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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A man, a suit and a bottle of brandy

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THE weapon of the journalist against untruth: Can Themba (Sello Maake kaNcube). Photograph courtesy Cue.co.za

FIFTIES SOF’TOWN BLUES has a very particular texture; its rhythm gets your foot beating, its history gets your heart trembling in tune with the ebb and fall of a small gem of a place which saw its golden years under the thumb of apartheid. Siphiwo Mahala’s House of Truth does something similar to what Khayelihle Dominique Gumede did in Crepuscule: it takes apart elements of the colourful life of Sophiatown educator, poet and editor, Can Themba and splays them into a cohesive reflection of the man and the period, effectively looking at his life as though it were a compilation of his stories. And by and large, the work succeeds.

This is a slice of Themba’s life, and it’s a very rich flavoursome slice that has all the brandy and spice, all the cherries and anecdotes that make it resonate and hum. But the work is a deeply textual one. And while it takes you through the abysmal injustice Themba faced under Native Education of the day, and feeds into the 1950s context regarding the media, the mayhem and the bulldozing of the area, it effectively remains a deeply textual play, which could well be a radio play. The writing is palpably beautiful and you want to hold and savour each turn of phrase, but it is the potency of Sello Maake kaNcube’s performance that makes it sing as a theatre piece, with all the requisite dignity and vulnerability that holds it together.

Similar to Blonde Poison, currently onstage, House of Truth is an essay about an historical period. It’s a one hander which is held together by the charisma of the central performer, which is the main reason you need to see the play.

But unlike works such as Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Cold Case, for instance – or If We Dig, directed by Megan Willson – the denouements and the fierce drama in the tales within the broad narrative of Themba’s life are very subtly handled. They’re elegant and never crude but sometimes they digress into a shade of dilettantism and while you’re subsumed by the texture of the period and the quirkiness and feistiness of the central character, occasionally you feel assailed by a ‘so what?’ moment. The slice of Can Themba’s life doesn’t convincingly take you from point A to point B in his life, but rather feeds you with his whole world in the space of 90 or so intense minutes.

And then there’s the brandy. It can almost be considered a separate character in its own right in this work. The inimitable late foodie, AA Gill wrote resoundingly and bitingly of how drunks used to be funny in a slapstick and curiously proud kind of way. The infiltration of alcohol through this play is articulated with the delicate hand of a seasoned director; it was something you might have seen in Dop, as well. As the work unfolds, the buzz and blur of alcohol creeps into Themba’s body language and tone of heart, lending the work a tragic counter-image which will seethe in its own quiet way, in your head and heart after you’ve left the theatre.

  • House of Truth is written by Siphiwo Mahala and directed by Vanessa Cooke. Featuring design by Bruce Koch (lighting) and Noluthando Lobese (set and lighting), it is performed by Sello Maake kaNcube at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 29. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

The Glorious Depths of Luli

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CENTRE of the world to me: Fiona Ramsay gets under the skin of Luli Callinicos. Photograph courtesy Megan Willson.

EVEN IF YOU think you know the characteristic way in which veteran actress Fiona Ramsay performs and looks and sounds, there are moments in If We Dig where you may feel pushed to disbelieve that this is she. Magnificently crafted around the important research of veteran social historian Luli Callinicos, this work is not only a tribute to the nub and grit of anti-apartheid energies during the bleeding and shameful 1970s and 1980s, but it is also a painstakingly fine celebration of South Africa’s minority groups, with all their idiosyncrasies and values: people who have shaped the rich tapestry of contradicting passions that make us human. And South African.

Embraced by a set comprising a generous ring of the detritus of research, the books and files, the newspaper cuttings and old photographs, the work is a powerful celebration of the generally uncelebrated cogs in the South African system. Of Johannesburg’s indigent East Rand towns such as Boksburg and Benoni. Of Hillbrow and of exile.

Think of the poor white unlettered young woman who fell in love with a beautiful young black pianist to learn appallingly of how the system rubbished obvious hierarchies in the value of a human being to the world. Then there’s the young staunchly committed Afrikaner woman who grew to political awareness in the garment workers’ union and enjoyed such a deep commitment to communist ideals that it damaged her marriage. And the cleavage between the Greek, Jewish and Muslim communities of a city that was struggling to find its sense of moral balance in a world coloured by petty discrepancies rendered punishable in the hands of bigots: all of these tales are those of real people, part of the prodigious research conducted by Callinicos through her “bookish” but also potently rich life’s work.

The life and work of a living historian is hardly what you could call dynamic or sexy on obvious levels, but it is handled here with such grace and verve that it will engage you and hold you through a direct exploration of the human detritus of a rotten world. The digging analogy is about looking beyond face value, rather than mining, which the play’s marketing poster seems to allude to. And there are some great truths mouthed in this lovely work: not only through the characters brought to life from Callinicos’s research, but from the self-effacing, generous portrayal of a woman with passion, commitment, intellect and soul.

  • If We Dig is directed by Megan Willson based on the life and writings of Luli Callinicos. It features set design by Nadya Cohen and is performed by Fiona Ramsay at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 6. Another season of the work is planned for 2017 at the Market Theatre. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641