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 http://www.markettheatre.co.za
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Disrespecting Barney’s memory, in Cincinatti

Punt: Hedley (Brandon Auret) and Thembsie (Chuma Sopotela) in Cincinatti. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Punt: Hedley (Brandon Auret) and Thembsie (Chuma Sopotela) in Cincinatti. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

A tatty Johannesburg nightclub, where apartheid is rife, the living is edgy and sex is a panacea for everything: welcome to Cincinatti. This play was workshopped in the late 1970s under the direction of the Market Theatre’s cofounder Barney Simon and a cast of theatre heavyweights of the time. Workshopping a play was not yet commonplace in the industry and the approach was feeling its own way, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Twenty years have elapsed since Simon passed away; the Market Theatre chose to give this production life in celebration of Simon’s influence on the theatre. From the get go, it seems an odd choice, even if you didn’t know the play in 1979. Is this really a work emblematic of Simon’s contribution to theatre in South Africa? Really?

Enabling a young director and cast to reflect on this script as a hard-boiled fait accompli, is iffy: the different night club characters and their dynamic were essences distilled from the madness of the time when they existed. In this production, there’s a distressing sloppiness around the historical moment Cincinatti represented: the original cast members are unforgivably not mentioned anywhere in the programme.

And this sloppiness pervades the show. The ensemble comprises the ageing hippy (Brandon Auret), the black woman who turns tricks on the street (Chuma Sopotela); the security guard (Paka Zwedala) and the gogo-dancer (Robyn Olivia Heaney). There’s the Indian cabaret singer (Ameera Patel), the English-speaking accountant (Theo Landey) and his sop of a wife (Odelle de Wet). There’s a young wannabe everything, who pretends suaveness with her platinum blond hair and cigarette, a la Miranda Richardson in Dance with a Stranger (Christien Le Roux).

And then there’s the unsophisticated white Afrikaans-speaking kid (Francois Jacobs), who, in just passing through, lends the work its denouement and its spice in an almost uncanny way. Singlehandedly, Jacobs, who we last saw in the astonishing production of People Are Living There, almost turns the play around. He’s an astonishingly fine performer who embraces his role with a candidness that takes your breath away, but alas, he’s too much of a cameo to turn the whole work around.

They are all unashamed stereotypes, specific to the era in which the play grew. They all have secret lives. Put this all together in 2015, where technology is alas too easily accessible, and you’re confronted with a production that begins by assaulting its audience with sound so obscenely loud, that the visual presence of the work is killed. In seeing this play, you might not necessarily want to be part of the club scene, or immersed into its blaring lights and terrible sound. But you are: the play is obnoxiously confrontational from its opening screech of sound and light.

Similarly, there’s a sub-narrative in the piece, featuring texts and audio-visual inserts. Completely unnecessary, these projects not only hurt what is left of the play, but they contradict the notion of theatre pauvre central to Simon’s approach to this work, in particular.

There’s a kind of self-conscious cleverness in this production which speaks of a young and enthusiastic director, focused on “pulling out all the technical stops” much more than he is on respecting the integrity of the original piece.

With a mish-mash of digressions in quality when it comes to the performances, there are two unequivocal stand out roles, which do, actually, make this production worth seeing, but the performances of both Jacobs and Sopotela are somewhat obscured by the too many faux pas in the piece. The work lacks the authenticity that was evident in Paul Slabolepszy’s Pale Natives, drawing from within the same era, that was revived onstage several months ago, under the hand of Bobby Heaney.

South Africa in the 1970s was a completely different beast to what it is now, from the language to the politics to the understanding of the value of sex and drugs. It was replete with young people who knew what they were fighting for and were determined to change the world. It had its own very specific sonorousness. This rendition of Cincinatti sorely lacks any of that, and becomes meaningless.

  • Cincinatti: Scenes from city life, is written by Barney Simon and directed by Clive Mathibe with assistance from Vanessa Cooke. It is designed by Nadya Cohen (set), Lebo Toko (choreography), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) Lesego Moripe (costumes) and Jurgen Meekel (audio-visual) and performed by Brandon Auret, Odelle De Wet, Robyn Olivia Heaney, Francois Jacobs, Theo Landey, Christien Le Roux, Ameera Patel, Chuma Sopotela and Paka Zwedala, until September 13. Visit co.za or call 0118321641.