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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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

Ngizwise: a flawless end to Dance Umbrella 2015

Photograph by Val Adamson

Photograph by Val Adamson

They stand in a stripped bare John Kani theatre, which allows your eye to rest on and explore the architecture that has been witness to so much drama over decades. Surrounded by more than 20 plastic crates, some apples and a couple of swaths of material, these four astonishing dancers make mockery of the notion of gravity as they boldly and succinctly explore masculinity in all its nuances.

Easily the finest piece on Dance Umbrella’s stages this year, Ngizwise (a word in isiZulu meaning “let me taste/help me listen”), choreographed by Moving Into Dance Mophatong stalwart, Sonia Radebe, and Canada-based Jennifer Dallas is a work that manifests sheer and astonishing dance polish in all the right places. While it doesn’t over-intellectualise, it celebrates the various contradictions with which the idea of masculinity is historically fraught – from faction fighting to confronting femininity, from being boys to being men. The dancers, Oscar Buthelezi, Teboho Letele, Sunnyboy Motau and Muzi Shili demonstrate a warm camaraderie rendering the work, which is constructed with word, gesture and sound, a celebratory event, easy yet complicated on the eye and the heart.

In an odd and ironic way, this dance work evokes the dynamism between four very different men, as was achieved in Pale Natives, a play staged in this theatre, under the direction of Bobby Heaney some months ago. Like that play, this danced piece probes what ultimately it is to be a man. Is it in the preening gesture of the beautiful musculature of a young, healthy male specimen? Is it in the manner in which a man can raise his voice or the platform of another, to attain a level of superiority? Is it in the brazen expression of bravado? Perhaps it’s in  how a man can wear a skirt and headdress and still not lose the masculine sheen. It’s all of this and much more.

Articulated in isiZulu, the work is not 100% accessible to everyone in the audience, but if you listen to the tone of the language and watch the sway of the gestures, you gather and hold what makes the stuff tick. The work is neither obvious nor crass, but in allowing the jubilant sense of humanity of each of the dancers to have voice, profound tribute is paid to the choreographing and training work accomplished over the years by Sylvia Glasser, founder of MIDM, in terms of how the work is structured and evolves with deliberation and precision.

It is backgrounded by music which evokes the same piano chords being struck with vehemence and resonance, repetitively, hauntingly, not unlike a musical phrase central to Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut (1999). While this could jar the work, it doesn’t, as it offers a serious counterfoil to the movements, allowing word, movement and sound to overlap and interplay with wit and charisma.

Further to that, the use of lighting brings magic into the mix. This is an astute and complete piece of dance, in which Radebe  and Dallas unequivocally demonstrates their developed and convincing sense of authority as choreographers: it is the kind of work which sees Radebe stand out as a professional in the South African discipline, who understands and relishes the poetry and rhythm of collaboration. And the kind of work which restores hope in the institution of Dance Umbrella.

  • Ngizwise is choreographed and conceived by Jennifer Dallas and Sonia Radebe in collaboration with the performers, Oscar Buthelezi, Teboho Letele, Sunnyboy Motau and Muzi Shili. It features design by Wilhelm Disbergen (lighting), Veronica Sham (costumes) and Teboho Letele (music) and performed at the John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre complex, on March 14 and 15.

Ketekang: celebrating so much, it hurts

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

From the moment band leader Tshepo Mngoma lets rip into his electronic violin, in the opening number Bungazani, you are convinced that this anthology of music, theatre, dance and poetry will be extraordinary. And you won’t be wrong, but Ketekang is not without decision-making flaws, which bruise its impact.

Couched in celebratory cliché, the work is not monolithic, and boasts an unusual body of song, poetry and snippets of theatre in its repertoire of 30 works. In many, though, the narrative thread holding them relevant, is disappointingly absent.

What does pin the work together is the choreographic moments. By and large, choreographed and danced by Luyanda Sidiya and dancers associated with Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong, they pepper Ketekang with a bold freshness which really takes your breath away. There’s a moment commemorating Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson on June 16, 1976 which will etch itself into your heart. Embodying a sense of the urgency and horror of the situation, it is beautifully constructed, like a piece of poetry.

Similarly, there’s a paean to “dustbin men”, important characters in the grotesque pedestrianism of apartheid. It’s danced with a brusqueness and a sense of potency that will resonate with your heart.

But after the show, as you glance through the rich song list, you might be forgiven for thinking “Really?” There are too many really important iconic works here that jostle with each other for focus. With snatches of Athol Fugard, Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, Zakes Mda and Omphile Molusi, some of them too obscure to trigger memories of the full works, songs from the likes of John Legend, Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana and Hugh Masekela are pushed, cheek by jowl with snippets of poetry from people such as Fred Khumalo, Professor Keroopetse Kgositsile and Langston Hughes, to name a few.

There’s an unmodulated richness to this work which makes you so heady your focus sways. And while there are references to dates: there’s a ‘1940’ on the back of one dancer, and the 1976 riots are beautifully clear, the trajectory of time is not convincingly developed, and the work does feel hurriedly put together, with no time for the piece to breathe easily and come into its own.

Also, there’s a jingling and a jangling between South African and American values, accents and works: it’s not clear what this is pitched at.

While the performers, including the gorgeous Aubrey Poo, Lesedi Job and Lebo Toko are honed and articulate and smooth as can be, there’s several jarring elements of discomfort. Costumes are not always comfortable on the bodies of the singers, which troubles the act of watching the work.

The production’s set is defined by a halo of barbed wire that surrounds the piece, teetering between a strangely celebratory image and one of oppression, and a curious interplay of spaces used in the theatre, which are innovative and exploratory, but not always comfortable to the viewer.

In short, Ketekang is magnificently celebratory: it showcases some of the finest musicians, singers and dancers on our stages right now, and gives voice to songs obscure and well known. But it’s a production in which you can’t easily see the wood for the trees and you become lost in the spectacular spectacle of it all. It just tries too hard.

  • Ketekang is directed by James Ngcobo with musical direction by Tshepo Mngoma, choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, set by Nadya Cohen, costumes by Nthabiseng Makone, lighting by Nomvula Molepo and sound design by Gladman Balintulo. It is performed by Caroline Borole; Nokukhanya Dlamini; Lesedi Job; Katlego Letsholonyana; Vuyelwa Maluleke; Mahlatsi Mokgonyana; Aubrey Poo; Sonia Radebe; Dionne Song; and Lebo Toko on stage and musicians Ezbie Moilwa; Godfrey Mgcina;Ntokozo Mgcina; Johan Mthethwa;and Sakhile Nkosi. It performs at the Market Theatre’s John Kani theatre until December 14.