The things we’ll do for rain

CursedVagina

CASTING light: Hannah Van Tonder is Ntombizonke. Photograph by Tahlia Govender.

AT FIRST, IT’S difficult to believe or understand that that small incident which corrupts a great sheet of fabric covering the stage, is a human being, and yet as the play unfolds and takes you hither and yon through ritual and ancient tradition, contemporary quasi-urban values and a whole litany of prayer, you get to understand how the gesture and belief, the need for water and the love of the land interface, under the steerage of this one performer.

The work is brought to astonishing life by a concatenation of props which recalls, in a sense, Paul Noko’s earlier work Fruit, in which the props held the nexus of the material. Here, though, there’s more, but there is also less. Ntombizonke is the young woman born of a bride who is not a virgin. It transpires that her virginity becomes the suggested sacrifice that must be made to appease the gods in the name of much-needed rain.

Thus follows a tale of fantasy and religious-evocative gesture, but one bruised by too much enthusiasm — the kind of enthusiasm that packs the work so full of references, that it leaves scant space for the simple act of breathing. As a result, everything is brought into the mix, including envelopes of what seem to be seeds cast among the seating, sugar and water for the audience to dip its collective hands into and a pervading sense of ceremony, much of which becomes a red herring as it is not caught up with clarity in the work’s logic. Indeed, even the title of the work becomes sensational in its sense of taboo.

While Hannah Van Tonder in the title role, represents all the voices of this community, which reach back through generations, sometimes her diction is a casualty to too much speed. She is, however, beautifully choreographed, and the work takes on its own dance momentum, which is almost more compelling than the words themselves.

The value of this play which engages a fantasy ceremonial past cannot, however be understated. As it stands, it feels like a young draft in the development something that warrants growth and maturity.

  • The Cursed Vagina is written by Hannah Van Tonder and Paul Noko and directed by Paul Noko. It features design by Thulisa Phungula (music) and Teresa Phuti Mojela (choreography) and is performed by Hannah Van Tonder, in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o Festival hosted by Wits University. The work performed on October 5 and performs at the Nunnery on October 7. Visit www.wits.ac.za/witstheatre or www.webtickets.co.za
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Unchain my dog!

chilahaebolae

DOG on a short chain: Phokobje the jackal (Paul Noko) comes to grips with the limitations imposed on Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize). Photograph courtesy Wits Theatre.

A MASH-UP OF ancient storytelling techniques with crude humour and cartoonish action, Chilahaebolae is a curious new work featuring a mix of students and professionals that plummets into the annuls of colonialism through allegory and offers a sinister edge into the price that one pays for creature comforts. It’s a tale of a tail cast in the life of jackal and a dog, powered into life with a dynamic choreographing of sound and energy on the part of its chorus, played by the whole cast.

Nourished with layers of personification, the animals in this work are neither beast nor human, but something between the two, and while the humour ranges from utter physical slapstick to some frisky sleight of hand wit, generally, the work is too lacking in nuance to fly. It is also so replete with slo-mo violence, that you feel your jaw begin to yawn of its own volition at yet another sjambok smacking the recalcitrant jackal in the balls: the work is about 20 minutes too long and there are a lot of repeated refrains which compromise rather than strengthen the story at hand.

We meet Phokobje, a wild jackal (Paul Noko), with his twisted loyalties selfishly in place. His mate Mpja (Sibusiso Mkhize) is a dog who bears a different kind of brunt and learns early on about the price one pays for an easy meal and a good place to sleep. Featuring a very feisty cat interpreted by Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Chilahaebolae is a fantasy world that showcases the one-dimensional role of the butcher, the fashion designer and the circus master in a narrative seething with colonialist values that is as bloodthirsty as it demonstrates a naked thirst for money.

Unequivocally the highlight of this work is the manner in which the cast is woven around the story. Making animal sounds, and serving as features in the set – from fixed poles onto which a chain can be attached, to a tap dispensing water, an electric wall and diverse creatures of the night, the cast of ten becomes interchangeably a beast with its own internal complexities and you find yourself forced to pull your attention from them and back to the main scenario at hand.

The downside of this play is its utter lack of subtlety. Skirting around issues of sinister intent, death, murder and horror, the work is a very shouty one and rather than grabbing audience attention by the scruff of its neck, it tends to degenerate into a volume contest, which does become a bit of an assault, given the limited space of the theatre. You find yourself grabbed by the ears, and not in a good way. This is a pity: the basic premises of this work bring it to the periphery of narratives of the ilk of George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Aesop’s fables, but the articulation leaves it just there.

  • Chilahaebolae is written and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi assisted by Obett Motaung. It features design by Quinton Manning (choreography), Thando Msibi (costumes) and Ntokozo Ndlovu (set) and is performed by Siphosam Kamwendo, Joel Leonard, Abongile Matyutyu, Sibusiso Mkhize, Zipho Mokoena, Zimkhitha Mothlabeng, Nakesa Ndou, Paul Noko, Nolitha Radebe and Shane Veeran. It represents a collaboration between Wits Theatre, Wits School of the Arts and the Market Theatre and it performs at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown until May 28. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 832 1641.

How to celebrate an ordinary hairstylist

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SEARCHING for a number: Tony Miyambo, the son to his father.

IF YOU HAVE ever lost someone you loved very deeply, you will know the surreal madness that makes you see your loved one amongst strangers in the street, in traffic, in the shape of a head, a distinctive movement of an arbitrary stranger. You will remember how the ridiculous minutiae of your life slowed to a momentous lethargy and you will recognise how your memories of the silliest of details when you heard the horrible news, remains irrevocable. The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri brings the horror of loss to stage with a intense wisdom, a light hand and a sophisticated sense of levity. It is nothing short of sheer masterpiece.

Blending the unequivocal skills of arguably the finest in South African theatre at the moment – Gerard Bester, Tony Miyambo and William Harding, this work first saw light of day in Johannesburg at the So So1o festival in 2014. Its presence on a professional stage, for a proper season, gives it elbow room to grow and shine with relentless energy.

It’s an intimate tale told with such beauty and candidness that it overleaps the boundaries of specificity and becomes about not only the loss of Miyambo’s precious father, but something universal. Using repeat refrains that engage with place and context, the rhythm of the words, the give and take of the language are satisfying to experience: it’s structured similarly to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which skirts and flirts around the enormity of horror with words and associations and a kind of emotional choreography, imitating how the mind embraces huge news.

But more than this, it’s a tale of great belly laughter and immense sadness and it is safe in the supremely competent hands of Miyambo and replete with the inimitable texture of life in Tembisa. Never slipping into the soppily maudlin or the foolishly unfunny, the work is magicked into life with hundreds of tiny blocks of wood. Evocative of Fruit by Paul Noko, this curious innovation in set design, credited to Phala Ookeditse Phala in the earlier manifestation of the work, presents a fantastic give and take between scales as it veers between childhood memories and grown up ones.

They’re blocks of wood which enables Miyambo to plot the sequence of events, the map of his childhood neighbourhood, the peppering of tombstones in a cemetery. There’s a visual rhythm to this humble material, that can render a wooden offcut, a cenotaph, and a table leg a part of a goat. The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri celebrates the life of a humble hairstylist, as it confronts the issues of loss: loss of bearing because of illness; loss of life; loss of a grave number; loss of context. It’s a production which demands that you take along several tissues, and while you might still be trying to catch your breath at its denouement, you will leave with your heart on fire with a mix of emotions. In short: it is completely beautiful. The play of the year, so far.

  • The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri is written by Gerard Bester, Tony Miyambo and William Harding and directed by Gerard Bester. Featuring design by Julian August (lighting), it is performed by Tony Miyambo at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until October 30. Call 011 832 1641 or visit www.markettheatre.co.za

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.

A play that makes the world turn on an avocado

Fruit

Lucy and me: Matshediso Mokoteli embraces the harrowing tale of Paul Noko’s ‘Fruit’ with wisdom and depth. Photograph by Andrew Brown.

A YOUNG girl quietly talks of life, the universe and everything to her plastic doll, with the kind of illogical quietude and gentle give-and-take that little children adopt when in conversation with their toys. Thus opens arguably one of the most powerful, well defined and  ingenious plays that we in this city have been privileged to see, in a long time. Paul Noko’s Fruit brings together all the central principles of grand theatre in this low-budget, taut work, where the main grown-up protagonists are stones with faces drawn onto them, and an urban geography is cast by small cartons and pieces of community detritus.

But avocados will never be the same again. In a tour de force performance which recalls what Lara Foot did to the understanding of a cabbage leaf in Karoo Moose and what Lionel Newton and Andrew Buckland did to the understanding of a watermelon in The Well Being, 19-year-old performer Matshediso Mokoteli renders the humble avocado a repository of hope and violence, terrible cruelty and great loss.

As you take your seat in the audience, you are immediately and irrevocably plunged into the quirky chilling blend of fantasy and reality that unfolds in the whimsical portrayal of a community in an informal settlement. The characters are well developed and curious. Their interface is about the camaraderie that comes of living with scant resources, but also of being in the proverbial same boat as your neighbour. And the trajectory is an unstoppable one which you know will end with tears and horror, but you can’t look away.

There’s ugliness and drunkenness and loss and brokenness, but there’s also beauty and felicitation. And there’s a baby, who suffers the horrors of neglect, abandonment and abuse in the most harrowing context. But the whole trajectory of this baby’s life is relayed in a sing-song frankness, which not only embraces it with the kind of sophistication that doesn’t allow you to turn away even through accounts of incest and arson, but rather it mesmerises you to your moral core.

This is the kind of play which defines powerful storytelling in the least sensationalist and wisest way possible. In so doing, it soars above and beyond the notion of artifice, as it conveys the nub and texture of the horror yet joy of life in an indigent society. There is no romanticising of poverty here, no political grandstanding. The story is told as it happens, and this frank splaying of happenings makes it sing.

  • Fruit is written and directed by Paul Noko. It is performed by Matshediso Mokoteli and was the winner of the Zabalaza Theatre Festival in Cape Town in 2015. It enjoyed a short season earlier this month at the Pop Arts Theatre, in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg.