Lerato Mvelase and Thami Ngoma, at the Laager, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 2. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za