Pandora’s suitcase

The Suitcase 2017

ALL we need is each other: Timi (Siyabonga Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni). Photograph by Iris Dawn Parker, courtesy of the Market Theatre.

WHEN A WORK touches you so deeply that elements in its direction have become part of how you see and speak about the world, you know that something’s been done right. In 2006, James Ngcobo directed the stage version of Es’kia Mphahlele’s tragic and beautiful tale The Suitcase. It’s back, returning from a recent United Kingdom tour, and while there are some radical changes to the form of the work, armed with many of the same performers and almost the same set, its magic is still mostly there.

It’s a tale of love and horror in a time of poverty which sees Timi Ngobese (Siyabonga Thwala) and his young wife Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) coming to the big city to start a life together. It’s the 1950s and they come from a rural village. She’s Xhosa. He’s Zulu. And in the face of frowns from their respective families, they are rich with their love for one another. This love is so young and so real that it makes you weep: you instinctively know the universe is nestling sinister plots in the wings for them.

In the details of this work, love exudes from the way in which its fibre and texture are crafted. From the lambrequins — ornamental shelf hangings lending an irrevocable domesticity to otherwise bare spaces — that define the set and offer platform to the paper birds, to the manner in which the set enfolds a story within a story, that echoes the way in which the words fold into one another, the piece is eminently satisfying to watch. Also bucking the trend of forcing piped music into a production, the work features Bheki Khoza playing the guitar on stage, which complements the work with sophistication and delicacy.

Along the same kind of lines, the work also features three young women – Nokukhanya Dlamini, Gugulethu Shezi and Ndoh Dlamini – who bring interregna of song into the story. And this is a decision less sophisticated and delicate: Their sung interjections are highly amplified, and while the trio is generally in fine form and mostly harmonises well, the boldness of their presence tends to shove the emotional impact of the story down your throat rather vehemently. It no longer allows the events to simmer in a context of devastating subtlety as they did in the earlier version of the play.

Featuring quirky nuances, lovely stylisations of movement and sound, it’s a tale of bright shiny and naïve optimism and crushing, relentless disappointment as it is a heartbreaking cipher of the cruelty of apartheid values that shunned the black man from any modicum of hope.

Mbangeni absolutely glows in the mix of endearing naïveté and mature, scarred resignation she presents to the work. She performs opposite Thwala who reprised this role over ten years ago, and together they offer an energy of domesticity and love that is sweet and palpable. Desmond Dube and John Lata reflect the community surrounding the young Ngobesis, bringing humour and poignancy, the flavour of poverty and the bitter jokes that come of its challenges into the mix.

Not flawless, but deeply iconic as a piece of South African storytelling, this is a valuable, compelling theatre experience.

  • The Suitcase is written by Es’kia Mphahlele and adapted and directed by James Ngcobo. It features creative input by Wesley France (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes), and is performed by Ndoh Dlamini, Nokukhanya Dlamini, Desmond Dube, John Lata, Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Gugulethu Shezi and Siyabonga Thwala, with Bheki Khoza on guitar, at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex until November 26. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.
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Girltalk for combatants

Screams

FACE to face, they scald each other: Tinarie van Wyk Loots opposite Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

SOMETIMES YOU MAY be so overwhelmed by the iconic status of the creative team behind a work that you might be blinded as to its merits or otherwise. The Dying Screams of the Moon written by Zakes Mda and directed by John Kani is an intriguing piece of theatre which demands dialogue in its wake. It isn’t, however, the most perfect of plays on stage right now.

You realise you’ve entered a church as you take your seat in the auditorium, and you might have to stultify the urge to genuflect, whether you come from a church ethos or not. But quickly, you realise, this church is down at heel. While the smell of incense wafts in the space, the building has seen more robust days and there’s a frank humility about it which speaks of poverty.

Indeed, this little sacred building used to be a church. These days, it’s a chapel, but still the moniker “… of the broken Christ” as its congregants fondly used to call it, holds. The organist (Ezbie Sebatsa Moilwa) rehearses. And then, a young woman (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) appears. She’s statuesque and poised. She holds a paper bag, but she’s clearly in of distress. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that this farm, this church, represent a very fond yet compromised piece of her history, and she is returning home.

Enter another young woman, roughly of the same age as the first (Tinarie van Wyk Loots), and her bolshie sense of ownership takes the fore. As do the skin colours of the two – the first is black, the second, white. This is about land. It’s about men. It’s about the discrepancies of wealth in this pock-marked country in which we live, and the swath of history that has coloured so much of it in blood and hate.

Thus unfolds a conversation that is muscular and pointed. It gives flesh and credibility to what both women say and how their perspective is shaped and moulded. You will not be able to draw your attention from the utterly focused performances of both van Wyk Loots and Mbangeni: they’re beautifully cast and make for resoundingly fine sparring partners.

But the play is a tilted one. From the outset, you instinctively have empathy for the black woman. She’s vulnerable yet strong. Alone, yet equipped with the conviction and the self-belief to articulate her position without fear. Instinctively, you don’t want to support the white woman. She is fierce in her political views, patronising in her engagement with the hapless stranger and so deeply moored in a racist ideology, she cannot recognise the ghastly faux pas she makes.

At the denouement of the play, emotion flows: and one woman seeks succour from her ostensible enemy. But can you empathise with either? You remain coldly unable to. It’s a curious problem in a play of this nature: while you can understand the validity of both of these sketched sides of the South African political spectrum, are there indeed just two sides? Both characters are written too one dimensionally and there is no wiggle room for nuance, or levity, particularly with the white character.

Further to this, while the organist plays beautifully, and has impressive music credentials, he is not a professional actor, an issue which becomes crudely obvious when he is called upon to speak, even if it is just for a word or two. This is a pity and mars the critical credibility of the work. Surely there are performers on our stages who can play music and act?

The Dying Screams of the Moon articulates values, words and ideas that five years ago would arguably have been scorned and frowned upon in audiences. While the approach does seem crude, the nature of the work opens vital conversational doors.

  • The Dying Screams of the Moon is written by Zakes Mda and directed by John Kani. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Karabo Legoabe (set) and Nthabiseng Makone (costumes). It is performed by Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni, Ezbie Sebatsa Moilwa and Tinarie van Wyk Loots at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 21. 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za.