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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Bathroom of a million thoughts

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ALL alone in the lavatory. Helen (Gina Shmukler) confronts her future and her past. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. Suddenly, everything that you may have known in your life has been curtailed down to extreme basics. You’ve a toilet and running water. Electricity. Some magazines, maybe. You can hear what is going on, but cannot reach it. Does anyone know that you are there? You are holed in the guest loo of your house, while burglars ransack your possessions. What is going through your head? This is the premise on which Mike van Graan’s Helen of Troyeville rests. Performed by seasoned actress Gina Shmukler, it is the kind of play that will engage and haunt you, not only because of the magnificent performance, but also because of its political crux.

The work is similar in many respects to the premise in Megan Voysey-Braig’s 2008 novel, Till We Can Keep an Animal. Helen is a white woman who has enjoyed the wide range of privileges that living in South Africa for a white person has presented to her. She’s educated, she’s got all the material possessions she could wish for, including the facility of a guest bathroom, in her home, which has become the repository for everything. She’s widowed. Her daughter has children of her own and lives elsewhere. Hers is a comfortable complacency that comes of age in a context of privilege. All her life she’s had a sense of her own agency. She’s felt that she has a role to play in her own decisions. Suddenly all of this is broken.

There are strange men in her house and she has become victim to a hostage situation and what happens next hangs is in the balance. Helen is savvy of her position as a statistic that won’t leave a blip on news feeds, either way. She’s also cognisant of the awkward role of privileged whites in a society beleaguered by poverty, corruption and oppression that traditionally still befalls people who are not white. She was once a “do-gooder” in society, that enthusiastic buyer of informal knick-knacks from beggars at traffic lights, she argues to herself.

But now she isn’t. Disempowered, disenfranchised, cast out of the picture, subject to the will of others. It is this scenario that forces her to rethink everything – life, her place in it, and what it all means. All she has to bounce ideas off is the bathroom mirror and her memories. And there follows a beautiful concatenation of ideas articulated with a texture and a rhythm that is infectious, almost Shakespearean in its flow, volume and width.

By and large, Helen is not a character given to self-pity, but her mood and her perspectives wax and wane with the flow of time, which does seem to stop, as she strains her ears to get an inkling of what may be happening upstairs in her home. To her possessions. And with a gulp of horror, to her dogs.

Focusing on everything from what she has to what she doesn’t have any longer – she gets you to remourn your own losses – as she ponders the sister she lost, the husband, the adult child who never fitted in, the child of a domestic worker, killed in a crime.

It’s a beautiful play, honed with tiny but provocative musical interludes, exceptional skill and Mike van Graan’s characteristic and intense depth of focus, all enclosed in a tight whorl of values – even to the point where Shmukler’s articulation is not always completely audible – on a level, she is, after all, alone and in her bathroom, allowing her thoughts to bounce off the tiled surfaces.

But it’s also a very frightening play, almost obvious in its framework and in the country’s state of mind with regard to this kind of crime. Handled by professionals highly skilled at their craft, from playwright van Graan to Shmukler to relative newcomer Lesedi Job at the directorial helm of the work, it’s a jewel. But Helen won’t leave your heart or your mind as you leave the theatre.

  • Helen of Troyeville is written by Mike van Green and directed by Lesedi Job. It features creative input by Mandla Mtshali (lighting) and is performed by Gina Shmukler in the Wits Downstairs theatre, on July 29 at 18:00 and July 30 at 18:00, as part of the Wits 969 Festival. Visit webtickets or see Wits 969’s facebook page.
  • For an interpretative commentary on this show, by seasoned columnist Geoff Sifrin, read this.

Living in the love of a broken people

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THE people shall decide! The cast of Itsoseng, (from left) Khanyisile Ngwabe, Akhona Namba, Thabiso Rammala, Katlego Letsholonyana, Alfred Motlhapi, Rea Segoati and Dimpho More. Photograph by Mpho Khwezi.

IT WAS STORYTELLER extraordinaire Gcina Mhlophe who once commented that the art of storytelling lies not so much in the tale but in the telling. She could well have been referring to Itsoseng, a beautifully crafted love story in a time of disappointment and a place of poverty.  It’s a rich and well choreographed work which tells a story as timeless and as tragic as Romeo and Juliet.

Written by Omphile Molusi in 2008, this extraordinary tale of broken dreams and pure love is mostly in Setswana, but it is honed and moulded and performed with such a sense of commitment and focus, that you don’t have to understand the Setswana to be able to roll with the story’s punches and laugh and cry with the characters’ joys and horrors.

In previous manifestations of this play in this theatre, it took the form of a monodrama, where the central character, a young man named Mawilla, offers insights into his whole community with nuance and gesture. Now, with a cast of seven, the work is fleshed out in a different way and with different levels of energy that infuse the material. It is very astutely cast and the conflation of Mawilla (Thabiso Rammala) and his ‘home boys’ Saxa (Alfred Motlhapi) and Buda 6 (Katlego Letsholonyana) is fierce in its sensitive portrayal of the dynamics of childhood and youth. The women in the cast, however, under the quiet leadership of Dimpho More in the role of Dolly, lend the work its fire and its music. Intertwining beautiful harmony with protest action, the work is tight and well defined and the performers intelligently directed.

Each performer shines in his or her individual way, which enhances the sense of texture in the work. And what Motlhapi can do with a simple shopping trolley simply beggars belief as he conjures up a whole history of a disused and destroyed shopping centre that’s one pivot of the tale, with this humble vehicle.

Itsoseng is a real township just outside of Mafikeng in the North West Province, which was formerly part of Bophuthatswana under apartheid puppet ruler, Lucas Mangope. This play describes a tale of blind anger and protest, of broken economies and shattered political promise. And given the way in which the hopes and dreams of the broader community rest upon mob energy and hollow commitments from government, it’s a work which hangs with prescience on contemporary South African realities.

Flawed only in its use of shebeen noise and stage smoke which is simply too big for the Barney Simon theatre, Itsoseng is an important work for South Africans to see. For the injustice it portrays. For the beauty with which it portrays it. And for the delicious cast of magnificent young talent.

  • Itsoseng is written by Omphile Molusi and directed by Lesedi Job who has been mentored in this capacity by Kgafela Oa Magogodi. It features design by Hailey Kingston (set), Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), Nomvula Molepo (lighting), with incubates Jabulile Precious Mangqangwane (lighting), Sinenhlanhla Zwane (set), Sabelo Mavuso (sound) and Nthabiseng Malaka (costumes). It is performed by Katlego Letsholonyana, Dimpho More, Alfred Motlhapi, Akhona Namba, Khanyisile Ngwabe, Thabiso Rammala and Rea Segoati, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg until May 7. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za.

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.

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.