Incendiary youth: SA style

MyChildren

MY opinion is correct! Student debate with Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), while Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) goads them on. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

A WHITE HIGH school girl lies on her belly on a school bench to read a spot of King Lear as she munches on an apple.  There’s a sense of ‘how things should be’ in everything from her school uniform to her engagement with what is obviously homework. A black high school boy filters a petrol-soaked piece of cloth into a bottle as he fingers a cigarette lighter.  The chasm in values breaks your heart, but says it as it must be said if you’re engaging South African values. Indeed, it’s difficult to get into the shoes of another person, and easier to judge their circumstances with the harshness of your own perspectives. Particularly if you’re a half-formed teenager, even a very bright one. This is something that the cast and the audience discover in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!. It’s being reprised by the National Children’s Theatre as a touring programme for high schools, and the prescience of this work cannot be understated even if you are all done with high school.

It’s a play about the raw and bleeding discrepancy between haves and have nots that is so central to the complexities of South African existence. Cast in the mid 1980s, in the Eastern Cape, it showcases the fire and passion of black youth attempting to address the horror and shame of apartheid, counterpoised with the traditional educational values of white privilege. And it is here where we meet Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), the respective cream of their own communities, in a debating match that’s something of an experiment, bringing together the energies of youth from contexts not that far from one another, geographically, but a million miles apart in every other way.

The teacher is an elderly man, fondly known as Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) and while he’s the catalyst for the experiment, his values too are informed and potent. But in being of the previous generation he is intensely vulnerable.

The tale is not an easy one, peppered as it is with language that we just don’t use anymore, as it is a cipher of the kind of extreme violence that set our country on fire, literally in the mid 1980s. This play, which enjoyed its stage debut at the Market Theatre, with Kathy-Jo Wein and Rapulana Seiphemo opposite John Kani in 1989 is one that reaches beyond adults and to the youth in the audiences. It’s about choices and literature, the fury of impotence and how your well-intentioned parents can embarrass you into silence. Or your substitute parents can incite you into violence.

It is creatively staged, with a simple set that can be broken into metaphors of violence easily, but it isn’t clear why the decision was taken to erase the play’s interval. It’s a meaty work with lots to consume and the gap in the telling of the tale is a necessary one, particularly for younger audiences.  Also, a valuable decision is taken in the cast changing into their costumes on stage. This lends a reflection that these are indeed performers, and the manner in which they adopt the age-specificity of their roles is strong and cogent.

Mdlalose plays the young firebrand from the ‘location’, who, armed with an intellect that surpasses most, is subject to the indignities of Bantu Education because he is black. It’s a crucial role, but his articulation is not always understandable, which is a pity as the text is rich with 1980s realities. He’s beautifully supported by the performances of van Hees and Makubalo who lend the texture of the age of their characters as much as they give the text vehemence.

It’s a play that will change your perceptions and your mind, and make you realise that student shenanigans in the 20-teens are as hot and relevant as they were nearly 40 years ago. Or vice versa.

  • My Children! My Africa! is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Siphumeze Khundayi and Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Msuthu Makubalo, Phumlani Mdlalose and Christine van Hees in a touring programme hosted by the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown. The theatre will be staging a couple of public performances toward the end of May. Visit their website, or call: 011-484-1584.

Paean to The Ones With No Names

train

HELPLESS among the dead: Roelf Visagie (Dawid Minnaar). Photo courtesy: The Market Theatre.

GRAVEYARDS ARE FASCINATING and complex ciphers of values. They’re about grounding one’s memories and honouring those who are no longer with us. They’re about a level of sacredness which touches everyone at the core. This is the premise of Athol Fugard’s devastatingly potent work, The Train Driver and the tone is established with simplicity and rawness from the set and the soundscape, from the outset.

So you think of train and you think of graveyards and you probably understand the nub of the play’s plot from the first few minutes: there’s a death. In fact, there are two. But the sophistication and the nuance of this work takes you much further and much richer into what it means to die, what it means to kill, and what it means to bury people whose names are not told to you. It’s a tale of anger and forgiving that reaches to the very vortex of what makes us human.

You might think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as you might think Tony Miyambo’s The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, and in neither association would you be misguided. This is a simple tale told with a deep heart and a developed sense of empathy. It is as much about the woman on the tracks as it is about the man, helplessly guiding his train.

As you sit and watch this yarn unfolding, you might cast your mind to the recent production of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond, a play which with subtlety and terror painted the broad and scary bush of South Africa – a place implied with sound elements and echoes, and one filled with ghosts.

And with no less than John Kani opposite Dawid Minnaar, the work will crumble you to your very essence. Kani plays Simon whose real name is Andile – a gloss on so-called white names in the messy bag that is South Africa. Simon’s a man who lives in a shack on the edges of the graveyard. It’s a place close to nowhere and reflects on issues of poverty which are impossible to understand if your basic necessities are covered. His livelihood is based on allowing those who have no names to rest in peace, safe from foraging dogs or violent opportunists.

Roelf Visagie is the train driver (Minnaar), who comes with white South African values and a heart broken by trauma. The denouement is wrenching and it leaves them both broken in different ways. This is the kind of play that is unforgiving in its indictment on the discrepancies of South African values, but in terms of all its collaborative elements, it sings with a clarity that is searing.

  • The Train Driver is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Charmaine Weir Smith. It features design by Thando Lobese (set and costumes) and Mannie Manim (lighting) and is performed by John Kani and Dawid Minnaar until June 3 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown. Call 011-832-1641

Drive my car

MissDaisy

BACKSEAT driver: Hoke Colburn (John Kani) and Miss Daisy (Sandra Prinsloo). Photograph courtesy Brooklyn Theatre.

THE ACHIEVEMENT OF theatrical perfection is very rare. And when it happens, you have to grab it with both hands, and make a point of seeing it, whatever it takes. The Afrikaans rendition of the 1989 American story of an elderly white woman and her black driver seems so seamlessly South African, it’s difficult to force your mind around remembering the Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman Academy Award-winning version of this work, as you sit and watch South Africa’s unequivocal best doing greatness.

This is simply what you get in the brief season of the work under Christiaan Olwagen’s directorial hand, and with no less than Sandra Prinsloo and John Kani in the respective leads. It is a supremely beautifully crafted work, from top to toe – from the manner in which the costumes fit the context, to the manner in which the performers fill the skins of their characters, to the ingenious understanding of a car as a stage within a theatre, and an audio-visual component that is spot on.

In short, this is as good as it gets. A gentle and empathetic paean to the horror and indignity of ageing, against the changing forces at play in contemporary history and politics, the story is about an elderly Afrikaans woman (Prinsloo) and her son Boolie (Jacques Bessenger). It is his difficult job to gently prise his ageing mum’s hands from the steering wheel of her car and face the implications that this will have on her life and her sense of self.

Enter Hoke Colburn (Kani), a black man who can drive and needs the job. He might not have been formally educated, but he’s completely savvy as to the crooked way of the world – the story takes place in the grim crux of apartheid – and armed thus, without anything on his side, he takes the old lady’s backchat with mostly a pinch of salt and a developed understanding. A story unfolds. Not quite a love story, but an essay about love. It’s also a gentle yet gritty foray about Springbok Radio and learning to read in a cemetery. It’s about the silence that comes of dementia and the quiet dignity of being able to call oneself someone’s best friend.

While the cell phone reference early on in the work does feel slightly anachronistic, the work flows with an easy fluidity – but there is so much more. To see Kani performing in a role that is about the tough discriminatory energies of apartheid, and to see him doing it in Afrikaans, of all languages, lends a deep and resonant understanding of what true performance skill and dignity is all about. His Hoke leaps through politics and time. His Hoke is a man ageing too, who looks death in the eye with a touch of laughter and a lot of soul. His Hoke speaks Afrikaans like a local and he will make you weep with his sense of brave vulnerability. Prinsloo’s Miss Daisy is profoundly brittle and immersed in the egotistical bravado that comes of age. She encapsulates that sense of an old woman that makes you recoil from her and love her, simultaneously. In short, she’s the feisty mum who is the repository of innocent racist values that infused an ideology.

And yes, it is uncomfortable: it reveals all the ugliness of bias couched in wisdom and context. It’s predictable in its structure, but resonant in its articulation of values. Without pussyfooting in political rhetoric or attempting to be politically correct, it casts some magic in the world. In short, seeing the Afrikaans rendition of Driving Miss Daisy is the best reason to be in Pretoria, right now.

  • So Ry Miss Daisy is written by Alfred Uhry and translated into Afrikaans by Saartjie Botha. It is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and features creative input by Rocco Pool (set), Wolf Britz (lighting) and Birrie Le Roux (costumes). It is performed by Jacques Bessenger, John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo at the Brooklyn Theatre, Menlo Park, Pretoria, until August 19. Visit brooklyntheatre.co.za or call 012 460 6033.

Girltalk for combatants

Screams

FACE to face, they scald each other: Tinarie van Wyk Loots opposite Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

SOMETIMES YOU MAY be so overwhelmed by the iconic status of the creative team behind a work that you might be blinded as to its merits or otherwise. The Dying Screams of the Moon written by Zakes Mda and directed by John Kani is an intriguing piece of theatre which demands dialogue in its wake. It isn’t, however, the most perfect of plays on stage right now.

You realise you’ve entered a church as you take your seat in the auditorium, and you might have to stultify the urge to genuflect, whether you come from a church ethos or not. But quickly, you realise, this church is down at heel. While the smell of incense wafts in the space, the building has seen more robust days and there’s a frank humility about it which speaks of poverty.

Indeed, this little sacred building used to be a church. These days, it’s a chapel, but still the moniker “… of the broken Christ” as its congregants fondly used to call it, holds. The organist (Ezbie Sebatsa Moilwa) rehearses. And then, a young woman (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) appears. She’s statuesque and poised. She holds a paper bag, but she’s clearly in of distress. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that this farm, this church, represent a very fond yet compromised piece of her history, and she is returning home.

Enter another young woman, roughly of the same age as the first (Tinarie van Wyk Loots), and her bolshie sense of ownership takes the fore. As do the skin colours of the two – the first is black, the second, white. This is about land. It’s about men. It’s about the discrepancies of wealth in this pock-marked country in which we live, and the swath of history that has coloured so much of it in blood and hate.

Thus unfolds a conversation that is muscular and pointed. It gives flesh and credibility to what both women say and how their perspective is shaped and moulded. You will not be able to draw your attention from the utterly focused performances of both van Wyk Loots and Mbangeni: they’re beautifully cast and make for resoundingly fine sparring partners.

But the play is a tilted one. From the outset, you instinctively have empathy for the black woman. She’s vulnerable yet strong. Alone, yet equipped with the conviction and the self-belief to articulate her position without fear. Instinctively, you don’t want to support the white woman. She is fierce in her political views, patronising in her engagement with the hapless stranger and so deeply moored in a racist ideology, she cannot recognise the ghastly faux pas she makes.

At the denouement of the play, emotion flows: and one woman seeks succour from her ostensible enemy. But can you empathise with either? You remain coldly unable to. It’s a curious problem in a play of this nature: while you can understand the validity of both of these sketched sides of the South African political spectrum, are there indeed just two sides? Both characters are written too one dimensionally and there is no wiggle room for nuance, or levity, particularly with the white character.

Further to this, while the organist plays beautifully, and has impressive music credentials, he is not a professional actor, an issue which becomes crudely obvious when he is called upon to speak, even if it is just for a word or two. This is a pity and mars the critical credibility of the work. Surely there are performers on our stages who can play music and act?

The Dying Screams of the Moon articulates values, words and ideas that five years ago would arguably have been scorned and frowned upon in audiences. While the approach does seem crude, the nature of the work opens vital conversational doors.

  • The Dying Screams of the Moon is written by Zakes Mda and directed by John Kani. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Karabo Legoabe (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes). It is performed by Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Ezbie Sebatsa Moilwa and Tinarie van Wyk Loots at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 21. 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za.

Missing: finely crafted but dated

Susan Danford and John Kani, as Anna Ohlsson and her husband Robert Khalipa. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

Susan Danford and John Kani, as Anna Ohlsson and her husband Robert Khalipa. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

It’s not everyday that you get the chance to see veteran actor John Kani performing on stage, and the experience of watching this ostensibly vulnerable old man with rapier-like wit and electric timing is precious. The man has a magnetic stage presence; his performance in Missing is simply magnificent and will bring tears to your eyes. The play is, however, dated, and but for a superb production team and lovely collaborative energy, leaves you with little to upset your emotional equilibrium as you leave the theatre.

As apartheid became more and more intolerable to the thinking and proactive intelligentsia of the left wing of society, more and more people went into self- or government-imposed exile. They made lives for themselves out of Africa. Children were born. Degrees were earned. The world continued to turn. Almost a generation away, it’s an interesting exercise to ponder the mindset engendered in the children of exiles.

Enter the Khalipas. Robert Vuyo Khalipa (Kani) is married to Swede Anna Ohlsson (Danford) and they have a young adult daughter Ayanda (Ngaba). They are eminent members of Stockholm’s society, enjoying wealth, academic merit and respect from their peers. Indeed, everything is picture perfect, when gazed at through a superficial loupe.

When you scratch the surface, however, many holes and sadnesses become apparent. For as long as he’s been in exile, Robert has yearned to be back in South Africa. To give his expertise to the newly established democracy. To stretch his limbs in the rural environment. To pay tribute to his late parents who died while he was in exile.

It is the late 1990s/early 2000s in South Africa. Thabo Mbeki is president and the unfulfilled gestures of Nelson Mandela to embrace what Robert has to give is at the forefront of Robert’s hopes.

The spanner in the works is one of his mentees, Peter Tshabalala  (Ntshoko). His presence brings about the spectre of betrayal and one-upmanship, of opportunism and smarminess and hurt openly inflicted over the years, and of the difficult feelings from an improvised and too-quick and shallow ‘sorry’.  Effectively, Tshabalala is the foil that lends this family’s existence discomfiting edge.

But it is the performance of Kani in collaboration with Danford that keep you focused and on the edge of your seat throughout this intense, if wordy, piece. As a couple, they cohere with a sense of honesty that offers a generous give and take between two people who love one another and have been together for decades. Together, their stage presence is both elegant and sophisticated: as you would expect European academics and masters (or mistresses) of industry, at the top of their game, to be.

A low point in the work is the casting of youngish performer, Ngaba – we’ve seen her recently as Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers – in this work, she fits uncomfortably into the age of the character she’s performing.  At first she seems to be an opinionated teenager, but when plans for her marriage and a mention of her medical degree are mentioned, it is clear she’s an adult with her own sense of identity. There’s a forcedness to the persona she offers, which doesn’t convince.

The play itself, fraught with some cleverly engaging and unexpected narrative junctions, and a set change without the luxury of an interval, is a complex and meaty one; the fact that it reads as freshly as it does, given its very specific and historical setting, is attributable to fine direction and focus.

  • Missing by John Kani is directed by Janice Honeyman with design by Mannie Manim (lighting), Patrick Curtis (set) and Birrie le Roux (costumes). It is performed by John Kani, Susan Danford, Apollo Ntshoko and Buhle Ngatha, at the main theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, until July 13 (011)832-1641.