Diabetic habits and histrionics for dead strangers

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THE power of prayer in the face of reality: Brenda (Awethu Hleli), Karabo (Chuma Sopotela) and Andiswa (Motlatji Ditodi) mourn; Pumla (Faniswa Yisa) jives. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

FOUR FIERCE BLACK women toss caution and values to the wind in this carefully crafted take on hypocrisy, the culture of mourning and too much sugar in the African diet. Laced with political barbs and advocacy ciphers, the work is funny and crass, moving and evolved and little escapes the pen of the inimitable Mike van Graan in presenting a township world where three women get together to form The Substitutes, a professional mourning syndicate.

Darting along similar social fringes presented by films such as Radu Mihăileanu’s 2009 Le Concert which reflects on crowd sourcing as a political hook and a financial saviour, and Hal Ashby’s 1971 Harold and Maude, that presents a cemetery-centred romance, Another One’s Bread takes apart the  idiom about one man’s meat being another man’s poison. Tumbling through the cultural preciousness of loss and sadness, it focuses on the business of death with a capitalistic eye and presents a platform for farce at its most shouty.

Pumla (Faniswa Yisa), Karabo (Chuma Sopotela) and Andiswa (Motlatji Ditodi) live in a household where they need a little more money for jam, proverbially speaking. With a mix of vegetarianism, a spot of poetry, a story of Karabo’s niece Brenda (Awethu Hleli) needing a change of climate after a stint in jail, for crimes of passion involving sweets which were not hers, and a vegetable garden, they develop a repertoire and a funeral resource. Bringing in several references to Brenda Fassie, the work blends feel good social values with a shrieking intensity that forces you to go with the flow.

There are some hilarious choreographic moments and a richer understanding of loss wrapped up in the over-the-top characters and how they interface, which enables this work to soar, but Brenda’s very shrill antics and her lumpy costume sometimes hurts the work’s integrity.

Either way, the madcap subtleties of Karabo and the vulnerability of Pumla, who is the oldest of the four, lend the piece the kind of balance and charm that gives the notion of a fresh food stokvel, a plan to feed children in the environment, and the harsh and scary predominance of death in society to be presented without coyness, crude advocacy or blandness. And the political barbs fly with abandon, touching everything from Jacob Zuma’s school education to the #MenAreTrash tweet that went viral to Oscar Pistorius and his declarations of innocence.

It’s a lovely work, but the turning of the vocal volume all the way up, throughout does tend to bruise some of its more developed assertions, contexts and story lines.

  • Another one’s bread is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Pamela Nomvete. It features design by Jacqueline Kehilwe Manyaapelo (choreography), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Karabo Legoabe-Mtshali and Nthabiseng Makone (set and costumes) and is performed by Motlatji Ditodi, Awethu Hleli, Chuma Sopotela and Faniswa Yisa until February 4 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za

Two women, and tea with Greek biscuits


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

For Karabo, and all Karabos


MY sisters, myself: Nommangaliso Tebeka, Joyce Hopane and Nomasonto Radebe. Photograph courtesy Market Theatre.

TAKE AN AUDIENCE of 72. Divide them in two and range them facing one another across the stage. Strip them of their ability to sit in the auditorium because every seat in the space has been marked with the name of a woman, who is both present and absent because of this. This is the potent and ghostly start to Luyanda Sidiya’s new piece, In Her Shoes, a contemplation of women in a time of moral despair.

Manipulating the space and the audience, Sidiya boldly sets the tone for something utterly extraordinary; the work starts with a frightening level of aplomb and virtual perfection that makes you want to leave as soon as you’ve seen it because it feels so complete. The narrative is so violent yet so tightly told, the gestures so articulate and the element of fear so well understood and expressed that it feels as though you’ve sampled an elegant sufficiency, peppered as it is with primal screams and troubling potency.

Karabo Mokoena was just 22 when she tragically emerged on South Africa’s headlines. She was another desperately sad casualty in the domestic scourge against women that continues to leave this country reeling. Raped and murdered, the remains of this beautiful young student were burnt so badly, they were difficult to recognise. And the unfolding horror of the story revealed that the man who had perpetrated the crime had been her boyfriend. Much of the first part of In Her Shoes touches the life and values of Karabo and all the Karabos out there.

You weep for her. For her mother, for her sister, for what she represented to a South African community. But you cannot leave the theatre at that time. Firstly, because, you’re seated up there on the stage. And secondly, because this bit of perfection in dance and staging, wordless narrative and lighting, is but the prologue, and the work unfolds further from that point.

Sadly, this is, in many ways, its undoing: the focus is compromised and a story line is cast around a rural set of values, posing moral options for a young woman which is overshadowed and underplayed by sound that is amplified to such a tremendous extent that you feel the bones in your head beginning to shiver against one another. You feel your teeth take the sound’s frequency vibrate horribly and you fear your life blood may burst out in great spasms and arcs in protest.

You cannot help but wonder what this work would have been like in the absence of this immense, all-encompassing noise. While Sidiya’s use of the spoken voice in this piece diminishes its strength as a dance work, and pushes it into a literalness which overrides his extraordinarily fine choreography, some of the texts are magnificent, but still, the sound bears down on you, like an immense cloud, which blocks your ability to see these beautiful dancers as they should be seen.

  • In Her Shoes is choreographed and directed by Luyanda Sidiya. It features design by Billy Monama (musical director), Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka (texts) and Keaoleboga Seodigeng (costumes). It is performed by Joyce Hopane, Nomasonto Radebe, Lesoko V. Seabe and Nommangaliso Tebeka, and a music ensemble comprising Phosho Lebese and Sibusiso Sibanyoni at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, until August 13. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

To be a man


FLAWED dad, precious grampa: Tobie Cronje plays Karel Brink.

IT IS RARE for the ingredients of a play, the technique and the outcome to resonate with such a sense of shattering potency that it touches you at the core, from beginning to end and doesn’t let go. Karel se Oupa is a new play by the creative team that produced the inimitable Dop, early this year and a kind of kitchen sink drama in Afrikaans, it’s easily the play of the year – so far. Wading through all the what ifs of family business broken by violent crime, nuanced problems, love that is difficult to utter and illness, it’s a work that could easily have skittered into the terrain of maudlin.

It doesn’t ever – this has as much to do with the crispness of the text, the well developed nature of the characters and the impeccable performance of the cast, to say nothing of the splintering silences into which the piece is embedded.

Veteran performer Tobie Cronjé who has earned his stripes on stage in recent years in comedy and pantomime, in this demanding and incisive role confronts the Calvinist values of hypermasculinity as an elderly farmer, Karel Brink, who is also a cardigan-clad grandpa and a father.

He is supported by his maid, Emma (Esmeralda Bihl), a woman who has seen the Brink family through times of horror and deep sadness, but also through the love and humour of the questions about life, the universe and everything that little boys and girls ask the nanny as they’re being taken through their daily rituals. She’s a magician of practicality and can wipe her own tears, bake bread, make coffee, pray to God, sing and feed the dog while she navigates between difficult men who cannot say things they must to each other, because of who they are.

Neels Clasen with devastating finesse plays the long absent son, Karel Junior. And the child in the work, played in this particular performance by Ruben Lombard (8), is electric in his ability to embrace a nuanced and difficult role.

It’s a tale of would haves and could haves and unspoken love between siblings and parents, as it’s a work about regrets and snap emotional decisions. Embraced in its folds is the narrative of farm murders, the magic of flight and the silent life-changing scream that a single telephone call can bring, it is written in a tight and carefully honed Afrikaans that is understandable in its commonsense, even if you have but a smattering of it.

Karel se Oupa offers a critical, almost cruel, glance at the vagaries and vulnerabilities of ageing, peppered with loss, terrible surprises and the need to sweeten horrors so that you can tell them to a small child. It’s an immensely fine work focused on the mysteries of the kitchen, which is defined by its sense of balance and its ability to reinvent a sequence of events through different characters’ eyes, and thus turn the universe on the concept of separating an egg or kneading a loaf of bread.

  • Karel se Oupa is written by Retief Scholtz and directed by André Odendaal, assisted by Anel du Plessis. It features creative input by Kosie Smit (set and costumes) and Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and is performed by Esmeralda Bihl, Neels Clasen and Tobie Cronje, and two alternative child performers: Ian Roelofs and Ruben Lombard. It performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until July 2. Call 011 832-1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za

Living in the love of a broken people


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.

Girltalk for combatants


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.

Hard to stomach, Egoli seems to have too many cooks


What is it that makes a theatre director muddy his own clarity of thought and compromise something utterly wise and moving, with quick and nasty literal gimmicks? Matsemela Manaka’s Egoli, first published in 1980, is a powerful paean to manhood and the collective challenges it faces, but this production of it has mixed success in the rash of grotesque horrors it thrusts at its audience.

More than that, it’s a play that so flagrantly ignores basic precepts of audience comfort that it can be a really frightening experience that reaches beyond the performances, the narrative or the context. It is clear that the director wanted to evoke the kind of terrifying, claustrophobic entrapment miners face daily, for you, who has paid for a ticket and sits in the audience, and in doing this, he succeeds, but perhaps there should be a disclaimer or two at the door or the box office.

You cannot get out of this space without walking through the stage, once the work begins to unfold. You may wish to – on opening night, a woman in the audience actually vomited in response to the drama onstage. There are terrifying strobes and an environment which at times is completely brutal in its description of loss and mourning, shock and anger.

It’s sad: In 2006, there was a production in this theatre complex of Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase, directed by James Ngcobo with set design by Nadya Cohen. The idea of the horror of sudden loss was absolutely unforgettably conveyed with the crash of a metal dustbin lid. It was a gesture so simple and so devastating and shocking that it reached far beyond its simplicity.

Egoli begins with an astoundingly fine metaphor that evokes that bin lid crash in its wisdom and subtlety, in representing the mine shaft elevator, but sadly there is scant follow through on such sophisticated thinking and much of the work, with the exception of some untouchably lovely a capella work, is violent and crude.

Also there are other elements in this work which seem to overlook the fact that the audience is the final component to a play. If you only speak English, you may well miss some 70% of the work’s nuances. If you’re not able to turn your head completely around, like an owl, you may not be able to see all of the work in entirety: the performers use every corner of the theatre, including areas behind the seated audience. While this is effective, it’s also counterproductive.

Having said all of that, this tale of the horrendous challenges faced by men is at times so achingly beautiful and tragic, it will take your breath away. A work that presents South African miners in delicate three-dimensionality, Egoli is a series of stories within stories about love and hate and humiliation and terror and premature loss and politics, and in this respect, it succeeds in the same way that iconic texts like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) reflects on the humour and fear and crushing inevitability of men in a mandatory situation at war. It’s headlined by nuanced and superb performances in the authoritative hands of Hamilton Dhlamini opposite Lebogang Motaung – as Hamilton and John respectively.

While the texture of the work is convincing and tight, mine tales are mine tales and struggle tales are struggle tales. Knitting the two together feels contrived and the story’s central kernel is a flawed one because the association of the two men feels impossibly coincidental. But it’s a narrative flaw that’s easy to forgive in the face of bigger theatre sins: Gritty and deep, clever and rich, the work, if you’re able to overlook the vomit-inducing elements, the constriction and threat to audience safety, is replete with such developed subtleties and symbolic gestures that its wild leaps toward brutal literality make it feel as though there’s a director too many at work here.

  • Egoli is written by Matsemela Manaka and directed by Phala Ookeditse Phala, mentored by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Onthatile Matshidiso (set and costumes) and it is performed by Faith Busika, Hamilton Dhlamini, Billy Langa, Katlego Letsholonyana, Mohlatsi Mokgonyana, Lebohang Motaung and Alfred Motlhapi, at the Laager Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 31. Call 0118321641 or visit markeettheatre.co.za
  • Arguably, the success of the environment overrides the critical success of the play itself. Read this piece.