MADNESS and cacophony. John Sithole (centre) in a scene from Hillbrowification. Photograph by John Hogg.
CONTEMPORARY POLISH COMPOSER Krzysztof Penderecki is known for, amongst other things, the bravery – or madness — to allow performers freedom of diverse expression within a defined rubric. So, in works of his which deal with issues such as witch hunts and nuclear bombs, for instance, you get a myriad of violinists reaching for heaven or hell with their instruments and the notes they choose to play. The result? A total cacophony. But it’s a cacophony not without borders. Something similar happens in Constanza Macras’s new work choreographed in conjunction with dancers associated with her company, Dorky Park, and citizens of the suburb of Hillbrow, entitled Hillbrowification.
It’s a rollicking monster of a piece which headlines the notion of joy, at all costs. Loosely and sometimes incomprehensively pinned to a fantasy tale about Planet Hope and how its people need to rejig their values, the work, clocking in about ten minutes too long, is by and large a big jol for the performers, but aesthetically, it is balanced in a Rococo, carnivalesque kind of metaphor.
You might leave the space with your head spinning, from the plentiful bellowing into microphones, music at full blast and sheer infection in the energy of the work. It’s Macras’s aesthetic translated with all its rough edges and idiosyncrasies into the immigrant gateway of South Africa that is known as Hillbrow, and as such, it is a remarkable success. With Miki Shoji casting her sprite-like presence around from under a shocking pink wig, Emil Bordás adding to the frisson of the carnivalesque in his full-head mask comprising large spikes and John Sithole in the dress of a 19th century courtesan, the work still doesn’t attain the level of chaotic discipline Macras unequivocally achieved in Hell on Earth, a work performed for Dance Umbrella ten years ago, but it does offer a sense of the unmitigated celebration in flatlands where the people are poor and the pragmatic challenges harsh.
The question must be asked, however, if this kind of free-for-all fits into community upliftment and along those lines, whether it has a place on an arts festival stage. This has more to do with the array of children in the work than much else. Like Donkey child, a totally magical piece, performed in this theatre under the Outreach Foundation’s rubric several years ago, it’s a magnet for very young people. Unlike Donkey child, it’s not always the adult performers, who take the aesthetic lead in the work.
Ultimately, though Hillbrowification aims to take all that the word ‘Hillbrow’ conveys and to toss it into the ether with a bit of luminous pink sparkly things, some full head masks, lovely fight choreography and an energy that you will want to bottle. It’s a pity a little more of the substance of the suburb was not brought into the fray, however. For as long as people have been arriving in this neck of the woods for sanctuary, Hillbrow’s arguably been their first port of call.
Hillbrowificiation is directed by Constanza Macras assisted by Helena Casas and Linda Michael Mkhwanazi, and choreographed by Constanza Macras assisted by Lisi Estará It features creative input by Tamara Saphir (dramaturgy), Roman Handt (costumes), Sibonelo Sithembe and Roggerio Soares for Outreach Foundation Boitumelo (stage and props), and Sergio de Carvalho Pessanha assisted by Phana Dube (lighting and technical design). It is performed by Emil Bordás, Rendani Dlamini, Zibusiso Dube, Nompilo Hadebe, Karabo Kgatle, Tshepang Lebelo, Jackson Magotlane, Brandon Magengele, Vusi Magoro, Bongani Mangena, Tisetso Maselo, Amahle Meine, Sakhile Mlalazi, Sandile Mthembu, Bigboy Ndlovu, Thato Ndlovu, Simiso Ngubane, Blessing Opoka, Miki Shoji, Pearl Sigwagwa, John Sithole, Ukho Somadlaka and Lwandlile Thabethe. The work, part of Johannesburg’s Dance Umbrella in its 30th season performed on March 9 and 10 at the Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg. Visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 086 111 0005.
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