Hillbrow’s people, great and small

Young@Home

CELEBRATING the Gogo in a flurry of love. Young@Home, photographed by Mark Straw.

THERE’S A VERY precious kind of gem being honed in the poor suburb of Hillbrow, which without Pollyanna high-jinks or saccharine overstatement, has the potency and power to literally change the world. Young@Home is an initiative which, like Donkey Child, a couple of years ago, is parented by the Hillbrow Theatre, and like Donkey Child features the melding of skills and experience great and small, and what you get out of it ultimately is a theatre experience so cogent and rich that it reaches right back to the sacred roots of what theatre-making is about, for the community, with the community and by the community.

It’s an assemblage of real stories, melding a cast of young people and one of old people:  the elderly on stage are residents of the Tswelopele Frail Care Centre, which is in Hillbrow and the children on stage are members of the Hillbrow Theatre Project. While you might anticipate a bit of a Christmas pudding of a show, given the wide range of amateur performers, and the largeness of the cast on stage, it’s not what you get. This community-centred cast is honed and shaped into a level of poetic articulation, by the work’s creative team, and whether or not you understand the languages used to tell the stories, almost becomes irrelevant: there’s a flow of energy and empathy between the nubile young people with their white costumes and red scarves, and the frail old ones in a dignified black and white, which articulates that give and take between generations that makes the world turn.

As tempo and volume, song and layering of words infiltrates the piece, the sway and rhythm of narrative is allowed to unfold, allowing everyone – from the Tswelopele resident who is confined to a wheelchair yet tells her tales and sings, to the one who flits silently through the choreography, her arms outstretched, like a small and determined, yet crumpled bird – a place in this narrative that matters.

It’s the kind of show that will touch you very deeply. Advocacy theatre at its most profound, like Sibikwa and other projects addressing and giving voice to the poorest of the poor, Young@Home has artistic integrity, but also presents a value for society at large that is real and filled with the texture that makes us all human and skirts and confronts the meaning and sense of theatre at its core. This is a theatre experience that will change the world, if it’s given the chance; it’s something you should include among what you consider a ‘must-see’.

  • Young@Home is told by the cast, written by Jefferson Tshabalala assisted by Phana Dube and directed by Gcebile Dlamini consulted by Peter DuPont Weiss. It features design by Sonia Radebe and Nhlanhla Mahlangu (choreography and music), João Orecchia (soundscape), Gcebile Dlamini (set) and Phana Dube (lighting). It has a cast from the Hillbrow Theatre Project: Nonjabulo Chauke, Rendani Dlamini, Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Sbusiso Nkosi Mabethu, Brandon Magengele, Tisetso Masilo, Amahle Mene, Zinhle Mnguni, Jackson Moqotlane, Lesley Mosweu, Dakalo Mulaudzi, Abongiwe Ndlovu, Lihlithemba Ngcobo, Prince Nyathi, Aminathi Radebe, Surprice Seete and Bayanda Junior Xolo; and a cast from the Twelopele Frail Care Centre: Harry Card, Florah Nkoana, Benjamin Pule, Milton Sibiya, Adelaide Tukuta, Vicky Walker and Themba Xaba. It opened on April 1 at the Hillbrow Theatre, and travels to the Olive Tree Theatre in Alex on April 3 at 2pm; to the South Rand Recreation Centre on April 4 at 10am; to POPArt Theatre, Maboneng on April 8 at 3pm, to the Drama For Life Conference at Wits University on May 6 and to the Assitej World Congress and International Theatre Festival for Children and Young People in Cape Town on May 23-24. Visit facebook.com/HillbrowTheatreProject or call 011 720 7011.
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The Good, the Bad and the Outrageous – Dance Umbrella 2017 in a nutshell

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GIVE and take: Fana Tshabalala, Emil Bordas and Ana Mondini in the work beautifully curated by Constanza Macras, In the Heart of the Country. Photography courtesy DorkyPark.

Dance Umbrella 2017 is done and dusted, and like virtually every other Dance Umbrella for the past 29 years, it featured the good, the bad and the ugly, and insights into the ‘lucky packet’ syndrome, central to any arts festival, where you’re never sure of the pickings of any evening’s material, as to whether it will indeed be good, bad or simply appalling.

Who could easily forget the sheer magic in Rudi van der Merwe’s Trophée, or the frissons of fierce and vulnerable energy cast by Ana Mondini in In the Heart of the Country, a work co-choreographed by Fana Tshabalala with Constanza Macras. Conversely, happily none of the audience members in Lady, Lady, the much anticipated work by Gaby Saranouffi, Desiré Davids and Edna Jaime didn’t find themselves pitched headlong down the theatre’s steep steps in the dark, as the work began before everyone was seated.

While some works still contained the same kind of mind-numbing repetitive bellow of sound that makes an MRI seem friendly, others have transitioned to understanding the value of music – and better still, the presence of a real person actually playing music, within the work. Unfortunately, in one such piece, the instrumentalist was placed at such a silly and basically disrespectful position that all the audience could see was his or her elegant arm, from time to time, and this served as a major detractor throughout the work.

In Down to Earth, Kieron Jina and Marc Philipp Gabriel delightfully cavorted nakedly with an assortment of arbitrary objects and by and large, except for a few achingly fine gestures in the work’s trajectory, the effect was lovely, but alas, so conceptually flimsy, it never moved from being two naked boys in a room of things. In another work, the archive of contemporary South African dance was splayed with a great deal of humour and poetry, honesty and frankness against the backdrop of memory by Alan Parker, in his Detritus for One. It was unconventional and difficult, but moving and real.

There were the strange faux pas in works in which dancers were so enthusiastic that they began moving before their soundtrack was switched on, others in which the dancers continued dancing in the silence between tracks, and yet others in which screens were erected, but the projected images didn’t coincide. Beautiful dance by Cape Town City Ballet and freelancers under the choreographic impetus of Kirvan Fortuin was so oddly marred because the colour of the floor in relation to the dancers’ socks was not taken into consideration. Featuring uncomfortable lighting, Fortuin’s When They Leave had all his dancers in brown socks. Effectively, this meant that the aesthetics of the work saw them truncated: the socks and the stage floor blended so well, the dancers’ feet were stolen from the audience’s sight.

Site specificity was handled with aplomb and Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant, conjoined with Trophée, lent an eerie sense of authenticity to physical gestures in the world that were transfixing and unusual, allowing Dance Umbrella its traditional energetic charges of discomfort and unease.

Some choreographers articulated things about life, the universe and everything, sometimes in much more convoluted and lengthy ways than were completely accessible and strictly necessary, and others brought such poetry and magic to the stage, that it made you realise that this is indeed what it’s all about. Life, the universe, and everything, I mean.

The bulk of the festival took place in the three venues of Wits University’s theatre complex, and on paper and in much of the pragmatics of this approach, this was the best Dance Umbrella in years. It didn’t mean leaping in your car and hurtling through the unpredictable streets of Johannesburg between the performance of works. There was only one triple bill, and an immensely satisfying one at that, in which works which resonated with one another were curated together.

Where the venue failed effectively, was in terms of its hospitality. And while many people have vociferously behind the scenes explained the pragmatic reasons for this to me, it’s another issue of being able to explain it to Joe Public, the sometime visitor of Dance Umbrella, that he or she might have to settle for a bag of Jelly Tots for dinner, between shows. Not only was there no food accessible, but Wits University itself is in dire need of having to rethink its theatre as a real, professional venue. It’s not safe to go exploring campus at night – and while the theatre spaces are great, the foyer gives nothing to its visitors: not a bank machine, not a sandwich, not even a clear facade and logical entrance point.

This is a crying shame: the longevity of the Dance Umbrella is such that it deserves a regular venue to contain it, and one that, without excuses and explanations can sate any demands its patrons might have, simply because they’re patrons and shouldn’t be obliged to jump through proverbial hoops or sit on the floor or pretend that NikNaks are a balanced meal.

Having said all of that, and having partly recovered from the helter-skelter pressure of an arts festival, it’s time to congratulate Dance Umbrella under the artistic direction of Georgina Thomson, on another sterling success. Night after night, you might have returned home feeling alive with the magic and madness of this world. You might have returned home feeling appalled at how this type of dance gets international funding.  But by and large, you returned the next night for more. And more. Here’s to Dance Umbrella’s 30th in 2018.

Sing a song of ghosts in a museum of torment

Workers CHANT-photo Evans Mathibe

LOOK into the light: Feeding bowls double as light in the sequences danced by SA dance group Phuphuma Love Minus. Photograph by Evans Mathibe.

SOMETHING QUITE TERRIFYING happens when you find yourself among people you don’t know, being aggressively instructed in a language you don’t understand: You just obey. You do what other people are doing. You become frightened to step out of line. Frightened that the guards’ attention will become focused on you and you may be singled out from the pack. And what will become of you? Will you be humiliated? Will you be killed? Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Workers’ Chant plays with power in a way that which might leave you traumatised and emotionally in disarray.

It takes the audience through the passages and interstices of the Workers’ Museum, an eerie odd little place at the best of times, which is part of the Newtown heritage trail and remains a chilling relic of apartheid’s values. Given the anti-immigrant marches that Johannesburg saw this week, it is a scarily prescient work that is as much about mourning and brokenness as it is about singling out people deemed of lesser value than the rest of society.

A little too long by maybe ten minutes, the work hammers home the realities of migrant living conditions in a crudely racist regime, as it glances head on at everything from the children of migrant labourers who cannot be read to at night, to the way in which everything from piss, shit and vomit, to food and sleep are – or were – regulated in this compound. Under threat of punishment.

There’s a loose narrative conflating the two women (Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo) and weaving a history of aggression with one of tears and loss. Not always completely legible in terms of its structure, the work is achingly haunting, as it brings the song and dance work of miners associated with Phuphuma Love Minus in a way that evokes the ghosts of the men who were hard done by in this dire little compound complex and others similar to it.

It’s a work of insecurity but certainty – you know it’s an artwork and the ramifications of the instructions hurled at you cannot really touch you, but you’re still touched, anyway. It’s also a work of chilling beauty and forcefulness, which resonates with the values cast by Xoli Norman and Sue Pam Grant in the 2009 piece Guard on Shift staged at Dance Factory or Jay Pather’s Qaphela Caesar at the building formerly the site of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2012.

Workers’ Chant is riddled with contradictions that give it toughness: it’s a celebration of lives in a context of horror and pain, a reflection of the iconic  photographs by Ernest Cole of deprivation and uniformity and a piece capable of creating shriekingly powerful images and contexts, as it is capable of creating a situation which rapidly becomes nightmarish with the screams of a woman in a closely confined space.

You’re not warned of the physical challenges this work brings, as you trundle through the dark and stony surfaces of this museum, but it is the eerie togetherness and spooky site-specificity, wrapped as it is with the traditional songs of the miners that will echo in your head with the whispers of cruel injustices and the dignity with which the men thus inflicted carried it all, sometimes right to their ignominious deaths.

  • Workers’ Chant is choreographed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu in collaboration with Siphumeze Khundayi and Liyabuya Gongo. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (costumes) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting and video) and is performed by Liyabuya Gongo, Siphumeze Khundayi and Phuphuma Love Minus, at the Workers’ Museum in Newtown, on February 23 and 24 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.

Man enough

Tau. July 2016.

EXPECTORATION and manhood: Tau’s journey of self-discovery. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

“DUMELANG”, HE SAYS, standing just inside the doorway, to the right. So does he, on the left of the doorway. But they both says it in such a gentle undertone that you only really register that they’re greeting you once you’ve passed them. This delicate opening gesture to the play not only sets the tone to a beautiful whirlwind of cultural complexity embodied in the clash of traditional practice with a desire for contemporary balance, but it also touches your core and stimulates a reaction in you. Do you greet the men with equal respect? Do you ignore them? Do you nod and grin sheepishly, afraid they might burst into long sentences in Sesotho which you do not understand? Do you loudly declare “Good evening!”, back at them?

It’s immaterial, really, but this simple understanding of how we as a mixed society grapple with the tools of language, ritual and habit, frames this extraordinarily beautiful and sophisticated piece of storytelling with a succinct but devastatingly powerful hand. Tau (played by Abednigo Moruti Dlamini) is the name of a young man who skirts stereotypical definition with a silent potency. But he’s a young man in a deeply traditional rural community in the Free State and the ritual of circumcision and isolation is one he must confront with his peers in order to attain adulthood.

There unfolds a rich and deeply textured work about male bonding and homosexuality, taboos and curses, gender equality and red shoes, to say nothing of the utterly breathtaking night landscape of animals, crafted with sounds made by the cast. It’s a work which will sweep you from your comfort zones, whether you speak Sesotho or not, and force you to scrabble in the secrecy that holds the manhood of a society together. And there’s an element of intrusion into the culture, but also one of extreme mystery and wonder and contemporary pragmatism which is completely seductive.

Several years ago, there was a lot of local theatre that drew from within traditional African culture. It was passionate work, earnest in its sense of urgency to have a place on the professional stage, but often the paraphernalia of rural ritual was thwarted on stage as it was overwhelmingly amateur. When you watch a work such as Tausimilar to Sibikwa’s production of iLembe  – you rapidly realise that there has been a generational shift in South African theatre and this supremely talented team of performers and creatives is able to meld together the age-old values with modern discourse and utterly beautiful construction. The time has come for these stories to have potent life and value under the gaze and conversation of new dreamers, thinkers and theatremakers, and they are doing it with wisdom and beauty that lends Africa’s old tales a universality which is fresh as it is compelling.

Tau is an exquisite work that is clear to follow but satisfyingly nuanced in its reflection on the values it scrutinises. But its blend of a cappella with precise and intense fight choreography ramps it up even further. It will shift your centre. Forever.

  • Tau is written by Thabiso T. Rammala and directed by Thabiso T. Rammala and MoMo Matsunyane. It features creative input by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi (dramaturge), Hlomohang Mothetho (lighting) assisted by Ntokozo Ndlovu, Thando Lobese (set and costumes) assisted by Lebogang Mokgosi and Philani Nelson Masedi, and Nhlanhla Mahlangu (choreography). It is performed by Allen Cebekhulu, Abednigo Moruti Dlamini, Nono Dombo, James Mankgaba, Khothatso Mogwera, Paul Noko and Mosa Sephiri, at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre Complex, until August 21. 011 832 1641 or markettheatre.co.za.

Sof’town blues

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AH, SOPHIATOWN. HOME and suburban melting pot of such a rich concatenation of frenetic, beautiful and terrible culture that forms the backbone of who we are as creative South Africans, striving for that precious riff or that elusive line of poetry to make us remember what matters. Ah, the eponymous play, written in the fiery mid-1980s by the members of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, which included such icons as Malcolm Purkey, Pippa Stein, William Kentridge and others. Thirty years later, has the play stood the test of time? In short, mostly. But in this season, it feels dishonoured.

It was a play that broke the mould of what theatre should be, taking the crust of an idea that was cast into the world by Sophiatown resident, the Drum journalist Nat Nakasa. Written for an English-speaking audience, it filtered a rambunctious slew of everything from tsotsi taal to Hebrew, fahfee codes to dances moves into a multifaceted theatre beast that celebrates and mourns what 1954 meant to so many residents of Johannesburg’s suburb of Sophiatown, which was bought in 1897 as a smallholding by Herman Tobiansky and named for his wife and children.

But more than an essay on forced removals in a suburb that skirted apartheid’s draconian legislation, Sophiatown is a portrait of the people in their time. It’s a fantastic story in which the internal dynamics of a house in Gerty Street comes to diverse and critical life, presenting Ruth Golden, a young Jewish woman, sanctuary from her parents’ Yeoville household, as it offers an understanding of home with all its discontents, desires, disgressions and heart.

But this production of the work is sadly lacking in several key areas. It is scripted with a dialogue that has a very distinctive rhythm and it’s not clear how this young cast has been allowed to overlook this important nuance in the delivery of the work. In any event, the result tramples on the fineness, the humanity and the sparkle of the script, making it difficult to follow and casting a slur of humdrum over the words.

The work’s poignant anti-hero, Charlie (played by Joel Zuma) holds great strength of focus and heartstrings. Hlengiwe Lushaba as Mamariti is clearly the production’s drawcard, exercising her mellow voice and sardonic presence with an authenticity that makes your heart sing, backed as she is by the delightful performances of Barileng Malebye as Princess and Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala as Lulu.

But the young Jewish woman is played by relative newcomer Christine van Hees. While her singing voice harmonises well with that of the cast, much of this character’s role is acted, not sung. And a more obviously not Jewish Ruth Golden would be difficult to conceive of – it is not clear why the idiosyncrasies of a South African Jew raised in the 1970s with European roots and very specific values has not been given the dignity of proper research.

The highlight of the work remains the music and the choreography: there is acapello work in this production that will give you goosebumps, but there isn’t enough of it. Flaws in the casting and the rhythm of the dialogue knock into rather crude relief the limits of the piece in terms of music, particularly in the second half. If only this work had been more critically tweaked for an audience 30 years older (and ones born in the last 30 years).

  • Sophiatown, written by the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, is directed by Malcolm Purkey and features design by Denis Hutchinson (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Arthur Molepo (musical direction) and Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Sonia Radebe (choreography). It is performed by Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, Barileng Malebye, Nicholas Nkuna, Sechaba Ramphele, Tshepiso Tracey Tshabalala, Christine van Hees, Arthur Zitha and Joel Zuma in a season at the State Theatre in Pretoria until May 21. This review is premised on its season at the Market Theatre in April. Call 012 392 4000 or visit http://www.statetheatre.co.za

Impeccable Crepuscule

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

Dignity, sophistication and love: Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can Themba (Leroy Gopal). Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

It’s relatively easy to glamourise the 1950s. The fashions are beautiful and dignified. The architecture is poetic. The times were ripe with sex and possibilities: the world was on its knees after two major wars, and the cultural pendulum was swinging back: anything was possible. Truth be told, the period, in South Africa, in particular, was very far from glamorous. Apartheid was rife, and while the fashions were indeed beautiful and the Art Deco buildings of the time were indeed poetic, social and human values were rotten and injustice was like a cancerous rash spreading dully all over society. Enter Khayelihle Dom Gumede. This young man has taken a magnificent piece of prose by Can Themba and brought it to life on stage in a manner which not only celebrates the cultural nuances of the 1950s, but opens up the social underbelly of the period with a searingly sharp tool, aided by an exceptionally fine cast.

In short, Crepuscule is a doomed love story, based loosely on fact, between Janet (Kate Liquorish) and Can (Leroy Gopal). Not only was their love hampered by moral taboos of the time, she being white and he, black, but it flew in the face of their other relationships, to say nothing of the miscegenation laws of apartheid that got lascivious cops checking bed frames for evidence.

But in the hands of Gumede, this impeccable piece of theatre is so much more than this simple yet complicated love story. It’s an essay on shebeen culture, and a reflective and full representation of characters in all their dimensions.

There are no real villains in this tale: you might expect the cuckolded husband, Malcolm (Conrad Kemp) to be reflected upon as the classic colonialist, the tight-fisted white man who lacks social savvy and nuance, and is easy bait for mockery in the vernacular, but under Gumede’s direction and with Kemp’s own developed reflection of the role, a great level of empathy is evoked and honed.

Similarly, Themba’s mother, played with astonishing charisma and authenticity by Thami Ngoma reflects not only a woman resigned with disappointment at her son’s love choices, but one who loves her son and must respect him, and one who has the emotional sophistication to tease and contextualise her own feelings.

Further to each rounded character development, which also features the extraordinary Lerato Mvelase who can be a drunk man as well as she can be a shebeen queen, Liquorish and Gopal raise the stature of the characters they perform to historical and emotional icons. You will be seduced by the delicious crispness of the give and take between them, and the succinct and subtle yet ever so sexy representation of their relationship.

But more than that, you will be haunted and intoxicated by the interjection of song – Sophiatown standards – and dance, and physical theatre and movement that gives this work its life blood. With palpably gorgeous language and featuring some truly brilliant set decisions by the inimitable Nadya Cohen, the work is compact and edgy as it is completely engaging. In short, it is flawless: a work where every nuance is thought through and taken care of, a product which offers a portrait of Sophiatown that jives and beats and weeps and lives. See it.

  • Crepuscule by Can Themba, is adapted for stage by Khayelihle Dom Gumede, mentored by Kgafela oa Magogodi. It features design by Nhlanhla Mahlangu (musical direction and choreography), Nadya Cohen (set), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Thando Lobese (costumes) and is performed by Leroy Gopal, Conrad Kemp, Kate Liquorish, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Lerato Mvelase and Thami Ngoma, at the Laager, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 2. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za