Our mother’s dignity, at all costs

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ME and my brother: Scelo (Sipho Zakwe) and Muzi (Musawenkosi Kumalo) in tandem.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if your mother was publicly humiliated by someone who you considered a friend? Would you want to kill him? Would you have the capacity to turn the other cheek? Would your impotent rage find another outlet? This is the central focus of Isithunzi, a powerful and important play about the complexities of respect, which headlined the 2016 Zwakala community theatre festival.

In 2008, a group of white Afrikaans-speaking students associated with Free State University played a series of appalling and humiliating pranks on black domestic workers employed by the university. The pranks were filmed and went viral on the internet, sparking seething anger across the board, raising and inflaming the race card, to say nothing of sheer respect issues. This became known as the Reitz Four incident, premised on the fact that the four whites who had enacted the humiliation, were from the Reitz res on the university campus.

Young playwright Sipho Zakwe, who plays the role of Scelo here has taken this narrative and run with it, focusing it on two young men, brothers, and the sons of one of the women subjected to having to drink the urine of white Afrikaans boys – amongst other revolting humiliations. The plot thickens: Scelo is a UFS student. His squash buddy is one Schalk van der Merwe, one of the boys responsible for the prank. Muzi (Musawenkosi Kumalo) is his brother, at home, the brother who made sacrifices so that his brother could be educated.

The dialogue about different responses to this scenario are tossed hither and yon in the work, with muscularity and passion. Featuring some exceptionally fine set and audio-visual decisions, the work is utterly riveting and will make you weep with anger at the crudeness of the behaviour and the iconic presence of the mother herself.  While the literalness of the violence – there should be a strobe warning in the theatre – and the predictability of the tale itself mar this work slightly – you know how it will end – it remains a very fine showcase of performative skill on our stages.

Thoughtful and angry, respectful and context-driven, Isithunzi is constructed with broad, yet sophisticated narrative tools. There is some wonderful shadow play details which infuse the piece with mystery and energy, enabling two performers to embrace a whole campus in outrage. With the use of simple costume changes and a grotesque coir wig, the perpetrators are referenced and caricatured, as are students on campus. The work reflects with mature astuteness the harsh realities confronting the poor, without being maudlin or self-serving, and is not difficult to understand if English is your only language. In short, it’s a work of its time, offering a strong voice into what matters.

  • Isithunzi is written by Sipho Zakwe and directed by Luthando Mngomezulu. It features creative input by Ntshieng Mokgoro (mentor), Omphile Molusi (dramaturge), Jurgen Meekel (audio visual), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Shilongane Nkoana (set), Nthabiseng Malaka (costumes) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), with DAC incubates Hlamalani Ntando Makhubela (lighting), Ratang Mogotsi (costumes), Mbali Silvia Nkambule (set) and Maggy Selepe (sound)and it is performed by Musawenkosi Kumalo and Sipho Zakwe, with voiceovers by Dawn Thandeka King, at the Ramoloa Makhene Theatre, Market Square, Newtown, until June 18. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 838 7498.
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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.

Broken values, smashed dreams and theatre with devastating balance

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DECISIONS, decisions: Christiaan Schoombie (foreground) with Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu deciding upon his fate. Photograph courtesy comarochronicle.co.za

SELDOM DO YOU get to feel privileged enough to experience a play with not only electric relevance to the brokenness of our current global society, but one which also brings together such a rich collaboration of skills that it shines from every direction. Mike van Graan’s latest play, When Swallows Cry is an extraordinary and brilliant essay on the pain and complexity of migration.

Almost crafted like a filmed hostage drama, the work is forced out of actuality clichés and holds its own as a stage play thanks to beautiful energies conveyed by the set, lighting and audio-visual elements, as well as the choreographed staging of the work as a whole.  Comprising three vignettes, it sears into an understanding of blood-curdling xenophobia, and bleeding heart humanity in a way that is absolutely riveting, as text and performance are made to suppurate in concert with the poison of historical hatred and anguish.

Casting iron-hard laughter at the idea of ‘saving people from their poverty’, and unflinchingly describing the kind of crude racism that circumscribes the possibilities for refugees, the work is uncompromisingly cynical and hard hitting, but it doesn’t lack deeply woven nuances. It is the manner in which each vignette – be it in Somalia, America or Australia – gives flesh and dimension to each of its characters, lending them balance that makes this such a show stopper. Each character has been superbly crafted, but more so, each man embodies the several roles which he performs with such an impeccable intensity that you may well forget to breathe, as you watch.

When the room seems to rock and swirl as the lights sway, when the space is calibrated with light, when a stretch of sea rocks so lugubriously, it seems to do so amidst the stolidness of oil, you get a sense of myriads of other untold stories within stories. Of voices that don’t get heard in a refugee crisis. Of farms in Zimbabwe that were abandoned. Of mines near Mogadishu where men were shot. You understand how immigration control might be doing its job, but also what it must feel like to have a country’s doors closed in your face. Because of the colour of your skin. Or your religion.

It’s an immensely fine cast comprising Christiaan Schoombie, Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu who each splay out a range of deeply disturbing social realities. While each of the three shine with a fierce intensity, the cast is arguably headed by Masemola, who evokes the character of Simon Adebisi in the HBO prison series Oz. This extraordinary character, played by British performer Adewale Akinnyoye-Agbaje,  lends a sophisticated sheen of malevolence and unbated violence which has a real heart. And like the HBO prison series Oz, When Swallow Cry is a work that enfolds  valid perspectives with grit and toughness, but with a pen that forces itself into all the crevices of the scenario and a speculum that sees into all the sides of the situations. You weep for the villain’s tragedies as you understand why he is the villain. You hear the diatribe of the wannabe teacher in Africa, and hear also the puniness of his liberal dreams. In short, nothing is left one sided.

The work is an open-ended essay: it doesn’t promise to give answers to deeply wrenching realities which reflect on how history and the brutal and crude struggle for power turns in a ghastly and repetitive circle. But it is an important theatre gesture which will move and horrify you, as it will haunt you.

  • When Swallows Cry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Lesedi Job mentored by Megan Willson. Featuring design by Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set), Noluthando Lobese (costumes) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), with incubates Lerato Masooane (costumes), Tsholofelo Ramospele (set), Mosibudi Maggy Selebe (sound) and Tanele Dlamini (audio visual), it is performed by Warren Masemola, Mpho Osei-Tutu and Christiaan Schoombie, in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre comples, Newtown, Johannesburg until February 5. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

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.

Disrespecting Barney’s memory, in Cincinatti

Punt: Hedley (Brandon Auret) and Thembsie (Chuma Sopotela) in Cincinatti. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Punt: Hedley (Brandon Auret) and Thembsie (Chuma Sopotela) in Cincinatti. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

A tatty Johannesburg nightclub, where apartheid is rife, the living is edgy and sex is a panacea for everything: welcome to Cincinatti. This play was workshopped in the late 1970s under the direction of the Market Theatre’s cofounder Barney Simon and a cast of theatre heavyweights of the time. Workshopping a play was not yet commonplace in the industry and the approach was feeling its own way, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Twenty years have elapsed since Simon passed away; the Market Theatre chose to give this production life in celebration of Simon’s influence on the theatre. From the get go, it seems an odd choice, even if you didn’t know the play in 1979. Is this really a work emblematic of Simon’s contribution to theatre in South Africa? Really?

Enabling a young director and cast to reflect on this script as a hard-boiled fait accompli, is iffy: the different night club characters and their dynamic were essences distilled from the madness of the time when they existed. In this production, there’s a distressing sloppiness around the historical moment Cincinatti represented: the original cast members are unforgivably not mentioned anywhere in the programme.

And this sloppiness pervades the show. The ensemble comprises the ageing hippy (Brandon Auret), the black woman who turns tricks on the street (Chuma Sopotela); the security guard (Paka Zwedala) and the gogo-dancer (Robyn Olivia Heaney). There’s the Indian cabaret singer (Ameera Patel), the English-speaking accountant (Theo Landey) and his sop of a wife (Odelle de Wet). There’s a young wannabe everything, who pretends suaveness with her platinum blond hair and cigarette, a la Miranda Richardson in Dance with a Stranger (Christien Le Roux).

And then there’s the unsophisticated white Afrikaans-speaking kid (Francois Jacobs), who, in just passing through, lends the work its denouement and its spice in an almost uncanny way. Singlehandedly, Jacobs, who we last saw in the astonishing production of People Are Living There, almost turns the play around. He’s an astonishingly fine performer who embraces his role with a candidness that takes your breath away, but alas, he’s too much of a cameo to turn the whole work around.

They are all unashamed stereotypes, specific to the era in which the play grew. They all have secret lives. Put this all together in 2015, where technology is alas too easily accessible, and you’re confronted with a production that begins by assaulting its audience with sound so obscenely loud, that the visual presence of the work is killed. In seeing this play, you might not necessarily want to be part of the club scene, or immersed into its blaring lights and terrible sound. But you are: the play is obnoxiously confrontational from its opening screech of sound and light.

Similarly, there’s a sub-narrative in the piece, featuring texts and audio-visual inserts. Completely unnecessary, these projects not only hurt what is left of the play, but they contradict the notion of theatre pauvre central to Simon’s approach to this work, in particular.

There’s a kind of self-conscious cleverness in this production which speaks of a young and enthusiastic director, focused on “pulling out all the technical stops” much more than he is on respecting the integrity of the original piece.

With a mish-mash of digressions in quality when it comes to the performances, there are two unequivocal stand out roles, which do, actually, make this production worth seeing, but the performances of both Jacobs and Sopotela are somewhat obscured by the too many faux pas in the piece. The work lacks the authenticity that was evident in Paul Slabolepszy’s Pale Natives, drawing from within the same era, that was revived onstage several months ago, under the hand of Bobby Heaney.

South Africa in the 1970s was a completely different beast to what it is now, from the language to the politics to the understanding of the value of sex and drugs. It was replete with young people who knew what they were fighting for and were determined to change the world. It had its own very specific sonorousness. This rendition of Cincinatti sorely lacks any of that, and becomes meaningless.

  • Cincinatti: Scenes from city life, is written by Barney Simon and directed by Clive Mathibe with assistance from Vanessa Cooke. It is designed by Nadya Cohen (set), Lebo Toko (choreography), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) Lesego Moripe (costumes) and Jurgen Meekel (audio-visual) and performed by Brandon Auret, Odelle De Wet, Robyn Olivia Heaney, Francois Jacobs, Theo Landey, Christien Le Roux, Ameera Patel, Chuma Sopotela and Paka Zwedala, until September 13. Visit co.za or call 0118321641.