Blacks and Blues

hallelujah

FUNEREAL energy: Bonga (Malibongwe Mdwaba) speaks at the burial of his friends.

THE HORROR OF hatred within a community comes firmly under the loupe in this important play, which boldly explores the underbelly and the universality of pain within a culture. Hallelujah! intertwines religious values with social bias, poetry with music and young voices with veteran ones. In short, it is an exceptional demonstration of skill on the part of its director, Fiona Ramsay.

Crisply structured, tightly engaged and beautifully rendered, this version of Hallelujah! is ingenious in its reflection on the potency of radio culture, which is the cipher for the heart of the story and the kernel of communication which forces its controversy on a public with its own views. Its set is simple and defined by clarity that conveys the retro directions in a contemporary era. From beige shoes with spats, to Brill crème, this is a work which feels like it’s the 1950s, but when you cast your eye and ear deeper into its tale and its values, you realise that it’s happening right now.

In 2000, Xoli Norman crafted this work which engages with the social monstrosity that has made so-called corrective rape (and murder) inflicted on black lesbians a real phenomenon. Horrifyingly, this phenomenon is still a part of our social fabric, almost 20 years later, and black lesbians remain vulnerable to the shards of a society broken by prejudice. This version of Hallelujah! digresses from the original production in that it has been reworked to accommodate several more characters. It also features poems written by Norman, specifically for this manifestation of the work.

Following the life of Bonga (Malibongwe Mdwaba), an aspirant poet, the play introduces you to his friends and his energies. One of his friends is a lesbian, named Lebo (Angelina Mofokeng). She’s also a poet and has a partner, Thandi (Mamodibe Ramodibe) and a young child. Passionately aware of the complexities her life’s realities bring, Lebo is central to the work, and carries a frisson of potency wherever she appears on stage. She’s deeply sensitive to insult, is patently aware of how bias and patronising comments slip into casual conversation and knows that her path is fraught with horror.

And it is upon the unthinkable manifestation of this horror that the play turns. Death and anger are the seeds sown in a drama that touches as sensitively on the stupid brutality of bias and hatred in a specific community as it paints a deeper image of the senselessness of baseless hatred – be it for another’s gender, skin colour or any other so-called leveller.

But the importance of this work is not only about the story it tells. In showcasing the skill of Wits student performers, alongside the pianism of the inimitable Tony Bentel, it casts a light on young talent in a way that will make you sit up and take notice. Blending very young performers with the presence of a veteran pianist brings an internal magic to the work and Bentel’s grey hair and fluency at the keyboard lends him the gravity and the universality of the eternal man at the piano keys, who is effectively an outsider in the tale, and because of this becomes a narrator of sorts. Also, the device of using one instrument, as opposed to a trio not only sketches in implied musical outlines of the bar, the Blues genre and the atmosphere, but it brings the piano muscular presence in the work, along the lines of what Makhoala Ndebele achieved in his direction of Zakes Mda’s Mother of All Eating,  a couple of years ago.

The Hallelujah! season was brief, but its impact has been significant for student repertoire, specifically as well as that of South African theatre at large. Look at this list of student performers’ names. Remember them. It’s not the last you’ll be seeing of them onstage.

  • Hallelujah! is written by Xoli Norman and directed by Fiona Ramsay. It features design by Daniel Philipson, Jemma-Clare Weil and Teneal Lopes (set) and Daniel Philipson (sound and light). It performed by Tony Bentel, Bhekilizwe Bernard, Harry Adu Faulkner, Ziphozonke Sabelo Gumede, Megan Martell, Sandile Mazibuko, Bathandwa Mbobo, Malibongwe Mdwaba, Angelina Mofokeng, Ulemu Moya, Mamodibe Ramodibe, Rose Rathaga and Kopano Tshabalala, at the Downstairs Theatre, Wits University complex, Braamfontein, until May 27. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre, www.webtickets.co.za or call 011 717 1376.
  • For a comment on the social context of this play, read this.
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Mother of all Eating: satire at its impeccable best.

Jerry Mntonga and Osei Mpho-Tutu as The Man. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Jerry Mntonga and Osei Mpho-Tutu as The Man. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

 

Something must be said for the unequivocal beauty of intelligent satire handled with such vicious acuity that it makes you laugh with glee to watch morally horrifying corruption at play. Mpho Osei-Tutu and Jerry Mntonga capture an understanding of Zakes Mda’s ‘man’ to an insightful tee, but it is the rhythm, the give and take and the idiosyncrasies of the directed performance that makes this play utterly pristine and delicious to behold.

Written more than twenty years ago in Lesotho, the play is remarkably prescient within the sordid and contemporary context of corrupt government officials. But it is driven to a theatrical level of excess by the two performers who together play the main character.

With his bulging expressive eyes, Osei-Tutu casts a whole universe of rhetoric and mirth, and he has the power to make you fall about laughing or grow goosebumps, with ever so subtle a twitch of a facial muscle. His character’s uproarious laughter, sometimes the fruit of terror and at other times that of bravado and forced nonchalance, lends the work a sinister and compelling tone, all at once. Osei-Tutu is like a machine of expression and you drag your eyes from him with loaded difficulty.

However, when considerably younger performer Mntonga takes the stage, he does so with an enticing sense of authority. There’s a palpable collaborative generosity at play here, which is flexible and thoughtful as it is honed with a sense of dramatic contrivance. The two, forming The Man sync beautifully with one another, making you want the play never to end.

But end it does, and with a moral point to bear, that is almost disappointing, given the deliciousness with which evil is handled.

This play is not only about consorting with the devil of corruption: it is also about how a piano can become a cast member, knocking on the door, making the phone ring, and indeed, substituting for the voice of several characters. It is about the role of reflection on stage, and the impaling ugliness of bling in attitude.

Above all, it’s delicious on the senses: beautifully crafted, thoughtfully directed, with an astute and humorous hand and eye. Quite simply, The Mother of All Eating offers a sense of theatrical rectitude: this calibre of performance is absolutely impeccable.

 

  • The Mother of All Eating written by Zakes Mda, is directed by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele, assisted by Gaosi Raditholo. It features design by Christian Haris (set and costume) and Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and is performed by Mpho Osei-Tutu, Jerry Mntonga and Bernett Mulungo on piano. It performs in the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown until June 1. (011)832-1641.