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
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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.

Would you like a cup of tea with that, Madam?

betweensisters

DRINK it all up: Bontle (Dimakatso Motholo) and Flo (Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza). Photograph by Mariola Biela.

STEP ASIDE, SOLANGE and Claire. Forget the clichéd sexy French maids’ garb with stockings and suspenders, frilly aprons and cleavage.  With domestic servants like Bontle (Dimakatso Motholo) and Flo (Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza), the strategic and oft sinister plotting between siblings and subservients, coined in Jean Genet’s iconic play The Maids (1947), is ramped up to a new level of relevance, and the audience is kept splendidly in the know and the now, in this extremely fine production.

You may have seen earlier performances of The Maids. In drag. With white women. Playing heavily on the period style of the set. You may have read sociological studies on the relationship between a maid and her madam. You may know the blatant and blunt stereotypes in  Zukiswa Wanner’s Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (2013). Between Sisters is a fresh take on all the values offered by these disparate works, ideas and perspectives on servants, as it gleefully knits together volatile and prescient issues central to the identity and complexity of domestic maids in contemporary South Africa.

Ultimately, it’s a work about power. And manipulation. But it’s seldom what you think; there’s a couple of fabulous little twists in the tale, which quite take you by surprise. But the roaring success of the work is hinged on exceptionally strong performances by Motholo and Thakudi-Nzuza and a beautifully and utterly irreverently written script which conjoins everything from contemporary Sesotho slang to David Tlale fashions.

With vicious irony and sinister intent, these sisters, who wield insults like fully-loaded weapons and monger hate like professionals, skirt and titter around dresses, money and cups of tea in ways that will keep you on the edge of your seat. There’s a brilliant mix of evil intent and hilarity, secret plots and open lies that make this a delicious work to watch, whether you know Sesotho or not.

Featuring simple yet wise design elements that cast you, as the audience, right in the thick of the luxurious bedroom of ‘Madam’ (Reneilwe Mashitisho), effectively on the other side of her mirror, the work is pared down succinctly, and a novel use of suspended elements adds to a sense of idiosyncrasy.

But more than a socially sophisticated yarn about three women, money and role-playing that is oft less about idle pretense than you think, this is an important theatrical gesture. It brings the fire and the fury and the astuteness of young theatre practitioners to the fore, stretching their performance mettle, but also inflaming their sense of relevance. This is a play which must travel.

  • Between Sisters is directed by Refiloe Lepere and devised by Lepere with the cast. It features design by Sinenhlanhla Zwane and Natalie Paneng (set and costumes). It is performed in the Wits Downstairs Theatre by Reneilwe Mashitisho, Dimakatso Motholo and Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza, as part of the Sex Actually Festival, hosted by Drama For Life, at Wits Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until September 10. Visit dramaforlife.co.za

Boykie and Girlie: Engaging classic couple stakes

Contemplating life, the universe and everything, Boykie (Robert Hobbs) sits on the most comforting seat of all. PHOTOGRAPH BY EVANS MATHIBE.

Contemplating life, the universe and everything, Boykie (Robert Hobbs) sits on the most comforting seat of all. PHOTOGRAPH BY EVANS MATHIBE.

With direct points of homage to the likes of Samuel Beckett, Athol Fugard and Ariel Dorfman, Boykie and Girlie is a fresh new piece of theatre which sparkles with its own beauty, but lacks punch in its denouement.

Meet the eponymous characters: he’s a writer waiting for work, for inspiration, for something to give his life a level of cohesion. Dressed in a ‘Time of the Writer’ t-shirt which has been rather self-consciously made holey, he’s hungry, starving for something to give meaning to it all. She’s a self-made lawyer, holding the relationship together financially, pragmatically. Their almost anonymous names, denoting their gender more than much else, lend them a universality which is quite breath-taking, making you think, on various levels of other classic couples, like Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena. Overlooking the specifics of their issues, they are in a sense every couple.

Robert Hobbs opposite Khutjo Green simply sing in relation to one another, and as they breathe performed life into this beautiful script, replete as it is with cutting and barbarous insult and acrimony that comes of familiarity, the combination of performers, words and context are simply delicious to watch unfold. They’re backed by a fabulous set which casts a nod in the direction of Ariel Dorfman’s Delirium, staged in South Africa a few years ago, replete as it is with an ostensibly functional toilet onstage.

There’s a realistic grubbiness to the work which in exploring this well-established relationship between two adults, doesn’t relent in unpicking petty malice that becomes borderline threatening in its approach. Do they love each other? Certainly. Will he leave her? Will she leave him? Probably not. But the viciousness of their repartee at times reaches almost tidal proportions in its ebb and flow. The choreography of the work is splendid.

But the project in entirety is hurt by the narrative’s lack of a meaningful denouement. When you watch Green opposite Hobbs, you get this happy but almost frightening sense that this could go on forever: it’s both a positive and a negative realisation, simultaneously. The work is strong and impassioned enough to hold its own for a considerable time – way beyond its designated hour – but, conversely, there are no great revealing elements to puncture the plot enough.

There’s a moment of theatrical experimentation involving donkeys and casting a self-critical eye at the performance art arena and its habits, which is glorious but under-exploited, and ultimately the work leaves you hanging: as the clapping and bowing begins, it leaves you feeling vaguely cheated of a theatrical or narrative nub to hold on to.

Boykie and Girlie has the potential of slipping into the realm of the classic South African couple, representing the quintessential values and contradictions of being a mixed-race couple in this hurly burly world, but the writing just doesn’t go far enough.

  • Boykie and Girlie written and directed by Allan Horwitz, features Khutjo Green and Robert Hobbs, and performs at the Wits Downstairs Theatre until August 1, and in the Nunnery on August 2. It is part of this year’s Drama For Life SA Season.