Paean to The Ones With No Names

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HELPLESS among the dead: Roelf Visagie (Dawid Minnaar). Photo courtesy: The Market Theatre.

GRAVEYARDS ARE FASCINATING and complex ciphers of values. They’re about grounding one’s memories and honouring those who are no longer with us. They’re about a level of sacredness which touches everyone at the core. This is the premise of Athol Fugard’s devastatingly potent work, The Train Driver and the tone is established with simplicity and rawness from the set and the soundscape, from the outset.

So you think of train and you think of graveyards and you probably understand the nub of the play’s plot from the first few minutes: there’s a death. In fact, there are two. But the sophistication and the nuance of this work takes you much further and much richer into what it means to die, what it means to kill, and what it means to bury people whose names are not told to you. It’s a tale of anger and forgiving that reaches to the very vortex of what makes us human.

You might think Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as you might think Tony Miyambo’s The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, and in neither association would you be misguided. This is a simple tale told with a deep heart and a developed sense of empathy. It is as much about the woman on the tracks as it is about the man, helplessly guiding his train.

As you sit and watch this yarn unfolding, you might cast your mind to the recent production of Reza de Wet’s Diepe Grond, a play which with subtlety and terror painted the broad and scary bush of South Africa – a place implied with sound elements and echoes, and one filled with ghosts.

And with no less than John Kani opposite Dawid Minnaar, the work will crumble you to your very essence. Kani plays Simon whose real name is Andile – a gloss on so-called white names in the messy bag that is South Africa. Simon’s a man who lives in a shack on the edges of the graveyard. It’s a place close to nowhere and reflects on issues of poverty which are impossible to understand if your basic necessities are covered. His livelihood is based on allowing those who have no names to rest in peace, safe from foraging dogs or violent opportunists.

Roelf Visagie is the train driver (Minnaar), who comes with white South African values and a heart broken by trauma. The denouement is wrenching and it leaves them both broken in different ways. This is the kind of play that is unforgiving in its indictment on the discrepancies of South African values, but in terms of all its collaborative elements, it sings with a clarity that is searing.

  • The Train Driver is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Charmaine Weir Smith. It features design by Thando Lobese (set and costumes) and Mannie Manim (lighting) and is performed by John Kani and Dawid Minnaar until June 3 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown. 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

Iron fists in knitted red gloves

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LOOKING out for number one: Michael Mazibuko and Zabalaza Mchunu. Photograph courtesy witsvuvuzela.com

FORTY YEARS AGO the Market Theatre was established in Johannesburg. It was the same year as the Soweto Uprising. South Africa was suppurating in a mire of apartheid, to the backdrop of sanctions, disinvestment and states of emergency. Terrible people were doing terrible things. This period was the incubator for some of this country’s most articulate and outrageous and important protest theatre. Enter Jefferson Tshabalala and the theatre narrative continues in this generation with as much aplomb, bravery, terrifying hilarity and hilarious terror as you can stomach.

Secret Ballot is conceived and written for the Facebook-twitter-instagram generation, the young people who in a few weeks will be voting for the very first time in their lives. And it very skilfully weaves a flagrant thread of cynicism through all the currently trending political rhetoric, from the tenderpreneur to the permissiveness of an entitled middle class, coloured by its naivete and its inability to not have its attention frittered away by Pokemon GO.

Featuring “the Brotherhood”, four men with red gloves, shades and bling, offset against “Number One”, it’s a beautifully crafted, hard-hitting piece of theatre which goes chillingly close to the bone in touching the nuances, lies and twisted choreography around the truth, that we see in real life.

The work often has the momentum of a mob in itself, in terms of the political tints and tones it casts on everything from popular songs and slang to the national anthem, bringing in everything from sexual innuendo to hero worship in a way that gets its audience into a froth of enthusiasm.

Tracing the levels of corruption against the trajectory of the lives of contemporary political figures in South Africa, the work is not, however, two-dimensional. It speaks of children’s temptation to steal sugar as a metaphoric extrapolation on how an entitled society is born and grows, as it casts a powerful net of fresh and feisty political diatribe and satire for the next generation.

But this is no dull evening of clever words – the play is very cleverly woven into song, and the songs are splayed around the stage into some seriously funny choreography, backed by a diverse and interesting set, in which unfortunately the swings were only decorative, but the playground metaphors, bringing in childish songs like the nursery rhyme ‘Row, row, row, your boat…’ or clapping routines habitually practiced by toddlers and filtering them with economic, political or seriously sinister overtones.

There’s no happy closure to this roughly Orwellian play  – you will leave it with your heart beating fast from the energy of the material, but your brain ticking over about the future. Having said that, more than the work as a self-standing play, this piece heralds a new generation of political satire. Jefferson Tshabalala: remember this guy: his work is important. And it’s brilliant.

  • Secret Ballot is written and directed by Jefferson Tshabalala assisted by Mbali Malinga, with design by Karabo Legoabe (costumes and set) and Mandla Mtshali (lighting). It is performed by Zabalaza Mchunu, Tony Miyambo, Lereko Rex Mfono, Micheal Mazibuko and Tsietsi Morobi. It is part of the Wits 969 Festival and performs again on July 21 at 7pm in the Wits Downstairs Theatre. wits.ac.za/witstheatre/whats-on/969-festival/969-festival-programme-information/

 

Cheap tricks and gimmickry to make you look

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I thought I dreamed it. I remember the words “Theatre is dead in SA” on a street pole advert in black type on a while background under the dark blue logo of a weekly national paper, a few days ago in Johannesburg. And I filed the recollection of the image away as a surreal stray pustule of my overactive imagination.

Alas, others saw it too. It was no dream. <<Though as I have subsequently confirmed, the actual wording on the original street pole headline was “Crisis in SA Theatre?”>> Who would do such a sensationalist stunt, other than a newspaper desperate to sell copies?

Entitled ‘Quo Vadis Theatre?’, the article, written by journalist Tat Wolfen in the Saturday Star triggered really angry reverberations amongst arts practitioners across the board. None of them friendly towards the ideas it suggests, but all of them proactive in affirming theatre’s very much alive.

Several people have vociferously claimed Wolfen is a nonentity in the industry, an idiot, a racist and other colourful variations on that theme. In his bitter rant which tars whole swathes of South African theatre-going society with crude brush strokes, this journalist/arts writer with over 15 years experience in the industry reveals his own inadequacies, in collaboration that is, with the editorial, subbing, photographic and publishing mechanisms of the newspaper which brought that piece of writing to public life.

For one thing, the article is illustrated with two photographs which are mischievous at best. The Alhambra Theatre in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, run by Pieter Toerien since the 1980s, closed its doors as a theatre just before Montecasino in Fourways was launched, under Toerien’s steerage in 2000.  This was a decision which hinged on demography rather than death of the industry, as such. Showing a dead theatre fifteen or so odd years after the fact is unashamedly sly.

The photograph of a ‘dark theatre’ resonates with silly trickery: theatre is not a whirligig carnival which is all popping lights and activity at any given moment of the day or night. All the photographer needed to do was go to any theatre at a time of day when nothing is performing and photograph the empty seats. Better still, in the dark. While the photographs have the power to grab you by the eye and say a million things that the article might not be capable of, these photographs certainly speak of a hollow agenda.

In his article, Wolfen presents four challenges he considers to be sounding the industry’s death knoll: the assertion that audiences are old; that young people are disinterested; the existence of crime; and conservative tastes. There’s a racial imperative so close to the bone in these qualifiers, you can almost see it, but you can’t.

Society is rich with diversity. There are indeed young people who are “bored and shallow” as Wolfen states, but there are also deeply informed and highly skilled young people who will be the arts shapeshifters in the future. One need only look at the programme of the So So1o festival currently on the boards at Wits Theatre to see their creative personas. The likes of Leonie Ogle, a young director; Tony Miyambo, a young performer; Zethu Dlomo, a young performer; to name but a very few. Are these ghosts? Figments of my imagination? I think not.

Has Wolfen never been to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg? That place where the recent seasons of Dominique Gumede’s Crepuscule and Neil Coppen’s Animal Farm earned consistent full houses. When you’re at the Market Theatre, you get the whole range: old, young, black, white people all around you, in the audience. Every time.

Has he never attended a dance work, either at the Market Theatre or under the auspices of the Dance Umbrella, where the work might be experimental and difficult but nary is there a vacant seat, and young black, engaged and articulate audience members sit in the aisles, sometimes. These are not the conservative lot who only see The Sound of Music, at all.

A comment that “suburbanites are being raped, tortured and killed … in their houses” raises such damaging invective to this troubled country that it is dizzying. Yes, crime happens. Bad crime. It does. But to bring such scarlet prose into a reflection on the state of the arts is simply irresponsible. Crime is no elephant in the room and it does, indeed, halt a lot of people in their bid to drive to the centre of the city because they’re frightened, but by the same token, describing it so crudely does nothing but further frighten readers.

Further, a comment that there is too high an age profile of audiences is not only inaccurate, but it reflects cringeworthy parochialism. In each of Wolfen’s so-called challenges, there is a kernel of truth but he’s drawn each out to such an overwhelmingly dramatic extent that they have become grotesque hyperbole giving voice to florid overgeneralisation.

The arts are today indeed in a delicate position in South Africa – as are so many industries, including the media at large – from a financial perspective, a skills-based one and in the face of the shifting options that the internet has presented. An article like Wolfen’s taking up a full broadsheet page of precious print space reflects a total lack on the part of the Saturday Star of genuine commitment to the arts. People in this industry, including I daresay Wolfen himself, are here because they love the arts. They’re fighting battles against a whole gamut of challenges. Surely bludgeoning the industry further with overstatement is counterproductive?

Hopefully Wolfen’s article — and the street pole ad that some sub-editor siphoned out of the original story — will vanish from the sensibilities of wouldbe audiences or wouldbe sponsors of the arts if it hasn’t already. Because Montecasino hasn’t yet staged the musical Wicked, it doesn’t mean that theatre is dead in this country, as Wolfen implies. The industry is struggling to reinvent itself, as is much of the whole world right now. Whether the contrivance of ‘part two’ promised next week will work or not is moot. I won’t be buying the Saturday Star to find out.

Humanity held to an ape’s mirror, devastatingly

The Beast. Tony Miyambo is Kafka's Ape, Red Peter. Photograph courtesy Facebook

The Beast. Tony Miyambo is Kafka’s Ape, Red Peter. Photograph courtesy Facebook

As he clambers onstage in the glimmer before the production begins, you’re discomforted: you are not sure if he’s man or beast. It’s an ambiguity Tony Miyambo holds with sublime authority over the duration of this astonishing piece of theatre, allowing Franz Kafka’s disturbing 1917 tale of Red Peter which was published in fragmentary form, a story about an ape gentrified by human beings, to blossom in Johannesburg, in 2015.

Channelling a heady concatenation of implied references to Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man in Victorian culture; Sara Baartman, South Africa’s very own monsterised human being; xenophobic realities and homophobia; and the most recently discovered fossil, homo naledi, the play comprises poignant truisms about identity and the danger of shallowly judging others – or putting those who look different from oneself in a context of display for entertainment. In Miyambo’s hands, it is completely mesmerising.

Rather than dressing as a chimp, Miyambo embraces the notion of chimp-hood from within, and as his animal lip-smacking, snorting and gesturing burst through his tamed veneer, as he stands with a potent sense of physical disability and discomfort upon the podium dressed in a red shirt and tie – the story is crafted around an academic presentation on the evolution of man – your empathy for his complex and tragic plight is enriched and informed.

Miyambo confronts the audience, challenging the theatre’s fourth wall, with cautionary respect and the characteristic curiosity of a primate. You might get your foot or hand shaken, or your hair picked through for tasty fleas during the performance, but it’s a gentle level of engagement and doesn’t disrupt the caveats of animality presented here.

Several years ago, Jemma Kahn and Bryan van Niekerk, under the direction of Sylvaine Strike staged a wordless play at the Wits Theatre called The Animals. It was one of those theatre gems with a short season and not a huge public profile, which nevertheless unequivocally raised the bar in theatrical brilliance. Miyambo’s embrace of Red Peter with all his vulnerabilities and embarrassing faux pas reaches a similar level of theatrical sophistication and fire to Kahn and van Niekerk’s. His blend of empathy, self-deprecation and unswerving focus gives this production the wherewithal to turn your head.

But further to all of this, Miyambo is a performer of nimble and great diversity. His interpretation of Red Peter is utterly flawless in his mimicry of a monkey mimicking a human interface and how his unique quandary is cynical and naive simultaneously. Nothing feels out of place in the interstices of this Red Peter. Miyambo’s performance will leave you shattered by how ideas of humanity cleave with the monkey’s reflection on the base hypocrisies of the human race.

Above all, Kafka’s Ape is a story told with clarity and acumen and, coupled with a very simple set and sensitive lighting decisions, its central premises will haunt you. It is, you must be warned, staged in arguably the theatre complex’s most disrespectful venue for an audience, but the levity and intensity of the 50 minutes of this ten-out-of-ten piece of theatre will supersede any physical discomfort.

  • Kafka’s Ape is adapted from Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy by Phala O. Phala, who also directs the production. It features costume and set design by Leisel Retief and is performed by Tony Miyambo. It performs on September 27 at the Wits Amphitheatre as part of the So So1o festival hosted by Wits University.

Speaking of loss and hair in The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri

Tony Miyambo. Photograph courtesy So Solo Festival, Wits University.

Tony Miyambo. Photograph courtesy So Solo Festival, Wits University.

Loss is central to who we are as human beings. It is the ever-threatening fragile hinge that makes us hold tight to our loved ones: and the spice that makes the time we spend with them so achingly precious.  Enter Tony Miyambo, a dignified, under-stated performer who has a sense of deliberateness in his articulation that offers his work compelling prescience.

The idea of loss is magnificently extrapolated in The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri, a piece brought to life with collaborative engagement. Repetition forms a kind of Beckettian chorus in the work’s language, touching as it does on how memories, people, ideas, numbers can lose themselves and blur into an overriding obscurity. Central to the narrative is a son mourning his father taken by a stroke.

Without becoming crude or medically explicit, the work confronts the idea of a brain attack, where the gate to a person’s knowledge and values, sensibility and persona can become physiologically locked and that person can become irreparably lost in their own head and body. Geographies of the city, the house, are described with broad brush strokes, but ones which resonate with visual touchstones.

The tale’s life blood and humour, like that underlining the narrative in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, is hair. Indeed: this play should run in conjunction with the hair exhibition currently on show at the Wits Art Museum: ‘s’ curls, dreads, being killed by burning chemicals, having your hair as your crowning glory: everything about hair is intrinsic to this piece.

It’s an intimate yet universal work, made all the more compelling with a curious yet theatrically fresh use of wooden blocks on a table, arranged and re-arranged to form a city, a metropolis, a cemetery, a miniature reflection on urban busyness. This microcosm of the main protagonist’s world is both robust enough to be tossed hither and yon and fragile enough to break apart at will. It’s a beautiful device, knocked into focus by its clean simplicity.

Sadly, two elements in this work bruise it quite badly and make your engagement with a really wonderful text and performance very difficult: the lighting and the venue.

At a certain point in the piece, a light, constructed to illuminate the miniature set on the table blasts directly into the eyes of the audience. It depends on where you are seated, but that’s a difficult decision to take before the work begins. Shining a light into the eyes of the audience makes them close their eyes. And having them close their eyes might put them in danger of falling asleep. This work is too visceral and tight and big and well conceived to suffer this consequence.

And the venue, Wits theatre aficionados will know as this complex’s worst. It used to be an open air theatre in the 1980s. Later, it was brought into the internal structure of the theatre with a roof and a couple of cushions on the concrete bleachers. It’s neither comfortable nor kind to the production: if you’re not a lithe twenty-year-old, it’s hard on the body and this too can affect your engagement with a work that has the wherewithal to soar beyond petty physicalities.

Physiological challenges aside, The Cenotaph of Dan Moriri celebrates real skill in its writing, collaborative engagement and performance. And if you have known loss in any of its multifarious permutations, it will touch you deeply.

The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri is created by Tony Miyambo and Gerard Bester in collaboration with William Harding. It is performed by Tony Miyambo, directed by Gerard Bester and features dramaturgy by William Harding and design by Julian August (lighting); Phala Ookeditse Phala (set). Part of the Wits So Solo Festival, it performs at the Amphitheatre on October 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18 and 19.