Two women, and tea with Greek biscuits

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KINDRED spirits: Grace (Lesedi Job) chats to Luli (Fiona Ramsay) of books and life, persecution and victory. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

LAST NOVEMBER, AN extraordinary gem of a play saw light of day at the Market Theatre. It was an unusual work, paying tribute to the complex life of South African Greek political activist, teacher, writer and social historian, Luli Callinicos. And unusual in that, because academics are seldom perceived to be sexy enough to honour, during their lifetimes, in this way. It was also a one-hander, stretching Fiona Ramsay’s characterisation skills beautifully. Now, almost a year later, the same creative team, with the addition of Lesedi Job, in the role of Grace, a young woman who was born in exile in the United Kingdom, presents a new manifestation of the work.

Examining the two If We Digs is an incisive exercise in storytelling priorities: the second version is not remarkably better than the first – rather, it features both gains and losses. In introducing the Grace character, the work resonates like a conversation rather than a self-conscious monodrama. And Grace’s life and identity are opened up to both Luli (played by Ramsay) and the audience.

Her presence as a conduit for Luli’s memories is not sufficiently explained, however. Is she interviewing Luli? Why, then, has she brought her own memories to the table? Is Luli interviewing her? Why then, does Luli offer so much of her own anecdotes? Are they old friends? Not really – they’re of different generations, albeit from within a similar political texture, and their conversations reveal unknowns about one another.

This red herring may be cast aside and be forgiven however, because what a dialogue does for the material as opposed to a monologue, is enrich the give and take in the texture of the material. Job’s presence is refined and impassioned and the character she represents is well honed and a good corollary to Ramsay’s Luli, who encapsulates all the idiosyncrasies of South African Greek culture with wisdom and perspective, as well as with deep fondness.

Also placed on a circular stage, as its earlier manifestation was, the work is homely in its sense of domestic space, but not overworked in detail. It is allowed to breathe – and similarly, the South African (and Greek) music which seeps between the interstices of the play are placed with elegance and subtlety, supporting the textual focus well.

But, you in the audience, who might not have seen the first version of this play, lose access to some of Luli’s stories which were re-enacted and brought to memorable life the first time round. Instead, here, the voices of the people who dot Callinicos’s research over a lifetime of archives and documents become lost and turn into footnotes in the folds of the conversation between Luli and Grace.

Further to that, the work ends too neatly. It’s all wrapped with a hug and a proverbial bow tied in rainbow nation hues which leaves you wanting more, though it’s a long, wordy work. Ultimately, the contribution which Callinicos has made to the world in which we live through her research and teaching, her engagement with her own heritage and her beautiful use of language, is precious and both the first and the second manifestations of this work offer her significant presence in audience awareness and memory. But is the latest version of this play better? No. But that’s not a bad thing – This If We Dig is as much a theatrical gem as the last, but for different reasons.

  • If We Dig is written by Fiona Ramsay and Megan Willson and directed by Megan Willson. It features creative input by Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Nadya Cohen (set and costumes). It is performed by Lesedi Job and Fiona Ramsay in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 27. Phone 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
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Soil tilled to a new level

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PRAISE the lord and pay your dues! The press (Billy Langa, Momo Matsunyane, Lillian Tshabalala, Alfred Motlhapi and Katlego Letsholonyana) interview the messianic Mgnae (Omphile Molusi). Photograph by Thandile Zwelibanzi.

EVERY SO OFTEN in any artistic community, there’s an upsurge of aesthetic do’s and don’ts. It has as much to do with intellectual fashions of the day as it does with the personalities and egos in the industry. But it gives vent and platform to new voices, headlined by virtue of what they are doing with their words and ideas on stage. Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi have created a theatrical statement in Ankobia which mashes together the values of Bertolt Brecht with those of George Orwell, in a thunderingly direct South African context. Breathtakingly.

These values are spliced and tossed together in a science-fictionised, sophisticated yet simple context of savagery and corruption which we all know, in this country – indeed, in this world. But this is no easy or direct spoof of contemporary local politics. Wrapping levels of corruption and reflections of religious hypocrisy together, it is a fantasy tale which takes place in 2041. It cuts close to the bone yet is couched in an understanding of biblical narrative and the complexities of acting. A fruit salad, you may think. You’d be wrong: the piece is tautly written and beautifully performed, condensed down to a tale that is easy to follow, even if you only speak English.

In short, Ankobia, featuring sterling performances from the whole cast, in terms of the muscularity and the malleability of their characters, is not only an important bit of theatre heritage for this society, it’s a play for the people in a way that looks to the future of culture. It’s an angry work, which takes pejorative notions, such as racist values, to the hilt and redefines them with an ironic spin. Land issues are transmogrified into a reflection on the magic potency of soil, and the son of God is but an actor on contract (Molusi).

The sinister morality of this work is embraced with visual humour and strong techno-vibes which see an amalgamation of traditional references and a spattering of LED lights. The one flaw in the work is the plasticity of the set which seems to stultify its energy and is not dealt with directly. Having said that, the choreography and dispersal of song gestures and asides lends the work a Brechtian texture, as does the presence of a faux messianic narrator, in all his bravado and flawed values.

It’s a team energy that seethes and bursts with both dexterity and wisdom, and is driven to an even higher level with the use of a musician – Volley Nchabeleng – onstage, lending the piece traditional authenticity and subtlety that is completely appropriate. Similarly, Jurgen Meekel’s audiovisual interjections are positioned with acuteness and fit properly into the material.

But this is no soft or easy story. Ankobia is about twisted values and coerced behaviour. It’s about the purging of brainwashing tools and witches and savages who are the real custodians of a land gone beserk. It’s easily one of the highlights of this city’s theatre picking in a long while.

  • Ankobia is written by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Omphile Molusi and directed by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi. It features creative input by Amos Kgaugelo Phala (costumes), Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Thando Lobese (set) and Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual) and is performed by Billy Langa, Katlego ‘Kaygee’ Letsholonyana, Momo Matsunyane and Omphile Molusi with Volley Nchabeleng playing a wide range of indigenous musical instruments and creating sound effects. It is at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 13. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za