Cacophony of love for Hillbrow

MADNESS and cacophony. John Sithole (centre) in a scene from Hillbrowification. Photograph by John Hogg.

CONTEMPORARY POLISH COMPOSER Krzysztof Penderecki is known for, amongst other things, the bravery – or madness — to allow performers freedom of diverse expression within a defined rubric. So, in works of his which deal with issues such as witch hunts and nuclear bombs, for instance, you get a myriad of violinists reaching for heaven or hell with their instruments and the notes they choose to play. The result? A total cacophony. But it’s a cacophony not without borders. Something similar happens in Constanza Macras’s new work choreographed in conjunction with dancers associated with her company, Dorky Park, and citizens of the suburb of Hillbrow, entitled Hillbrowification.

It’s a rollicking monster of a piece which headlines the notion of joy, at all costs. Loosely and sometimes incomprehensively pinned to a fantasy tale about Planet Hope and how its people need to rejig their values, the work, clocking in about ten minutes too long, is by and large a big jol for the performers, but aesthetically, it is balanced in a Rococo, carnivalesque kind of metaphor.

You might leave the space with your head spinning, from the plentiful bellowing into microphones, music at full blast and sheer infection in the energy of the work. It’s Macras’s aesthetic translated with all its rough edges and idiosyncrasies into the immigrant gateway of South Africa that is known as Hillbrow, and as such, it is a remarkable success. With Miki Shoji casting her sprite-like presence around from under a shocking pink wig, Emil Bordás adding to the frisson of the carnivalesque in his full-head mask comprising large spikes and John Sithole in the dress of a 19th century courtesan, the work still doesn’t attain the level of chaotic discipline Macras unequivocally achieved in Hell on Earth, a work performed for Dance Umbrella ten years ago, but it does offer a sense of the unmitigated celebration in flatlands where the people are poor and the pragmatic challenges harsh.

The question must be asked, however, if this kind of free-for-all fits into community upliftment and along those lines, whether it has a place on an arts festival stage. This has more to do with the array of children in the work than much else. Like Donkey child, a totally magical piece, performed in this theatre under the Outreach Foundation’s rubric several years ago, it’s a magnet for very young people. Unlike Donkey child, it’s not always the adult performers, who take the aesthetic lead in the work.

Ultimately, though Hillbrowification aims to take all that the word ‘Hillbrow’ conveys and to toss it into the ether with a bit of luminous pink sparkly things, some full head masks, lovely fight choreography and an energy that you will want to bottle. It’s a pity a little more of the substance of the suburb was not brought into the fray, however. For as long as people have been arriving in this neck of the woods for sanctuary, Hillbrow’s arguably been their first port of call.

  • Hillbrowificiation is directed by Constanza Macras assisted by Helena Casas and Linda Michael Mkhwanazi, and choreographed by Constanza Macras assisted by Lisi Estará It features creative input by Tamara Saphir (dramaturgy), Roman Handt (costumes), Sibonelo Sithembe and Roggerio Soares for Outreach Foundation Boitumelo (stage and props), and Sergio de Carvalho Pessanha assisted by Phana Dube (lighting and technical design). It is performed by Emil Bordás, Rendani Dlamini, Zibusiso Dube, Nompilo Hadebe, Karabo Kgatle, Tshepang Lebelo, Jackson Magotlane, Brandon Magengele, Vusi Magoro, Bongani Mangena, Tisetso Maselo, Amahle Meine, Sakhile Mlalazi, Sandile Mthembu, Bigboy Ndlovu, Thato Ndlovu, Simiso Ngubane, Blessing Opoka, Miki Shoji, Pearl Sigwagwa, John Sithole, Ukho Somadlaka and Lwandlile Thabethe. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 9 and 10 at the Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg. Visit or call 086 111 0005.


From the mouths of babes

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

Paean to our post-Struggle rough and tumble

PARTY of four: Vish Naidoo (Luversan Gerard), Mncedisi Julius Matanzima (Pule Hlatswayo), Stanton de Villiers (Craig Morris) and Cornelia Hendricks (Campbell Meas). Photograph courtesy POP Arts theatre.

THE FABRIC OF struggle credentials is very specific. It’s about the grit and fire of political values which come head to head with the powers that be. It’s about trend and the urgency of getting your voice heard and the ‘right’ texts read. It’s about having the intellectual wherewithal to acknowledge your place in the world. And it’s also about how time flows and what happens to the rhetoric in a post struggle framework. Allan Kolski Horwitz’s play Book Marks embraces these values with a tight edge and a vital sense of prescience, but also with a reflection of context that could be about the self-conscious edginess of the Johannesburg suburb of Yeoville in the 1980s or that of Melville in the 2000s.

Beautifully cast, the work presents four well-rounded characters replete with their flaws of braggadocio and vulnerability that’s enmeshed in an identity of political rhetoric, sexual identity and the desire to fit in. Vish Naidoo (Luversan Gerard), Stanton De Villiers (Craig Morris) and Mncedisi Julius Matanzima (Pule Hlatswayo) are old friends, struggle veterans, people who know one another well and who’ve been together through the grotesque period that saw apartheid defeated. They’re from different socio-cultural contexts, but are heir to similar values. If you were a humanities student at university during the 1980s, you know these people, you know how they smell and how they think. You know how they argue and how they live.

Cornelia Hendricks (Campbell Meas) is the daughter of one of their comrades. She’s of the next generation and speaks with boldness and confidence with a ‘born free’ set of values. She also untouchable and lovely and represents a power nexus that the three men struggle around.

And together, the four find themselves in a context bruised by loadshedding in the wake of Thabo Mbeki’s antiretroviral controversy and amid the mixed values spouted by Msholozi’s complex popularity. The house is Stanton’s and the focus is a book club, fuelled with wine, conversation and debate.

But not everything turns out as sedately as all that. To the tune of plays such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the ‘party’ is pocked with unexpected dangerous potholes and everyone comes off a little battered by the experience. It’s a play about friendship and honesty as much as it is one of camaraderie and history.

To its credit, but also its detriment, it is a play very moored in the now. Which means, effectively that its contemporary audience will engage with all its issues, but a year or two down the line, much of the subtleties and the splaying of political interstices will be lost on its audience. Competently written, the work is about ten minutes too long, features some ghastly and unconvincing stage blood, and would benefit with more blatantly developed lines of narrative, which would give it the longevity it warrants.

Each performer embraces his or her character with a startling and compelling acumen. The work is structured to allow each to introduce him or herself in the first half of the work. As the piece unfolds, they become fleshed out and interact, revealing a tale that is as much about the personal as it is about the universal.

Kolski Horwitz is unrelenting in his commitment to theatre and in creating a season that causes many different platforms to collaborate with this work, hopefully he will engender a new trend, a new possible approach toward honing a season for a new work. See it here, see it there, but make a point of seeing it somewhere in the next few weeks.

  • Book Marks is written and directed by Allan Kolski Horwitz and performed by Luversan Gerard, Pule Hlatswayo, Campbell Meas and Craig Morris. It performs at the Olive Tree Theatre in Alexandra until February 5; at the Red Roof Theatre at AFDA in Auckland Park on February 9 and 10; at the Plat4rm in Newtown on February 11 and 12, at Hillbrow Theatre on February 16-18 and at the Soweto Theatre on February 23-4. Visit

One puff and all resistance crumbles into hell

CAUGHT between the devil and the deep blue sea. Zenzo Msomi is Sipho. Photograph courtesy

LIGHT FROM HAND-HELD torches tears striations in the theatre’s darkness, causing great big unfriendly shadows to loom against the walls as the police take the suspect down. Stage smoke is choreographed to rest and swell with a discomfiting energy as the dealer and his ‘victim’, the ‘cheese boy’ smoke. The stage is crafted in red, white and black, with the frame of a metal bed and several red plastic chairs comprising the set. The tone of Ulwembu is cast with fierce focus and unrelenting directness. It is a tale of street drugs told in the context of community values, that is crafted to soar amongst the most noble of theatrical constructs.

Directed with a muscularity and sense of conviction, this beautifully researched and deeply felt performance takes advocacy theatre which talks to the man on the street to a level that is considerably deeper and theatrically more developed than convention dictates. Normally, you might hear the words ‘community theatre’ or ‘advocacy drama’ and shrink away from the product’s aesthetic value, understanding it to be a mere one-dimensional extrapolation of bald ideologies.

But the adjective ‘mere’ doesn’t fit in any understanding of this poignant and hard hitting play about Sipho Mthembu (Zenzo Msomi), the 16-year-old son of a woman police lieutenant (Mpume Mthombeni). Painting a portrait of the South African street drug commonly known as whoonga or nyaope (a lethal concoction of various substances including rat poison, soap powder and antiretrovirals, it is often mixed with tobacco or dagga and smoked), the play is subtle and not gentle as it crafts a web of horror connecting the need of the dealer with a vulnerable youngster, a police officer and everything from xenophobic terror to the nauseating splay of addiction, which starts as one small experimental puff that opens a chasm of pain and destruction. And the more pain there is, the more the need for yet another puff. It’s a tale of money and torsion, of blackmail and the agony of a mother.

It’s a beautifully cast piece and arguably the standout performance is Mthombeni’s. She’s a woman with a very photogenic physical presence. She’s tough and she’s disciplined, as a cop, but when she’s confronted with the most horrendous nightmare that any mother could contemplate, she doesn’t resort to histrionics. Her sense of shock is so rich with realness that your mouth goes dry in empathy.

Told in both English and isiZulu, the work is magnificently constructed to tell a tale with piercing clarity. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand either language, the momentum of the work is crafted with nuance and heart but without allowing itself to sweeten the edges of this bitter reality.

Ulwembu, a spider’s web in isiZulu is an immensely significant piece of South African theatre. Not only because it takes advocacy material up many notches in the theatre construct, but also because, similar to initiatives conducted by Benoni-based theatre company Sibikwa, it melds an understanding of the people and the play. Set in KwaMashu, an area of KwaZulu-Natal, Ulwembu is performed by several professionals who call KwaMashu home. This is their story – or the story of their loved ones. And it must be heard.

  • Ulwembu is co-created by Ngcebo Cele, Neil Coppen, Vumani Khumalo, Dylan McGarry, Zenzo Msomi, Mpume Mthombeni, Phumlani Ngubane and Sandile Nxumalo and directed by Neil Coppen. It is performed by Ngcebo Cele, Vumani Khumalo, Zenzo Msomi, Mpume Mthombeni, Phumlani Ngubane and Sandile Nxumalo at the Hillbrow Theatre, 14 Kapteijn Street in Hillbrow until January 26 and on January 27 at Wedgewood Gardens. Visit

Weighing, wanting and kneading

Oupa Sibeko
REACHING for the light: Oupa Sibeko in Black Dog, performing in Namibia. Photograph by Ben Skinner.

A YOUNG SOUTH African man will reveal his soul at the National Gallery of Namibia, on August 5. He will be armed with a heavy industrial chain, a broken telephone, an old-fashioned scale, and woman’s stocking, amongst other things. He will also be armed with the fire of self-belief. Meet 23-year-old Oupa Sibeko who spoke to My View just before flying to Namibia.

“The only library I need for my work comes from my roots,” he says. Sibeko was orphaned as a baby. “I come from a lack of family. I have always yearned to have a family. But then I had to learn to appreciate the fact that the absence of family can actually make me strong. Rather than to derail me, it can help to make me a better person in life,” he speaks strongly of the need to not be a victim.

Sibeko was raised by his grandmother, on a farm west of Johannesburg. She was a hardworking and strong woman and she died when Sibeko was just eight. “Since then I was raised by my uncle, who is there when he’s drunk. But when he’s sober, we cannot find a point of communication.”

It was the fire in the sensibilities of that eight-year-old, that held tight to not only his dreams but also the money he inherited from his grandmother, and that brought him to university, years later. That eight-year-old was also a repository for images. He speaks of his gran doing laundry, kneading bread and of the day she died. He speaks of an ability to draw from these memories to create work.

Instinctively he found comfort in performing. The enactment of a nightmare he’d experienced, in a first year class by Joni Barnard made him realise he was on the right track. “I found myself just moving. Was I dancing? Was I walking? I don’t know. But I found myself just doing it. I didn’t have to explain it to myself or to anyone else. It felt right,” he adds that Wits gave him the safe space he needed to play.

After graduating in 2015, Sibeko won a residency in Iceland. Not only had he never flown in an aeroplane, he’d also never slept in a double bed before, but rather than project parochial naiveté, he quickly learnt to roll with the punches. Even when curious Icelandic teenagers flocked to touch him, because of the novelty of black skin for them, he reeled with trauma, but braved it.

“I wanted to be something better in life. Education was so important to me. I came with nothing. I only had my gran’s savings. I didn’t even know its worth. As soon as I had an opportunity to apply to Wits, I did. I used all of that money to register for the degree. For me this money was like her ashes. Was I going to put them in a river and let them go? Was I going to go to a hill and just throw it in the air? Or was I going to make something of my life. Wits was where I put it.”

At university, Sibeko rapidly learnt to make sacrifices of his creature comforts and he often slept all night on campus, like a stowaway. His commute between university and home was almost two hours, involving – often not reliable – public transport. “What was important was this degree. I needed this cultural knowledge. That was all.” He describes the multitude of accents he encountered at Wits and the bamboozling array of values university life tossed his way.

Unequivocally, he describes his lecturers, Gerard Bester and Toni Morkel as the people who touched his sensibilities the deepest, who pushed him further than he thought he could go. “These are the big guns,” he glories in Bester and Morkel’s association with choreographer Robyn Orlin and their work with the Hillbrow theatre. “I also look at Steven Cohen for his bravery in taking chances that are designed to spark controversy. And at how performance artist Albert Khoza, presents himself. It is fantastic.”

The work he performs in Namibia is called Black Dog. “I try to understand my masculinity in this work. It is not about an initiation where a young man is sent to a mountain to be circumcised. It is about self-initiation: I had to clean myself up, sort myself out and decide what kind of a man I would be.

“When I was a child, there were three characters in my life besides me: my gran, my uncle and a black dog. This dog wasn’t a pet: like the rest of us, it had to forage and hunt for itself. And this work is a reflection on myself as a black dog of sorts.

“How should I perceive men? Not all men are drunk and neglectful like my uncle. And women? I only knew my gran until I was eight. I do not know how to respond to her memory as an adult.

“In the work, I play with tangible things.  I weigh myself on a scale … but it is doing more than just weighing my body mass, it is weighing my life, it is weighing where I come from, it is weighing how far I can go. For me, with all these pokes and needles in life, the bottles which are broken which I had to go through, I had to put myself through this journey on my own.

“Part of me is not scared to perform this work in a context which may be sensitive. I choose to be naked. The vulnerability is important.  I know it is a conservative audience, but it is important that they are challenged to address what I am doing.” The exhibition in which Sibeko is taking part is called Conversations. “I’m not having a conversation with anyone. I am the subject and the object. I’m having a conversation with myself, but provoking conversation, among others. This is how it goes forward,” he adds.