Our mother’s dignity, at all costs

isithunzi

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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Judge this man by his suit

thesuit

LOVE me tender: Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) with Matilda (Zola Nombona). Photograph courtesy The Market Theatre.

EVERY SO OFTEN, a piece of literature is crafted which is simply perfect – in its character development, in its narrative structure, in how the language fits together. Nadine Gordimer’s short story The Train from Rhodesia (1952) is one of those. As is the chapter in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina about the horse. And Can Themba’s story The Suit, is another, unequivocally.

Every so often, theatre gurus get together to give theatrical life to a written masterpiece, and sometimes they get it right. It is, indeed, a true rarity for the performed version to meet the written version with such patent values of respect and artistry, that you must hold your breath when you watch it, because you know you are in the presence of true greatness. This happens in this version of The Suit, which has just enjoyed a Market Theatre season.

As you walk into the theatre, you are accosted on two fronts: the seating is arranged as though for a tennis match: audiences are ranged facing one another. This has been done before in different Market Theatre venues and it poses curious and somewhat unnecessary challenges on the audience.  And then, there’s a huge door as a part of the set. It dominates the work with a crazy kind of bombast that alludes to the French windows of a large house. It’s an effective entrance point to the tale, but poses an anachronism – the characters are living in Sophiatown in the 1960s. There are no big double doors in the lower middle income context extrapolated here. Further to that, there are some odd decisions which see the work’s text transposed in projection onto the work.

These issues are ones which you forgive as soon as the cast begins to perform. And you forgive them, because each cast member is so finely focused on the ethos of the character he or she represents, that you have no more space in your consciousness to think of anything but the tale they tell.

It’s a violent story of psychological cruelty, featuring a suit which is dramatised to sinister levels. The tale is a tragedy, but one not unconscious to the magnificence of the music of the era or the dress culture. This work – along the lines of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule – is a adulation of sheer beauty in a time of unmitigated horror, against the backdrop of the cruelty of apartheid.

Matilda (Zola Nombona) is a young woman with dreams to be someone more than just a wife. But then she meets and marries the beautiful Philemon (Siyabonga Twala) and becomes the envy of all her peers. But while he goes out to work, she becomes bored and lonely. And she digresses. And is caught. And she is punished in a way that lends a banal object – the suit in question – a level of horror akin to what Alfred Hitchcock did with sparrows in his film The Birds (1963).

While there are astoundingly fine performances on the part of Twala and Nombona , something has to be said for the magnificent performance of Molefi Monaise, who, within a few seconds of character development, is able to offer such a rounded reflection of the character he represents that his uncharacteristic silence on the bus that preempts the unfolding of the whole drama, chills you to your very bones.

A work of devastating subtlety, of the style and wisdom we saw in The Suitcase written by Es’kia Mphahlele and also directed by Ngcobo a couple of years ago, which also featured Twala in the lead, The Suit is hauntingly unforgettable. Featuring exquisite choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, it offers unvoiced reflection on the Matilda character’s alter-ego. Danced by Lesedi Motladi, it’s an aspect to this work which lends mystery and tender fragility to a story wrenched with betrayal and violence.

The season of this important work coincided with Africa Day, but it’s a work of such wisdom and value that it begs for a longer season.

  • The Suit is written by Can Themba and adapted for stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon. It is directed by James Ngcobo and features design by Luyanda Sidiya (choreography), Richard John Forbes (set), Thapelo Makgosi (lighting), Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound) and Sue Sey-Steele (costumes). It was performed by Molefi Monaise, Lesedi Motladi, Andile Nebulane, Lindani Nkosi, Zola Nombona and Siyabonga Twala, in a season at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, from May 5-28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Living in the love of a broken people

Itsoseng

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.

Arm wrestling with giants

the meeting (south africa) 2017

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.

The ineffable, uncomfortable beauty of Robyn

butterflies

COCKING a snook: Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe (on screen) and Eric Languet (in the tutu) in Robyn Orlin’s “in a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling …” Photograph by Thomas Lachambre.

ONE THING YOU have to disabuse yourself of when you enter the audience of a Robyn Orlin work is that you’re safe, there in the dark, as you take your seat. That no one will interfere with you or embarrass you. And it’s such a powerful dynamic that it sets the world on fire and fills the Market Theatre to the rafters. Whether it fits into the safety precautions of a theatre filled with members of the public, is another whole question.

In truth, this shaky perception of your own safety, be it emotional or physical safety, is something you should hold onto in entering the space of any live performance. What they’re doing for you is about challenging many things, including your right to be there – and to be comfortable there, while a performer is baring their soul, their guts and their body to you. Sometimes in that order. Traditionally however, this is not the case. For the price of a ticket, you get to sit anonymously in a darkened room and see someone do something that might be extraordinary and revealing and painful. Whichever side of the audience spectrum you sit on, Orlin’s work casts shivers in your direction.

And what a privilege it is to see performers of the calibre of Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet in this construction of two propositions, in a world full of butterflies it takes balls to be a caterpillar and … some thoughts on falling … , a work which is as much about caterpillars and falling as it is about the narrative of dance, and the way in which Orlin has the bravery to tear strips off traditional practice. And get away with it.

The work opens in a stage full of audience members and an auditorium covered in small brightly coloured pop-up tents. And as it unfolds to important songs such as Strange Fruit, sung by Nina Simone, you realise the poetry between a chrysalis and a pop up tent. Tambwe stretches, she sings, she prates, she embraces the stages with complete authority, engaging with her unbelievable costume in a way that dazzles. You don’t, however, know what to expect, and you laugh and you shiver at the things she does, with her dress, the webcam, the audience on stage, the tents, the reality of being a caterpillar, or ultimately a butterfly, and what it all means in the bigger picture.

She’s shooed away unceremoniously by Languet, in a trench coat. In a work that confronts balletic tradition as it comes face to face with the expectations of gender in dance and the constant fear of falling. Is he Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who flew to the sun with wings of wax and was melted and cast into the sea? Is he everyman who boasts hubris and suffers the indignity of a fall? There’s a conflation of values which entraps your thinking. He moves his ageing body like a sylph, a naiad, and you forget that he is human. You sit there in a spiral of thoughts, of realities, feeling afraid that he might fall on top of you as he has done to other audience members. You’re mesmerised by the magnetic focus of the webcam as you stare into the enlarged face of Tambwe.

There’s an ineffable, unspeakable and above all uncomfortable beauty that is breached in the concatenation in both their performance and with their different details that force you out of conventional thinking. The work feels too long and yet too short. Your head spins with the issues being tossed in your direction and you feel you can’t take any more, you can’t breathe… but alas, when it is over, there is a part of your heart that remains aflutter, there’s a part of your subconscious which murmurs, ‘did I really see that?’

But big kudos are due to the theatre itself and the organisations who made it possible for this work to travel: we don’t often get to see contemporary dance of this calibre in South Africa.

  • In a world full of butterflies, it takes balls to be a caterpillar … some thoughts on falling … is created by Robyn Orlin. Featuring design by Laïs Foulc (lighting), Birgit Neppl (costumes) sound (Cobi von Tonder) and Thabo Pule (technical direction), it was performed by Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe and Eric Languet on December 6 and 7 at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown.

A Monteverdi potpourri and the power of wow

lamento

MY enemy myself: Lamento confronts the nuance that makes perpetrators victims, and victims, perpetrators. Photograph by Graham de Lacey.

IT’S NOT EVERY day that you’re privileged enough to see a staging of 17th century madrigals with real Baroque instruments played on a major Johannesburg stage. It’s also not every day that you get to see Monteverdi translated into isiZulu in the surtitles, with the timelessness of his tales woven into current South African narrative. Lamento, created by Kobie van Rensburg calls itself a pastiche in the self-consciously postmodern understanding of the term: blending new animation technology with a genuine respect for the authentic Monteverdi nuances, it’s an astoundingly beautiful experience.

In 2007, Philip Miller staged his extraordinary ReWind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape And Testimony. While Miller’s work remains in a category of its own in terms of the uniqueness of the perspective and the fresh boldness in his complicated yet clear weaving together of music values and political narrative, there’s a resonance here with Lamento. Divided into seven discrete scenes, the story it tells is tragic and heroic, political and prescient, balanced by diverse perspectives, but in truth, it becomes less of a concern to you in the audience, than the sheer beauty of the piece. This has, primarily, to do with the quality of the musical performances of the singers and instrumentalists dovetailed with the technological set.

The experience of hearing the beguilingly simple music language of Monteverdi, supported as it is with but six instruments and five performers onstage, is in itself enough to raise goosebumps. Sandwich it into an ensemble that involves blue screen technology and a whole array of tricks and idiosyncrasies and you get swept away on many currents simultaneously.

And that richness of diversity is the work’s popular selling point – not everyone loves the idea of  17th century proto-opera in Italian – but it is also, in a sense, its weakness: so much is happening at the same time, all the time, that you find yourself focusing on the music and allowing everything else to slip into lesser definition. So the narrative gets lost. The technology begins to feel a little gimmicky at times. And the humour feels forced. That is, until it’s brought to life again by the singers, who inject that spark of relevance and fire into this incredibly fine ancient music, thus becoming the secret ingredient which forces you to overlook flaws with a forgiving, nay, an adoring, eye.

Touching on everything from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Soweto Uprisings, Sharpeville, Vlakplaas and #FeesMustFall, it has a spot of Nkandla and a reference to selfies in it. On a level, when you contemplate the immensity it reaches and touches in confronting the sadness of violent loss in a political context, the soul of the work begs for it to be more abstract and more simple, and again, as these thoughts are articulated in your head, it is the singing voices which shift your perspectives away in a swathe of call and response songs.

If you think of The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo, performed in Johannesburg in 2008 under the auspices of Isango Portobello, something similar happened there too. The work was an isiZulu translation of Mozart’s eponymous opera. Rather than a traditional western orchestra, it featured African musical instruments and African solutions to the opera’s drama. It was utterly magical, but it seemed to be bending over backwards in its attempts to pull out all the stops and redress every historical imbalance you can think of. And this conflation of magic and trying so hard to showcase everything possible is Lamento’s slight stumbling block.

See it for the novelty it offers, and while you’re wowing at the modern technology, you will quietly fall completely in love with Monteverdi. And the rest becomes incidental.

  • Lamento is written and directed by Kobie van Rensburg based on scenic madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi. Featuring design by Kobie van Rensburg (video, stage and set) and Michael Maxwell (lighting), it is performed by Nick de Jager (tenor), Bongani Mthombeni (tenor), Nombuso Ndlandla (soprano), Ronald Paseka (bass) Elsabé Richter (soprano) Sibusiso Simelane (tenor) and accompanied by the Lamento Ensemble: John Reid Coulter (harpsichord/organ), Waldo Luc Alexander and Jonathan Meyer (violins), Tessa Olivier and Frederike Scholtz (violas), Berthine van Schoor (cello) and Uwe Grosser (chittarone/Baroque guitar), at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 6. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

Electric rain and ill winds

suddenlythestorm

WHO, really, are you? Namhla Gumede (Renate Stuurman) comes face to face with Dwayne Combrinck (Paul Slabolepszy). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

DWAYNE COMBRINCK IS a man with demons. You can see this as he walks into his workshop, a bloodied baseball bat in hand. You can see this in the anger he articulates and the acerbic vitriol he spews when provoked. But not all of his demons are fuelled by the sheer force of anger or terror. He’s a much more complicated character than that. He may be a white South African, in his early 60s; but penned and performed as he is by Paul Slabolepszy, he embraces a profound vulnerability that counterpoises his toughness and explodes stereotypes in three-dimensions.

To the world, he’s a tough guy. A “debt collector” – who uses whatever tactics, however dirty they may be, from his “Far East” Rand premises, to get money out of difficult customers. He also welds security gates.

Dwayne’s married to Shanell (Charmaine Weir-Smith), a blonde poppie with her own sense of what is morally right in the world, with a fashion and linguistic verve that will take you back to stereotypes of Brakpan in the 1970s. Hard as nails around the broken dreams she holds in her heart, and beautifully fleshed out by Weir-Smith, she too is a product of very specific apartheid induced bruises and scars.

The vignette of their life together that we are exposed to in this play is thwarted by loss and gain in surprising ways that catches you slipping into stereotypical assumptions. When you hear that someone has died at Dwayne’s business, you jump to startlingly violent conclusions. When the Combrincks discover a potential lottery win with unimaginably huge moral ties on their premises, you jump to others. But the tale woven by Slapolepszy is curiously less predictable in its nuances and realities than you may anticipate.

When Namhla Gumede, an elegant, self-possessed young black woman with an English accent (Renate Stuurman) shows up on their doorstep, mystery pervades. With a warm heart triggered into life by her loneliness, Shanell confides in her, gives her hardly a moment to get a word in edgewise, but in doing so, offers her – and you in the audience – the tools to figure out why she’s there. And this aspect of the story, embedded in a series of hairpin bends as it is, is fairly predictable.

Having said that, conjoined with a fantastically convincing set, the absolutely appropriate coordination of sound and light brings the violent Highveld storm in the title to Shakespearean splendour in this tale of exile and identity. Conceived and crafted to have been launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto Uprising – which it did: it debuted at the Market Theatre in June – its season now, amid the hail of racist accusations and violent antagonism that is still rocking our world, remains deeply prescient.

It’s a work, similar to plays such as Steven Boykie Sidley and Kate Sidley’s play Shape, and Mongiwekhaya’s I See You, which offers an introspective and thoughtful but not soft voice to embrace a reflection on the fact that not everything is as it seems and that nuance and even deep love can exist even in the most apparently blatant of racially-infused situations. Like the whole repertoire of Slabolepszy’s work written in the voice of its era, Suddenly the Storm is an important and beautifully written work that encapsulates issues that will set many a post-theatre dinner table afire with dialogue.

  • Suddenly the Storm is written by Paul Slabolepszy and directed by Bobby Heaney. Featuring design by Greg King (set), Wesley France (lighting) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), it is performed by Paul Slabolepszy, Renate Stuurman and Charmaine Weir-Smith at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until November 19. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za