Pandora’s suitcase

The Suitcase 2017

ALL we need is each other: Timi (Siyabonga Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

WHEN A WORK touches you so deeply that elements in its direction have become part of how you see and speak about the world, you know that something’s been done right. In 2006, James Ngcobo directed the stage version of Es’kia Mphahlele’s tragic and beautiful tale The Suitcase. It’s back, returning from a recent United Kingdom tour, and while there are some radical changes to the form of the work, armed with many of the same performers and almost the same set, its magic is still mostly there.

It’s a tale of love and horror in a time of poverty which sees Timi Ngobese (Siyabonga Thwala) and his young wife Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) coming to the big city to start a life together. It’s the 1950s and they come from a rural village. She’s Xhosa. He’s Zulu. And in the face of frowns from their respective families, they are rich with their love for one another. This love is so young and so real that it makes you weep: you instinctively know the universe is nestling sinister plots in the wings for them.

In the details of this work, love exudes from the way in which its fibre and texture are crafted. From the lambrequins — ornamental shelf hangings lending an irrevocable domesticity to otherwise bare spaces — that define the set and offer platform to the paper birds, to the manner in which the set enfolds a story within a story, that echoes the way in which the words fold into one another, the piece is eminently satisfying to watch. Also bucking the trend of forcing piped music into a production, the work features Bheki Khoza playing the guitar on stage, which complements the work with sophistication and delicacy.

Along the same kind of lines, the work also features three young women – Nokukhanya Dlamini, Gugulethu Shezi and Ndoh Dlamini – who bring interregna of song into the story. And this is a decision less sophisticated and delicate: Their sung interjections are highly amplified, and while the trio is generally in fine form and mostly harmonises well, the boldness of their presence tends to shove the emotional impact of the story down your throat rather vehemently. It no longer allows the events to simmer in a context of devastating subtlety as they did in the earlier version of the play.

Featuring quirky nuances, lovely stylisations of movement and sound, it’s a tale of bright shiny and naïve optimism and crushing, relentless disappointment as it is a heartbreaking cipher of the cruelty of apartheid values that shunned the black man from any modicum of hope.

Mbangeni absolutely glows in the mix of endearing naïveté and mature, scarred resignation she presents to the work. She performs opposite Thwala who reprised this role over ten years ago, and together they offer an energy of domesticity and love that is sweet and palpable. Desmond Dube and John Lata reflect the community surrounding the young Ngobesis, bringing humour and poignancy, the flavour of poverty and the bitter jokes that come of its challenges into the mix.

Not flawless, but deeply iconic as a piece of South African storytelling, this is a valuable, compelling theatre experience.

  • The Suitcase is written by Es’kia Mphahlele and adapted and directed by James Ngcobo. It features creative input by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), and is performed by Ndoh Dlamini, Nokukhanya Dlamini, Desmond Dube, John Lata, Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Gugulethu Shezi and Siyabonga Thwala, with Bheki Khoza on guitar, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex until November 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.
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Judge this man by his suit

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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.

Arm wrestling with giants

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BATTLE of values: Malcolm X (Brendon Daniels) arm to arm with Martin Luther King (Aubrey Poo). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker.

THEATRE IS TRULY a magical medium. In casting fictional glances at real characters, it can unstitch the raw underbody of a myriad of political what-ifs and set your beliefs on edge. Playwright Jeff Stetson has woven a conversation between US Civil Rights heroes, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with historical perspicacity and empathy for both sides that is so powerful, you may forget to breathe as it unfolds.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this idea may have degenerated into a simple war of political platitudes and lost its electric edge, to say nothing of its rich balance. Instead, it shines. The characters are three dimensional, and speak with the kind of blood red conviction that will sway your own opinions hither and yon. Under the directorial hand of James Ngcobo, it is a defining theatre experience. The play features an audio-visual sequence projected on each side of the theatre that punctuates the play without messing with its values, as it draws in local and contemporary references with a deft hand and a sure knowledge of how history turns on its own maddening momentum and society sees the same things unfold.

Cast in a similar historical conflation of values we saw in Hinterland by Duncan Buwalda  and directed by Caroline Smart in 2015 which pondered an association between Cecil John Rhodes and Sol Plaatjies, and Mountaintop, staged at the Market Theatre in 2013 written by Katori Hall and directed by Warona Seane, The Meeting presents historical what-ifs with an informed perspective. It’s compelling theatre at its very best.

But it is Brendon Daniels in the role of Malcolm X that gives the work the unquestionable authority it warrants. Aubrey Poo as King tends to be pompous and fruity with his Southern drawl which sometimes becomes a bleat, but the words in his mouth exude levity and fierceness. The play counterpoises the desire for peaceful confrontation with that of violence, in the face of a society bruised and scarred with racism, but one which pivots on arm wrestles and a little girl’s rag doll.

Designed on a set which stands at table-height, the work takes place in the anonymous bland comfort space of a 1960s hotel room in Harlem. Almost staged in the round, the work does, however lean more toward the audiences in the front and right of the performance than those on the left.

Religious values flow through the work’s crevices with Muslim prayer and Baptist references that keep the two men respectful of each other’s values, as suspicion is cast around the securitised environment. You’re not exposed to either man’s assassination, but you know, as the characters do, that death lurks everywhere, and that their time to offer their voices to the world will be curtailed.

But more than all of this is how the fabric of the play itself has been crafted to juxtapose violence with non-violence. There are structural nuances that you may not notice on your first viewing of the piece, that feed into a satisfying reflection of the values of these two men. It’s a play through which you will learn to empathise with both potential approaches to society. It’s apt to make you weep, as it presents Black History Month in intelligent unmitigated boldness.

  • The Meeting is written by Jeff Stetson and directed by James Ngcobo. It features design by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set), Jurgen Meekel (audio visual) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes) and is performed by Litha Bam, Brendon Daniels and Aubrey Poo in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, Newtown, until February 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Kitchen sink provocation

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WAITING FOR DREAMS TO HAPPEN: The programme cover for James Ngcobo’s production of A Raisin in the Sun

FEBRUARY IS BLACK History month and the Market Theatre proudly touts this international commemorative energy with arguably one of black America’s most poignant hard-hitting plays. Written in 1959 at the height of racist issues of the time, A Raisin in the Sun compares unequivocally with Arthur Miller’s inestimable Death of a Salesman (1949), in its reflection on success, the fallibility of dreams and the power of money.

It’s an almost flawless production, featuring design that will take your breath away in its simple brilliance. Essentially, this is a kitchen sink drama that takes place in poor tenement housing. With some down-at-heel kitchen cupboards and furniture, and an enormous fabric backdrop, designer Nadya Cohen has constructed everything that apartment life in suburban poverty could mean. The set is gestural, the nuances it contains are rich with the evoked stink of oppression and making do.

Enter Ruth (Lesedi Job). Wife to Walter (Paka Zwedala), mother to Travis (Hungani Ndlovu), daughter-in-law to Lena (Trena Bolden Fields) and sister-in-law to Beneatha (Gaosi Raditholo), she’s a tragic character by definition. Job embraces the role with such a sense of potent energy, her Ruth recalls the mute sense of the tragic conveyed by British actress Julie Walters in so many of her roles. This is no blood and guts emotion, but rather a more subtle and sophisticated reflection of utter disappointment and impotent rage. Job embraces the stage with a tenderness and a sense of resolution, which resounds across the auditorium even when she is silent, her back turned to the audience, as she weeps whilst washing dishes or ironing.

The work’s narrative surrounds the maturing of a policy in the wake of a death that could lift the oppression from this hapless family, but it is structured in such a way that you realise it is a lot more than money that is necessary to alleviate their indignity, which is bruised by poverty but deeply scarred by blind racism and the senseless repositioning of goal posts.

Zwedala admirably offers a deeply emotional Walter: A man who is not afraid to dream or to weep at his mother’s feet, but one who is stunted in his potential to fly or actualise those dreams. It is not through faults of his own that he’s the brunt of his family’s mockery and his friends’ betrayal, but ultimately, he’s the character that shoulders the emptiness of loss in weathering and patching broken dreams.

As Trena Bolden Fields comes on stage in the role of the family’s matriarch, Walter’s mother, your knee-jerk reaction might be to disbelieve her in this role because she seems too young and her smooth skin and beautiful physique belie the white-powdered hair, but as the role unfolds, this American performer sways and surges with the rhythms and nuances in this text so well that she becomes Lena, unforgettably – feisty and hard working to a fault, a woman with adult children who understands the passage of time and the shifting of generations but also one who knows her children and their dreams and flaws, better than they think.

Lena’s daughter Beneatha is the most conflicted and complex role in the work. She’s beautifully cast and feels completely appropriate as Walter’s fiery younger sister also all wrapped up in the family’s circumstances. Swept off her feet by completely different suitors – the wealthy young George (Lebo Toko) with his poncy accent and white shoes; and the politically astute young Asegai (Khathu Ramabulana) with his Africanness and exoticism – she has a fire in her belly that she will not assuage.

The child, played by Hungani Ndlovu, is, like all the other roles in this work, effectively a cameo. Ndlovu does seem too old for the role, given that he’s meant to be a mere 11 years, but this doesn’t seriously hurt the plot.

The curious thing about this work is both its staging and the choice to choreograph dancers around it. The stage in the John Kani Theatre is three-quarters in the round. The production is streamlined to face in a certain direction. While this doesn’t hurt the work, you may have a completely different experience depending on where you are seated in the auditorium.

Dancers are choreographed to give a sense of life in the tenement housing around the Younger family and from the back seats of the theatre, you cannot see them with clarity, but rather the poetic play of shadows of limbs and beautiful movement offer that light sense of energy that is completely and deliciously sufficient. Whether their more full-bodied presence would hurt a reading of the play remains moot. Instinctively, it does seem, however, that the introduction of dancers on top of all the other dynamics that the play presents, is just too much, which effectively would overwhelm rather than hone your view.

All things considered, the eagle-eye view from the back of the theatre allowed for an experience that was not only deeply moving but also sophisticated and provocative in its focus. This is an important work; beautifully crafted, it reaches into the nub of ugliness in black-white dialogue. Don’t miss it.

  • A Raisin in the Sun is written by Lorraine Hansberry and directed by James Ngcobo. It features design by Nadya Cohen (set), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Lesego Moripe (costumes), Fana Tshabalala (choreographer) and Jurgen Meekel (audio-visual). It is performed by Trena Bolden Fields, Charlie Bouguenon, Lesedi Job, Hungani Ndlovu, Gaosi Raditholo, Khathu Ramabulana, Khulu Skenjana, Lebo Toko and Paka Zwedala and dancers Tshepang Maphate and Teresa Mojela, in the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until February 28. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za
  • For a broader overview on how A Raisin in the Sun touches contemporary South African communal values, read this.

Hard to stomach, Egoli seems to have too many cooks

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What is it that makes a theatre director muddy his own clarity of thought and compromise something utterly wise and moving, with quick and nasty literal gimmicks? Matsemela Manaka’s Egoli, first published in 1980, is a powerful paean to manhood and the collective challenges it faces, but this production of it has mixed success in the rash of grotesque horrors it thrusts at its audience.

More than that, it’s a play that so flagrantly ignores basic precepts of audience comfort that it can be a really frightening experience that reaches beyond the performances, the narrative or the context. It is clear that the director wanted to evoke the kind of terrifying, claustrophobic entrapment miners face daily, for you, who has paid for a ticket and sits in the audience, and in doing this, he succeeds, but perhaps there should be a disclaimer or two at the door or the box office.

You cannot get out of this space without walking through the stage, once the work begins to unfold. You may wish to – on opening night, a woman in the audience actually vomited in response to the drama onstage. There are terrifying strobes and an environment which at times is completely brutal in its description of loss and mourning, shock and anger.

It’s sad: In 2006, there was a production in this theatre complex of Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase, directed by James Ngcobo with set design by Nadya Cohen. The idea of the horror of sudden loss was absolutely unforgettably conveyed with the crash of a metal dustbin lid. It was a gesture so simple and so devastating and shocking that it reached far beyond its simplicity.

Egoli begins with an astoundingly fine metaphor that evokes that bin lid crash in its wisdom and subtlety, in representing the mine shaft elevator, but sadly there is scant follow through on such sophisticated thinking and much of the work, with the exception of some untouchably lovely a capella work, is violent and crude.

Also there are other elements in this work which seem to overlook the fact that the audience is the final component to a play. If you only speak English, you may well miss some 70% of the work’s nuances. If you’re not able to turn your head completely around, like an owl, you may not be able to see all of the work in entirety: the performers use every corner of the theatre, including areas behind the seated audience. While this is effective, it’s also counterproductive.

Having said all of that, this tale of the horrendous challenges faced by men is at times so achingly beautiful and tragic, it will take your breath away. A work that presents South African miners in delicate three-dimensionality, Egoli is a series of stories within stories about love and hate and humiliation and terror and premature loss and politics, and in this respect, it succeeds in the same way that iconic texts like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) reflects on the humour and fear and crushing inevitability of men in a mandatory situation at war. It’s headlined by nuanced and superb performances in the authoritative hands of Hamilton Dhlamini opposite Lebogang Motaung – as Hamilton and John respectively.

While the texture of the work is convincing and tight, mine tales are mine tales and struggle tales are struggle tales. Knitting the two together feels contrived and the story’s central kernel is a flawed one because the association of the two men feels impossibly coincidental. But it’s a narrative flaw that’s easy to forgive in the face of bigger theatre sins: Gritty and deep, clever and rich, the work, if you’re able to overlook the vomit-inducing elements, the constriction and threat to audience safety, is replete with such developed subtleties and symbolic gestures that its wild leaps toward brutal literality make it feel as though there’s a director too many at work here.

  • Egoli is written by Matsemela Manaka and directed by Phala Ookeditse Phala, mentored by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Onthatile Matshidiso (set and costumes) and it is performed by Faith Busika, Hamilton Dhlamini, Billy Langa, Katlego Letsholonyana, Mohlatsi Mokgonyana, Lebohang Motaung and Alfred Motlhapi, at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 31. Call 0118321641 or visit markeettheatre.co.za
  • Arguably, the success of the environment overrides the critical success of the play itself. Read this piece.

Ketekang: celebrating so much, it hurts

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

From the moment band leader Tshepo Mngoma lets rip into his electronic violin, in the opening number Bungazani, you are convinced that this anthology of music, theatre, dance and poetry will be extraordinary. And you won’t be wrong, but Ketekang is not without decision-making flaws, which bruise its impact.

Couched in celebratory cliché, the work is not monolithic, and boasts an unusual body of song, poetry and snippets of theatre in its repertoire of 30 works. In many, though, the narrative thread holding them relevant, is disappointingly absent.

What does pin the work together is the choreographic moments. By and large, choreographed and danced by Luyanda Sidiya and dancers associated with Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong, they pepper Ketekang with a bold freshness which really takes your breath away. There’s a moment commemorating Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson on June 16, 1976 which will etch itself into your heart. Embodying a sense of the urgency and horror of the situation, it is beautifully constructed, like a piece of poetry.

Similarly, there’s a paean to “dustbin men”, important characters in the grotesque pedestrianism of apartheid. It’s danced with a brusqueness and a sense of potency that will resonate with your heart.

But after the show, as you glance through the rich song list, you might be forgiven for thinking “Really?” There are too many really important iconic works here that jostle with each other for focus. With snatches of Athol Fugard, Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, Zakes Mda and Omphile Molusi, some of them too obscure to trigger memories of the full works, songs from the likes of John Legend, Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana and Hugh Masekela are pushed, cheek by jowl with snippets of poetry from people such as Fred Khumalo, Professor Keroopetse Kgositsile and Langston Hughes, to name a few.

There’s an unmodulated richness to this work which makes you so heady your focus sways. And while there are references to dates: there’s a ‘1940’ on the back of one dancer, and the 1976 riots are beautifully clear, the trajectory of time is not convincingly developed, and the work does feel hurriedly put together, with no time for the piece to breathe easily and come into its own.

Also, there’s a jingling and a jangling between South African and American values, accents and works: it’s not clear what this is pitched at.

While the performers, including the gorgeous Aubrey Poo, Lesedi Job and Lebo Toko are honed and articulate and smooth as can be, there’s several jarring elements of discomfort. Costumes are not always comfortable on the bodies of the singers, which troubles the act of watching the work.

The production’s set is defined by a halo of barbed wire that surrounds the piece, teetering between a strangely celebratory image and one of oppression, and a curious interplay of spaces used in the theatre, which are innovative and exploratory, but not always comfortable to the viewer.

In short, Ketekang is magnificently celebratory: it showcases some of the finest musicians, singers and dancers on our stages right now, and gives voice to songs obscure and well known. But it’s a production in which you can’t easily see the wood for the trees and you become lost in the spectacular spectacle of it all. It just tries too hard.

  • Ketekang is directed by James Ngcobo with musical direction by Tshepo Mngoma, choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, set by Nadya Cohen, costumes by Nthabiseng Makone, lighting by Nomvula Molepo and sound design by Gladman Balintulo. It is performed by Caroline Borole; Nokukhanya Dlamini; Lesedi Job; Katlego Letsholonyana; Vuyelwa Maluleke; Mahlatsi Mokgonyana; Aubrey Poo; Sonia Radebe; Dionne Song; and Lebo Toko on stage and musicians Ezbie Moilwa; Godfrey Mgcina;Ntokozo Mgcina; Johan Mthethwa;and Sakhile Nkosi. It performs at the Market Theatre’s John Kani theatre until December 14.