From the mouths of babes

thwala

SINGING to make the world feel beautiful. (from left) Violet Ledwaba (partially obscured); Tisetso Masilo; Zinhle Mnguni; Sakhile Mlalazi; Luyanda Mahlangu; Surprise Seete and Nyiko Kubayi. Photograph by Adriana MC

WHEN YOU KNOW there are children in the cast of a staged work, you instinctively lower the parameters of your expectations. They’re not professionals, after all. Theatre’s a difficult thing to do, if you’re a child. And it’s a truism that the fact of children on stage means that the mommies and daddies in the audience are the ones to whom it is addressed. But when you see Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi’s Thwala, you realise from the get-go that this is simply something extraordinary and you will be swept away by the muscularity of the performances, the wisdom implicit in the work’s structure and quite simply the value and ethos of this story.

Comprising an all-girl cast, aged between 11 and 16, the work conveys a simple and bold story about a pastor taking sexual advantage of little girls who live in an orphanage. Already it’s a focus that seems too complex and too sophisticated – not to mention too disgraceful – for these angel-faced children to be confronting, and yet, tragically, this kind of story is par for the course, given what contemporary youth have to face all the time, in this day and age.

While the performers, led by Sakhile Mlalazi as Sebendzile Skhosana and Amehle Mene as the priest are completely wonderful in their sense of self, their sense of cohesion with their peers on the cast and their understanding of character, full credit is due to Dlamini and Mgeyi: the staging of the work, the use of props, which are drawn by the cast, the discipline of the cast and the sense of context they present is exceptionally well developed.

The priest gets his comeuppance and the young girls’ headscarves are uses to represent not only a sense of female modesty but the bars on the prison, in a poetic touch. And in telling all of this, in an amalgamation of languages, the work doesn’t miss a beat: a marimba band lends the work its soundtrack and singers and a chorus add to the energy and fire generated here. It’s not a happily-ever-after fairy tale, but one coaxed into life by the horrors that are endemic to our society, playing very directly into the focus of the #metoo movement.

Will these young women, who put many a professional stage production in this city to shame, get to see professional careers on the back of a university degree in performance? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. With their socio-economic context, it is not a given that the expense of higher education in a field such as drama is something that any of them will be able to take for granted.

While you might weep at the beauty of their understanding of characters bruised and torn by corrupt figures of authority, you need to reflect on the potential future of these girls. It bodes well for the possibilities of theatre in this country, and serves to lend a very developed reflection on what projects such as the Hillbrow Theatre’s Outreach Foundation continues to do. But this is no pity party. Whatever happens in the future of these children and this initiative, the magic seeds that engender values and creativity have been sewn. The seasons of Thwala have been brief, but there deserve to be many more in the future of this production.

  • Thwala is directed and created by Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, in collaboration with the cast who are from Centurion College. It features creative input by Bigboy Ndlovu (choreography), Themba Moyo (musical direction), Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi (costumes), members of the cast assisted by Gift Dube and Benjamin Sambo (set) and is performed Neliseka Malinga, Thobeka Malinga and Hope Mwenda (voice coaching) and is performed by Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Luyanda Mahlangu, Tisetso Masilo, Amehle Mene, Sakhile Mlalazi, Zinhle Mnguni, Hope Mwenda, Bontle Ndlovu, Nthabiseng Ndlovu, Tumelo Nkoele, Gugulethu Nxumalo, Aminathi Radebe, Surprise Seete and Pearl Segwagwa, supported by a marimba band, comprising Matham Fokane, Pearl Mmamorare, Bridget Moyo, Abigail Skhosana and Ukho Somadlaka. It performed in the Inner City Drama Schools Festival in August, the Drama for Life Sex Actually Festival in September, and was hosted by Drama for Life at the Emkhaya Theatre, Wits University between November 3 and 5. The work is hosted by the Outreach Foundation at the Hillbrow Theatre. Call 011 720 7011 or visit outreachfoundation.co.za
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Would you like a cup of tea with that, Madam?

betweensisters

DRINK it all up: Bontle (Dimakatso Motholo) and Flo (Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza). Photograph by Mariola Biela.

STEP ASIDE, SOLANGE and Claire. Forget the clichéd sexy French maids’ garb with stockings and suspenders, frilly aprons and cleavage.  With domestic servants like Bontle (Dimakatso Motholo) and Flo (Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza), the strategic and oft sinister plotting between siblings and subservients, coined in Jean Genet’s iconic play The Maids (1947), is ramped up to a new level of relevance, and the audience is kept splendidly in the know and the now, in this extremely fine production.

You may have seen earlier performances of The Maids. In drag. With white women. Playing heavily on the period style of the set. You may have read sociological studies on the relationship between a maid and her madam. You may know the blatant and blunt stereotypes in  Zukiswa Wanner’s Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam (2013). Between Sisters is a fresh take on all the values offered by these disparate works, ideas and perspectives on servants, as it gleefully knits together volatile and prescient issues central to the identity and complexity of domestic maids in contemporary South Africa.

Ultimately, it’s a work about power. And manipulation. But it’s seldom what you think; there’s a couple of fabulous little twists in the tale, which quite take you by surprise. But the roaring success of the work is hinged on exceptionally strong performances by Motholo and Thakudi-Nzuza and a beautifully and utterly irreverently written script which conjoins everything from contemporary Sesotho slang to David Tlale fashions.

With vicious irony and sinister intent, these sisters, who wield insults like fully-loaded weapons and monger hate like professionals, skirt and titter around dresses, money and cups of tea in ways that will keep you on the edge of your seat. There’s a brilliant mix of evil intent and hilarity, secret plots and open lies that make this a delicious work to watch, whether you know Sesotho or not.

Featuring simple yet wise design elements that cast you, as the audience, right in the thick of the luxurious bedroom of ‘Madam’ (Reneilwe Mashitisho), effectively on the other side of her mirror, the work is pared down succinctly, and a novel use of suspended elements adds to a sense of idiosyncrasy.

But more than a socially sophisticated yarn about three women, money and role-playing that is oft less about idle pretense than you think, this is an important theatrical gesture. It brings the fire and the fury and the astuteness of young theatre practitioners to the fore, stretching their performance mettle, but also inflaming their sense of relevance. This is a play which must travel.

  • Between Sisters is directed by Refiloe Lepere and devised by Lepere with the cast. It features design by Sinenhlanhla Zwane and Natalie Paneng (set and costumes). It is performed in the Wits Downstairs Theatre by Reneilwe Mashitisho, Dimakatso Motholo and Mammatli Thakudi-Nzuza, as part of the Sex Actually Festival, hosted by Drama For Life, at Wits Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until September 10. Visit dramaforlife.co.za