Forever gems and smiles to set the world aglow

khokho

WHAT comes around … Cruelty and ugliness become synonymous when Hyena (Sandi Dlangalala) meets Fudukazi the tortoise (Nomonde Matiwane). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Occasionally, very occasionally, a creative work seems to make itself. Is it about the universe taking control? Or God? Perhaps it is about having done a thing so often you go into autopilot and don’t think about the hugeness of what you are doing. Either way, when this kind of small miracle happens, everything, but everything, fits into place, in such a way that you can almost hear it click. This level of theatrical brilliance is what you experience in Khokho’s Treasure.

A couple of years in development, this work, which began as Under the Baobab Tree is a clever cipher for a range of African stories. An old man, beloved by the community in which he lived, has died. His legacy is contained in a big suitcase. And what can it be? Is it money? Is it jewels? Rather than anything crassly material, the suitcase is a repository of triggers to stories, songs and memories. And Francois Theron and his cast take the possibilities of these values and shine them up to an astonishing level, which will touch you – and your child – deeply.

Stripped of cliché, the stories are told with a developed sense of empathy and a generosity of spirit. The cast, including established NCT performers such as Suzaan Helberg and Nomonde Matiwane, and newcomer Kealeboga Tshenya, is young enough, yet mature enough, to inject a fine level of wit and self-deprecation into the range of characters that inform the material, which makes you love each and every one, not only for his or her good qualities, but for his or her flaws too. Arguably the highlight is a new tale by Gcina Mhlophe, about Fudukazi, the magic tortoise, epitomised in beautiful detail by Matiwane, who is not afraid to lend such heart to her performance that you weep out of love for the hapless beast.

But something must also be said for Helberg’s smile. This young actress, who plays the gogo and narrator of the work, in her very competent and linguistically flawless performance, exudes a sense of happiness which is so uncontrived and so giving that you get swept up in its glow. Indeed, the positive energy of this work is infectious, as it sidesteps triteness. Not all of the five stories told are happy ones, but each of them presents an energy that gives cultural miens – and South Africa’s different languages – a place. From Afrikaans to Ndebele, isiXhosa to Sesotho, there’s an easy and legible flow of the idea of cultural relevance, be it with a blanket in hand, or under the spell of Nomhle, the African Cinderella, be it in a soccer tournament or on the rural hills of KwaZulu-Natal.

Brightly coloured and direct, Khokho’s Treasure could be an ambassador to all that it good and hopeful in this beautiful land of ours. And while very little tots might become restless before interval, because of the work’s length, as a creative manifestation, it’s as good as it gets.

  • Khokho’s Treasure is adapted and directed by Francois Theron and features design by Stan Knight (set and costumes), Nicol Sheraton and Phillida le Roux (choreography), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Dale Scheepers (musical direction). It is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson, Suzaan Helberg, Nomonde Matiwane, Mark Tatham and Kealeboga Tshenye at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 3. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.
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Magic in a tree at the National Children’s Theatre

Telling it to the kids: Mamohato Askew with Paige Schmidt, Boitumelo Phaho and Nandipha Backler. Photograph supplied.

Telling it to the kids: Mamohato Askew with Paige Schmidt, Boitumelo Phaho and Nandipha Backler. Photograph supplied.

There’s a certain kind of magic that comes of nostalgia onstage; it needs to be nipped in the bud before it sinks into maudlin silliness or utter irrelevance. When grownup nostalgia is mixed with child audiences, the dangers are obvious: you could lose their attention in a slippery self-indulgent jiffy. But magic really does happen in the presence of a baobab tree created for another project by Stan Knight, which the theatre inherited; and some quick thinking around storytelling models on the part of director Francois Theron makes Under the Baobab Tree have the infectious potential of a child’s classic. <<A version of this review appears in the SA Jewish Report of September 5. Visit http://www.sajr.co.za >>

It’s the kind of story that can embrace other stories. A good old man dies and he leaves the children in his community a great big treasure casket. It’s big. It’s heavy. And it’s filled with possibility. But maybe it is filled with a monster? After all, the script earnestly tells us that children know a monster can be anywhere.

Perhaps it is filled with money, and there’s a ruse in the tale that picks at this.

More significantly, the suitcase is a memory box of a whole range of triggers to happy memories. Including technology from the 1980s.

And the most important ingredient in all of this, is the music. From Johnny Clegg to Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba to Mango Groove, the sacred space created beneath the baobab tree is allowed to resonate beautifully with sound.

The production features three casts of three children, who lend it tone, cuteness and texture, but are tightly directed and not allowed to dominate. The telling of it is carried with precise and fleshed out performances, by the ilk of JT Medupe, Suzaan Helberg, Nonhla Mkhonto, Emkay Khanyile and Mamohato Askew, all of whom we have seen on this innovative little stage before.

While the absence of a tight choreographic hand is patent and bruises the show a little, it is the bright colours, sense of enthusiasm and genuinely fresh takes on old tales, from an African version of Cinderella, to a tale of a monster in a cupboard, to one of ant soccer that makes this play a joy.

More than all of this, Under the Baobab gives Afrikaans a voice. Helberg plays the kindly auntie who black kids in the audience roar at with mirth and disbelief when she uses a “white” body and a “white” voice to jive and click like the rest of them, in South African standards that will leave your eyes a little dewy.

There are tales of happily-ever-after, one with realistic and heartbreaking twists in its tail, and others bearing an unmistakable political thrust, but ultimately, this is a grand feel good show that instructs the littlies on how to celebrate themselves.

  •  Under the Baobab Tree, conceived and directed by Francois Theron and Sihle Ndaba, is designed by Stan Knight (set), Greg Angelo (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Mamohato Askew; Suzaan Helberg; Emkay Khanyile; JT Medupe; Nonhla Mkhonto; Mamohato Askew; as well as child performers: Nandipha Backler; Kopano Kutama; India Milne; Khawulani Myaka; Trent Kgodu Peta; Boitumelo Phaho; Paige Schmidt; Rufaro Shava; and Casey Watson. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 12.