Mary’s boy-child

The Man Jesus. Starring: Lebohang Toko. Directed by: Robert Whit

FOR what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul? Lebo Toko in The Man Jesus. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein, courtesy The Market Theatre.

IRISH WRITER COLM Tóibín did it with the Testament of Mary. As did Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ. South African-born playwright Matthew Hurt steps into this hallowed terrain in taking one of western culture’s most known biblical tales and splaying it out in a quasi-fictional stage production. And under the directorial reach of Robert Whitehead, there’s an element of chutzpah and wisdom for which this production should be commended. But it is not all pervasive.

Armed with a greenish robe, a lightly brocaded shawl and thong sandals, Lebo Toko takes on the whole community surrounding Jesus, which comprises a mêlée of men and women and a whirligig of serious political, biblical and apocryphal figures. He is supported in the multiple criss-crossing tales he tells, with a set comprising wooden pallets and paper scrolls and a soundscape which brings the texture and presence of village dynamics to unsettlingly jagged life.

While the mottled flavour of the theatre, painted as it is in patches of turquoise, browns and whites, is distracting and fights with the set, which serves as a multitude of hiding places rather than as something that has direct functional value, it is the sound design and music that lends much of this work its poignancy and fierceness.

Toko generally does an admirable job, but is stretched in a myriad of directions – some of which seem too far or far-fetched – and the casualty in this work, which is maybe 15 minutes too long, is often in either the articulated language, which, when it reaches the outer margins of shrill, loses its clarity; or in the characters represented: from Judas to Simon, Mary to Johanna, John the Baptist to King Herod, they’re handled with a similarity in tone, boldness and focus that leaves you a tad bewildered as to who is who; sometimes the camp key is pressed a little too vehemently, and sometimes nuance flies out the window.

If you’re not completely familiar with the twists and turns in the way in which the biblical tale and its fictional counterparts duck and dive around one another, you may get lost in the folds of this work, which oddly blend a sometimes two-dimensional reflection of what Judaism means – or meant – with all its loaded connotations of history, belief and politics.

Structured in such a way as to carve out an understanding of Jesus not through direct representation of him, but through his implied presence in the opinions and the gossip of others, the work is rich in text and resonates with general competence, but it is the way in which the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus, enfolds the whole production that lends it the maternal edge that holds it together with a universal energy that is haunting.

She’s a young, unmarried pregnant woman, at the outset, looking critically and not without horror at the way in which her society seems to have lost its moral compass. And when all is said and done, at the other end of the tale, she’s a woman who has had to face any mother’s most awful nightmare. Throughout this work, at times Toko gleams and sparkles, shines and glistens, but it is his portrayal of Mary that is unequivocally a victory for him.

  • The Man Jesus is written by Matthew Hurt and directed by Robert Whitehead. It features design by Noluthando Lobese (set and costume), Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga (composer and sound) and is performed by Lebo Toko at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until November 5. Call 011 832-1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
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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.

Sister Act’s nuns are too dumbed down for their own good

That's her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns () Photograph by Mariola Biela.

That’s her, in the red shoes: Deloris (Candida Mosoma) with nuns. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

Take an ensemble of the best voices in the business right now. Befrock them in an array of habits and foreground the stage musical based on the eponymous film which saw Whoopi Goldberg’s rise to popularity in the early 1990s, and what do you get? Sister Act is one of those musicals mooted as a must-see and a block buster, but the final product reeks of 1990s flaws in patronising and overwhelmingly silly dialogue and humour which causes it to drag its feet, particularly in the first half. On paper it is too good to be true – and it is.

But if you’ve made it so far, stay for the second half, because this unashamedly feel good bit of musical theatre gets so warmly into its stride that it whisks the rest of the night away and will leave you with a grin on your face.

The question that might remain in your head is do stage musicals with this amount of pizzazz and energy really have to be so very dumb? The humour in this more than 20-year-old work is clunking and unfunny, revealing the characters as so grotesquely simple it hurts. If you think of the dialogue characterising works like The Sound of Music or Chicago – as two very different productions in this genre – you get an understanding of their universalism and timelessness through the impeccable sense of wisdom and dignity applied in the development of each character: the lowest-common-denominator humour in Sister Act arguably is the element which causes it to stumble as a production.

It’s the tale of a young black female singer who finds herself unwittingly vulnerable to crooks and bad men. A nearby church is in dire financial straits and agrees to hide her. Her musical arranging skills, maverick personality and flippant disregard for church rules win the day, enabling the church to gain the kind of street cred that will keep it relevant. It’s numbingly predictable, but tightly woven, in terms of nuances and several ‘wow’ moments, in the set, bringing together the mystery and majesty of implied church architecture with all its arches and stained glass windows intact.

The work features stand out performances by Candida Mosoma as the lead, Deloris; Kate Normington as the Mother Superior and Keith Smith as the monsignor, but it is the combination of the stark costumes and a lot of the ensemble work that keep its professionalism sizzling. Also, significantly, the male ensemble collaborations, featuring the bad guys and the cops, is worthy of mention: a level of totally fabulous sonority and balance is evoked by the guys in this girl-power story.

Sister Act makes for a rambunctious but safe evening’s entertainment. All the elements are in place and are handled with due colour, sound and light, but there’s an element of fire, a point of performative glory that the work as a whole lacks.

  • Sister Act, based on the book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. It is directed by Janice Honeyman with design by Sarah Roberts (costumes), Declan Randall (set), Trevor Peters (sound), Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Nicol Sheraton (choreography) and is performed by Bjorn Blignaut, Caroline Borole, Vanessa Brierley, Caitlin Clerk, Anne-Marie Clulow, Elizca Coetzer, Judy Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Trudy Fredericks, Germandt Geldenhuys, Zane Gillion, Clive Gilson, Themba January, Dolly Louw, Mervin Marvey, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Kate Normington, Dean Roberts, Brenda Sakellarides, Andrea Shine, Shelly Simon, Nqobile Sipamla, Keith Smith, Lebo Toko, Carmen Tromp, LJ Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe and Zano. It performs at the Mandela, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until August 15. Call 0861670670 or visit com

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.