Our mother’s dignity, at all costs

isithunzi

ME and my brother: Scelo (Sipho Zakwe) and Muzi (Musawenkosi Kumalo) in tandem.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if your mother was publicly humiliated by someone who you considered a friend? Would you want to kill him? Would you have the capacity to turn the other cheek? Would your impotent rage find another outlet? This is the central focus of Isithunzi, a powerful and important play about the complexities of respect, which headlined the 2016 Zwakala community theatre festival.

In 2008, a group of white Afrikaans-speaking students associated with Free State University played a series of appalling and humiliating pranks on black domestic workers employed by the university. The pranks were filmed and went viral on the internet, sparking seething anger across the board, raising and inflaming the race card, to say nothing of sheer respect issues. This became known as the Reitz Four incident, premised on the fact that the four whites who had enacted the humiliation, were from the Reitz res on the university campus.

Young playwright Sipho Zakwe, who plays the role of Scelo here has taken this narrative and run with it, focusing it on two young men, brothers, and the sons of one of the women subjected to having to drink the urine of white Afrikaans boys – amongst other revolting humiliations. The plot thickens: Scelo is a UFS student. His squash buddy is one Schalk van der Merwe, one of the boys responsible for the prank. Muzi (Musawenkosi Kumalo) is his brother, at home, the brother who made sacrifices so that his brother could be educated.

The dialogue about different responses to this scenario are tossed hither and yon in the work, with muscularity and passion. Featuring some exceptionally fine set and audio-visual decisions, the work is utterly riveting and will make you weep with anger at the crudeness of the behaviour and the iconic presence of the mother herself.  While the literalness of the violence – there should be a strobe warning in the theatre – and the predictability of the tale itself mar this work slightly – you know how it will end – it remains a very fine showcase of performative skill on our stages.

Thoughtful and angry, respectful and context-driven, Isithunzi is constructed with broad, yet sophisticated narrative tools. There is some wonderful shadow play details which infuse the piece with mystery and energy, enabling two performers to embrace a whole campus in outrage. With the use of simple costume changes and a grotesque coir wig, the perpetrators are referenced and caricatured, as are students on campus. The work reflects with mature astuteness the harsh realities confronting the poor, without being maudlin or self-serving, and is not difficult to understand if English is your only language. In short, it’s a work of its time, offering a strong voice into what matters.

  • Isithunzi is written by Sipho Zakwe and directed by Luthando Mngomezulu. It features creative input by Ntshieng Mokgoro (mentor), Omphile Molusi (dramaturge), Jurgen Meekel (audio visual), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Shilongane Nkoana (set), Nthabiseng Malaka (costumes) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), with DAC incubates Hlamalani Ntando Makhubela (lighting), Ratang Mogotsi (costumes), Mbali Silvia Nkambule (set) and Maggy Selepe (sound)and it is performed by Musawenkosi Kumalo and Sipho Zakwe, with voiceovers by Dawn Thandeka King, at the Ramoloa Makhene Theatre, Market Square, Newtown, until June 18. Visit markettheatre.co.za or call 011 838 7498.
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Unstoppable tale for six

sixcharacters

BROKEN family with a tale to tell. From left, David Butler, Lebogang Inno, Sandi Schultz and Chantal Stanfield. Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

HOW BEST DO you tell a story sullied and broken by trauma? Do you blurt it all out in one brutal shriek? Or do you give it context and framework? Do you make it circuitous?  And funny?  Joseph Heller did it. Alan Bleasdale did it. As did Luigi Pirandello. Magicked into contemporary Johannesburg relevance by director Sibusiso Mamba, Six Characters in Search of an Author is a play that begins as you step into the theatre foyer, and it will sweep you away on a journey tinctured and moulded by the philosophical constructs behind characters, actors, ghosts and a story that demands to be heard, but begs not to be told.

The woman mopping the foyer floor minutes before the doors to the theatre opened, got a loud and public scolding by an usher, as he checked audience tickets, officiously, a worried expression on his face. People got twitchy. “Should we go home?” they pondered. “What is the Market Theatre coming to?” they thought.

The doors opened and the same seemingly unrehearsed, seemingly haphazard approach of the performers filtered through, with snippets of music cast from an upright piano, a dog older than God in a car in the parking lot and a general sense of incompletion. Not quite sure how to respond, the audience, roughly respectfully, laughed politely along with the flowing sense of panic about a lack of funding, Brexit, rough and desperate read-throughs, and over dramatised gestures. It really did feel unready. And it was precisely the kind of tricky manipulation of the very mechanisms of theatre that Pirandello used as a foil to his work in 1921.

This astonishingly fine cast, with an exceptional mix of theatre veterans such as Desmond Dube, David Butler and Kate Normington, and relative newcomers and faces from tv, such as Sewende Laan’s Chantal Stanfield and Binnerlanders‘s Sandi Schultz hold this potentially catastrophic piece with the kind of tight steerage and sophisticated authority that really finely honed clowns are capable of. While you might not be able to predict the trajectory of this utterly beautiful piece, you know that you are in safe hands.

With some remarkable costume and set decisions that feature characters who are dead yet present, and others who are trapped in the horror of their own self-fulfilling tale of domestic tragedy, the work is a monster of a piece that takes you all over the place, and gives you everything from snippets of Skeem Saam to bits of Hamlet. In bowing with great respect to the European traditions of Pirandello, and with great humour to the dramatic gestures that punctuated certain theatre traditions, the work develops a powerful momentum maybe twenty minutes in, that prevents you from breathing too loud.

Wise interfolding of Pirandello’s text with asides from the contemporary context, this tale of almost incest and exploitation through several marriages and much sad and hard feeling, offers an overriding sensitive pondering of how the construct of theatre matters to you, a person in the world. It will entertain you completely. And it will haunt you.

  • Six Characters in Search of an Author is written by Luigi Pirandello and adapted and directed by Sibusiso Mamba assisted by incubate Mxolisi Masilela. It features design by Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Karabo Legoabe (set) assisted by incubate Nthabiseng Malaka, Nthabiseng Makone (costume) assisted by incubate Gift Nwokorie, and Disney Nonyane (sound). It is performed by David Butler, Desmond Dube, Lebogang Inno, Tebogo Konopi, Rebecca Busi Letwaba, Alick Magemane-Mdlongwa, Phumi Mncayi, Dimpho More, Kate Normington, Gontse Ntshegang, Sandi Schultz, Anele Situlweni and Chantal Stanfield and performs in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until July 24. Call 0118321641 or visit markettheatre.co.za