A dance for the tree gods

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MYSELF my forest: Nicholas Aphane in footage from With Nothing But Silence. Photograph courtesy Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.

IN 2005, PJ Sabbagha put his choreographic name behind a most exceptional project. Still Here was earth shattering in its delicate sense of raw beauty and was important for that reason. But as an advocacy piece engaging with HIV/Aids, it was important for other reasons too. Over the years, Sabbagha and his company the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative have unrelentingly challenged boundaries in terms of issues and aesthetics, possibilities and the substance of dance. This work, With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is no different: structured with the complexity of videoed work, shadow and articulation through costume and context, weeping and filmed trees, it confronts the sticky and grotesque mess that our planet is in. It is an extraordinary piece of performance, for our time.

Melding together dance with hand drawn dance costumes, Greek extrapolations with a soundscape that touches water and wind, landscapes and trees, it takes place in a set that is transfixing in its detail, astonishing in the sum of its parts, and the sense of authority commanded by Mazarakis. It is here that a hat of flowers takes on virtual sinister attributes, that bodies move like mercury, curving against one another, casting the light in a way that gives voice to shadows that dominate and liaise with the visual clout of the piece.

Like Still Here, it’s a complex, almost abstract work with forays in a range of directions, and during its 60 minute duration, you get the urge to shout “Stop! I didn’t see exactly what that was! Do it again!” Many things happen at once in this work which takes you from the magnificent bluegum trees of Mpumalanga to the here and now on stage. You see dancers emerging from piles of leaves and sheets of crumpled paper, engaging the world with its brokenness. The sound track is bumpy with pimples in the technology and the give and take of movement coheres uncomfortably with that of the sound, forcing the dancers over terrain which is as tough and unsettled as the world they’re depicting. The dance work is twisty and inchoate and offers a unique language of movement, which distinguishes it and grabs you by the eye, again and again.

And all too soon, suddenly it is over, leaving you with a sense of loss: the work’s structure is repetitive and patterned, rather than chronological. You’re sucked into its dynamics and find yourself mesmerised by bodies contorting themselves into torn and emotive positions, by dancers who shout, shouters who dancer, and a collaborative mix which leaves your heart uneasy and your mind racing. More’s the pity that the work only had a single performance in this year’s Wits 969 Festival.

  • With Nothing But Silence They Turned Their Bodies To Face the Noise is directed by Athena Mazarakis and choreographed by Athena Mazarakis and PJ Sabbagha in collaboration with the cast. It features creative input from Nicholas Aphane (Music/Sound score/Composition and performance); Sasha Ehlers (production and costume design); Thabo Pule (lighting) and Jessica Denyschen (videography) and was performed by Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Athena Mazarakis, Shawn Mothupi, PJ Sabbagha, Oupa Sibeko and Lorin Sookool on July 15, in the Main Wits Theatre as part of the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

A house for every mouse, and every mouse in his house

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PHONING mum: Ameera Patel (top) and Roberto Pombo (bottom), articulate a tale of stress in the working world. Photograph for CuePix by Megan Moore.

IT’S NOT EVERY day that you discover a blend of the wit and wisdom of a Greek fabulist from antiquity with the dynamics of pop-up book technology, all infused into a South African context. Rat Race takes the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse, originally penned by Aesop some time before Christ, and yields something totally delightful, which your one year old will respond to with utter glee.

It’s a beautifully made piece in which Miles (Roberto Pombo), the chap who is based in the grit and stress of Jo’burg, meets Melissa (Ameera Patel), she of country air, compost, bicycle rides and chickens which must be fed. Blending puppetry and innovation, minimal diction with shapes and surprises, Rat Race is the kind of work that will hit the ‘funny’ button every time, for your sproglet. Particularly when Miles, the mouse with scant rural savvy encounters the chickens and believes them to be monsters.

It’s an allegory about the value of meditation and the horror of stress, and one that is about following your heart and cheating your fears. It’s told with a sophisticated understanding of the littlies in the audience, their attention spans and the things they will remember. First prize, however, must go to the set of this charming little work. Comprising a fabric construction on wheels which contains all the colours and decoupage, patch work and shapes that you can imagine, it’s a show which will make you think of Fisher Price toys in terms of how well it is designed and how there’s a hook or a container for every little element to the work.

And while there’s a sensibility and witty extrapolation on the day-to-day stress which we as people in a town context encounter and internalise, there’s several developed asides about the vagaries of living in the country – what, for instance, you get to boogie to, in a world where all you do is sweep, cycle, breath and sleep.

A tale of sunshine and being on the road, apple trees and window box flowers, this gentle work about love and the idea of home will worm its way into your child’s heart, and yours.

  • Rat Race is based on the original tale of Town Mouse and Country Mouse by Aesop and it is directed by Kyla Davis. It features design by Christelle van Graan (costumes) and is performed by Ameera Patel and Robert Pombo, in the Downstairs Theatre at the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University, on July 16 at 15:00. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook. Other children’s shows at this year’s Wits 969 Festival include KidCasino! and Space Rocks.

Let your little ones reach for the stars

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UP, up and away: Jojo (Lunga Mofokeng), the science teacher (Sithembiso Khalishwayo) and Jinks (Stella Dlangalala) head upwards. Photograph by Sakhile Dube

A FABULOUS NEW element to the Wits 969 offering is a slot for children’s theatre, and this year, the festival pickings, hot off the Grahamstown circuit, features no less than three productions suitable for the next generation of theatre patrons. Space Rocks is a kaleidoscope of fact, fiction, allegory and invention, to say nothing of good moral values, that have everything to do with brushing your teeth and being nice to your brother/sister, and it will keep your child riveted – that is, if he or she is older than the time frame  of 4 to 8 years, suggested by the work.

It’s a rip-roaring tale of an adventure into space on an improvised space ship, by two children, Jinks (Stella Dlangalala) and her kid brother Jojo (Lunga Mofokeng). And while the wrench from the values of the mother (Earth) played by Diana Penman are big and real, there’s a whole splendid world of adventure waiting for them in the night sky. There’s also the scary danger of Vortex and Void, in which they can become lost or totally discombobulated, but there’s a wise and fine selection of morals and songs, hypnosis and seduction that happens on the way. Not to forget Mr Bing Bing, a robot toy who comes along for the ride and gets first prize in the space adventure stakes.

It may be all too much for your four year old – replete as it is with a heady mix of lots of planetary fact and fondly formed humour, including a whole gamut of fart jokes on the part of Jupiter who reeks of gases, amongst other space oddities, but if your tot is the kind of kid who can easily get mesmerised by the gentleness and excited by the shoutiness, the silver foil and delightful lyrics of a work, they may be able to happily bypass the nitty-gritty of the sense of the narrative and hum along. Indeed, the ensemble of this production exudes a collaborative energy which speaks not only of planetary sanctity and good wishes for the future of Earth, but good clean inventive fun, to boot.

Space Rocks in its design is a work that boasts rethinking everything from teabag strainers to bicycle pumps, and it features some utterly delightful shadow puppetry and a sequence of events which is resoundingly clear as it is satisfying in its unfolding.

  • Space Rocks is written by Tamara Schulz and directed by Craig Morris. It features creative input by Tamara Schulz (costume and set) and is performed by Lehlonholonolo Dube, Stella Dlangalala, Sithembiso Khalishwayo, Lunga Mofokeng, Thapelo Mohapi and Diana Penman, in the Nunnery at the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University, on July 16 at 11:00. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook. Other children’s shows at this year’s Wits 969 Festival include KidCasino! and Rat Race.

Dance to make you proudly South African

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REACHING for forever: Eugene Mashiane, Muzi Shili, Oscar Buthelezi and Tegobo Gilbert Letele in Fight, Flight, Feathers, F***ers, choreographed by Rachel Erdos and Sunnyboy Motau. Photograph by Mujahid Safodien. Courtesy of Gettyimages.

HEADLINED BY INTERNATIONALLY celebrated works, the new solo pieces on Wits 969’s mixed dance bill were overshadowed, but it was fantastic to see Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) on the Wits festival’s agenda and platform. The programme comprised Oscar Buthelezi’s celebrated Road, a two-hander with Muzi Shili, which recently won the coveted Kurt Jooss award for choreography in Germany; Fight, Flight Feathers, F***ers, a piece choreographed by Israel-based Rachel Erdos with Sunnyboy Motau; and two solo works – by Eugene Mashiane and Motau respectively.

Armed with an outrageously fine pair of red harem pants, and a wooden box, Mashiane presented Everlast which opened the evening with muscular pizzazz. It’s a work about death, handled with an elegant line and beautiful movement.

But as a self-standing piece, it lacks the kind of narrative gravitas and depth of focus audiences were privileged to see, and keenly anticipating, in Road. Here, clothed in brown shorts, Buthelezi and Shili evoke the wide brutality of harsh landscapes and the blistering sense of loneliness that a new path in life must entail. The choreography is difficult yet intimate: there’s an engaging understanding of how a dancer – or a man – must rely on his brother, his friend – to carry the weight of his loneliness. It’s a work which easily became the darling of the Kurt Jooss awards, and the photographers who documented it, and it’s not difficult to understand why.

The piece is clean of unnecessary frills in its set, costumes and presentation. The choreography is polished and offers you hairpin bends in its own sequences and sense of inevitability that leaves you sitting on the edge of your chair, knuckles white. When it’s done, you in the audience are breathless and wish to call for more, but your voice too is parched from the thrill of the spectacle.

Third in the programme was a solo work by Motau called My Black is Black, which had its centre and sense of integrity scuppered by the post-standing-ovation delight of the audience after Road. This bruised its ability to lend the piece its own place in the spotlight and the focus it warranted. It’s a tale of a man and his jacket, but similar to Mashiane’s piece, the work feels lacking in the kind of narrative development you might have seen in Motau’s other choreographed works.One of which is the extraordinary work Fight, Flight, Feathers, F***ers, a contemplation of masculinity, which Motau choreographed with Erdos. [See my review here and an interview with Erdos and Motau here].

The work, some time after Dance Umbrella 2014 when it debuted, still boasts the same inimitable poetry and astonishing coordination, as well as a narrative flow that confronts the dynamics of in-ness and bullying. It’s a magnificent piece which again moves you to the very edge of the chair on which you sit, as you let your eyes flow between dancers’ bodies and watch how they create a texture with their limbs, a beast with four heads, a playful fight dynamic and how they dance, proverbially with a devil of fire. It’s breathtaking.

Putting dance on this kind of festival platform is particularly valuable not only for Wits 969’s ethos, but for the dance itself. While works like Road and Fight, Flight…  embody dance principles which derive from the basic premises of Sylvia Glasser’s Moving Into Dance which she started in the 1970s, they also push them a couple of steps further, articulating a new physical language, and embracing an understanding of what constitutes classic MIDM work in the teens of the 21st century.

  • “Feathers” presented by Moving into Dance Mophatong was directed by Mark Hawkins. It was a part of the Wits 969 festival at the Wits University Theatre complex which ended on July 24, and featured design by Wilhelm Disbergen (lighting). It comprised the following pieces:
    • Everlast choreographed and performed by Eugene Mashiane with music compilation by Olafur Arnolds;
    • Road choreographed by Oscar Buthelezi and performed by Buthelezi and Muzi Shili with music compilation by Teboho Gilbert Letele;
    • My Black is Black choreographed, performed and musically compiled by Sunnyboy Mandla Motau; and
    • Fight, Flight, Feathers, F***ers choreographed by Rachel Erdos and Sunnyboy Motau, featuring costumes by Kyle Rossouw and music by Tebogo Gilbert Letele and performed by Oscar Buthelezi, Tebogo Gilbert Letele, Eugene Mashiane and Muzi Shili.

 

Oh, the things you can do with humble tools!

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The world in a swath of brown paper: Liezl de Kock in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by Gemma Middleton, courtesy CuePix.

DO YOU REMEMBER casting shadows of animals made of your own little fingers and hands, on the wall, when you were a small child? The thrill of that level of interpretative magic which makes something unexpected happen in the context of ordinariness is something we as human beings should never allow ourselves to forget. And thanks to utterly remarkable theatre practitioners such as Toni Morkel, Liezl de Kock and James Cuningham, we won’t.

It is always such a splendid privilege and treat to get to see Morkel perform. She lends a blend of sinister humour which is unique and completely magnetic. Ditto for Liezl de Kock, who Johannesburg audiences last saw opposite Andrew Buckland in the wonderful Crazy in Love. When you hear that these two inimitable physical theatre giants are collaborating in a work, your only real questions should be where? And when? Hearts Hotel featured as one of the pickings of this year’s Wits 969 Festival, and hopefully it will enjoy legs, further down the line.

And while all the names on paper shine and sparkle in your mind’s eye, they certainly don’t disappoint in their performances in this quirky apocalyptic tale of motherly love, new beginnings, terrors in the night and a very poisonous scorpion. It’s a work that brings together the rich and simple idea of play in such provocative ways it will singe your heart and leave you aching for more.

When you weep at a death that is evoked with the smoothing out of wrinkled paper, or gasp at the way in which distance and nearness are conveyed by shadows alone, you become susceptible to an easy melding of different realities, and you get sucked into a work of such creative magnitude that it will shift your values. Hearts Hotel comprises a whole range of low-tech theatre crafts, from shadow puppetry to mime. It reflects ideas such as destruction by fire, great distances travelled on foot, big waves in the ocean and the playfulness of a baby with succinct gesture and great wisdom, that will make you laugh with glee and surprise.

Such a range of richness is carried by an economy of tools but a generosity of creative energies that you will feel like a child being exposed to great classics for the very first time.

The language in the work smacks of something East-European in its flavour and sense of tradition, but nothing is pinned down. The devilish horned hats also fit into something which you might not know, but will recognise as a time worn custom, replete with its own rituals and choreography.

Perhaps the only casualty in this work is the looseness of the grand narrative, which holds it all together and is not consistently easy to follow. But in the bigger picture of the work, it’s not a catastrophe – even if you’re not savvy of the apocalyptic nature of the piece, or the madness of the situation in the empty abandoned hotel, even if you do not understand where the curious stranger fits in, or where there be scorpions in this hostile landscape, you will still be swept away by the humble and soaring texture of its unequivocal generosity of magic.

  • Hearts Hotel is directed by James Cuningham assisted by Binnie Christie. It is performed by Liezl de Kock, Toni Morkel and Christelle van Graan as part of the Wits 969 festival for 2016, in the Wits Downstairs Theatre, which ended on July 24.

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/

 

Stumped by an Apple: the need for new blood in this industry

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THE FRISSON OF excitement at the start of a new play is in the air. The audience is exuberant but alert, as soon as the lights drop, silence prevails. And focus. The play begins. He walks on stage. And out of his mouth sprout words I do not understand. Is my evening ruined? Should I run out in high dudgeon? The performer has agonised over this work, he’s rehearsed, he might be nervous. What would happen if I stayed and listened?

The actor speaks isiZulu, but he does so with such a directness, with such body language and such engagement that even without a respectable knowledge of the language, you’re swept away in the current of the work. And as you stretch your mind and your focus to attempt to see what he’s doing, as you listen to the response of your fellow audience members who do understand, something remarkable happens. Actually two things happen.

Firstly you quickly gain some inroads into the language. The more you listen, the more you begin to recognise things. You recognise the names of characters. You recognise repeated elements in the story that lead to a climax in pace, in narrative. You begin to make assumptions about the prepositions in the language and the beauty of the sentence construction. And the use of timing. The props clearly represent different characters, and the dialogue with the props flesh these things out. It’s a very interesting – and humbling – exercise which is as much about seeing a work from the outside in, as it is about the idea of empathy.

Secondly, it’s a fascinating South African exercise. I do not understand isiZulu because I am white, because I was educated in the 1970s and 1980s during the thick intensity of apartheid, and because I was raised by a family who didn’t think it necessary for me to do so. And the years have passed and the enthusiasm it takes to learn a new language sits on a back burner.

Sitting in an audience where everyone is falling about with laughter at the tragicomic elements unfolding on stage and not being able to understand them is intensely disempowering, but it also puts you almost in the shoes of thousands and thousands of South Africans for whom English is maybe their eighth language, and their awareness of the nuances and asides you can conjure up in English might not be that strong. It’s a case of almost because most black South Africans without the privilege of an English-medium education who work in urban centres are able to use English as a tool, by necessity. Us locally-born whiteys managed to live for generations without the need to learn anything beyond, perhaps, Afrikaans, which was, in any case compulsory in the schooling curriculum.

Yes, given that English is generally the language of common parlance in Johannesburg theatres, it was remiss of the theatre in question not to have advised that the play is all in isiZulu. But having said that, had they done so, I would not have elected to see it. My Zulu is far from sufficiently sophisticated to understand the words, let alone the nuances of a play. And had I not seen the piece, I would not have encountered the focus and energy and intensity of Sifiso Zimba, a performer who I will be interviewing on this blog shortly.

So, what does this mean? I saw Apple, a piece by Zimba, directed by Omphile Molusi. I know Molusi’s work and have been following it for some years, which is why I elected to see the piece. I loved it, and I was moved to tears at points in it, but I didn’t understand why. Maybe I didn’t understand anything at all, and was simply influenced by the people around me. So, I cannot review it. But there are so many young South Africans who could.

The arts writing industry, thanks to social media and the apparent immediacy it presents, makes every person with a Wi-Fi connection and a keyboard able to tout their own opinions, no matter how foolish, biased or downright vicious they are. What lends art criticism credibility? Not the sensation or the glamour but the track record of the critic. So many young publications, or young editors, fall into this trap of getting people who know not what they do to voice a critical opinion on the arts, because with the current machinery of publishing, you can and it’s cool and trendy to give the next generation a chance.

Traditional art critics, who write not for that shimmer of sensationalism, but for the value they believe they give the industry, who go the extra mile in ensuring their criticisms are balanced and justified, are fast becoming a dying breed. Why? No jobs. No money. No interest.

But what happens when a young Zulu-speaking person in the audience reaches for her keyboard or pen to say something about this work? Whether she says it in English or isiZulu, suddenly something begins to turn on its axis. Maybe her theatre opinions need refining or justifying. Maybe she’ll shoot from the hip and voice an emotional opinion which feels raw. But the investment she will make of her time to do so, has the power to begin the momentum that will in time make that pendulum swing back.

And back it shall swing to a world of proper arts writing, but it shall swing with the added bonus of a respectful multiculturalism: an acknowledgement of the joys and horrors of how language can empower and can handicap you. A fantasy? Maybe. But one worth articulating. Congratulations to Wits969 for giving Apple, straight from the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a platform.

Supported by the Constitution, betrayed by the world

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TOUGH girls do cry: Ayanda Rose Fali, Ayanda Sibisi, Tsholofelo Ross and Khanyisa Nanabe (seated) simmer in their performances. Photograph courtesy The Critter.

HOW DO YOU represent sexual violence on stage? It cannot be sexy. It cannot be comical. It cannot be beautiful. It cannot be explicit. It also cannot be abstract. Your audience has to go away from the spectacle shattered with an understanding of the horror, the irrevocable violation that has occurred. Seasoned playwright and director Phyllis Klotz, cofounder of Benoni-based Sibikwa, has crafted a searing play in Chapter 2 Section 9 that touches all of these bases, and has the potency of becoming the torch song for black South African lesbians.

Premised on the equality clause of the Constitution, the work, performed in a heady amalgamation of South African languages is an assemblage of different interviews with women who have experienced the private loopholes in this clause. Women who have been rejected by their parents, their children or the police. Women who have been brutally – and sometimes lethally – raped by men intent on ‘curing’ them of their homosexuality. Women who have borne the brunt of being shamed for being different from the rest of their community. Women who have had to reconstruct and justify the most private intimate aspects of their lives to strangers. Because they’re gay. It is performed with a fresh and magnetic sense of authenticity by a very young but extremely articulate cast.

In many respects, like Murray Nossel and Paul Browde’s important performance initiative, Two Men Talking, the piece is premised on words rather than graphic depictions of violence. The curious thing with a work like this, is if you read the newspapers and watch TV, if you look at photographic exhibitions and speak to people, the horrendous concept of so-called corrective rape perpetrated on black lesbians in the townships of South Africa is something you should have heard of.

The dreadful anecdotes of gang rape and murder that black lesbians have suffered in the name of their being different from society are stories with horrible endings that have tragically become predictable in the trajectory which has been told over and over again. Only the victims’ names and faces differ. And yet, the tales in this play are told with a burning bluntness and a frankness that is utterly electric, and at no point in this 90 minute show can you pull your attention from this work.

The set features a bleak yet potent set which comprises bare white trees with photographs of victims of corrective rape hanging on their branches like fallow fruit. It has the words of the equality clause written boldly across the stage. And it is brought to life with intense orange hues, but also with the haunting a capello singing of the cast, at times supported by Isaac Molelekoa on keyboard and violin, at times in tune with the mournful energies of their stories.

Teasing apart the complication of sexual identity, from how one’s parents, grandparents, siblings and children respond to it, to grappling with church values, the work explores the question ‘what is a lesbian?’ in the same way that it puts the question of ‘what is an African?’ under the loupe. Can a lesbian not be allowed to want to have children? Why is homosexuality considered unAfrican? And while the cast rarely interface with one another, leaving the stories as stories being recounted rather than narratives re-enacted, each of them led by Tsholofelo Ross who holds your eye and your heart even when she is sitting quietly, embraces the piece with an authenticity that is raw, a sense of self that is credible.

  • Chapter 2 Section 9 is written and directed by Phyllis Klotz based on research by Collen Mfazwe and Janneke Strijdonk-Xulu. It is designed by Isaac Molelekoa (music composition), Sarah Roberts (costume and set) and Stan Knight (lighting) and is performed by Ayanda Rose Fali, Khanyisa Nanase, Tsholofelo Ross and Ayanda Sibisi, in the Amphitheatre, Wits Theatre Braamfontein. It is part of the Wits969 Festival and performs again on July 16 at 6pm. wits.ac.za/witstheatre/whats-on/969-festival/969-festival-programme-information/  It also performs at Pop Arts Centre in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg on August 6 and 7 and as part of Vavasati, International Women’s Festival on August 18 and 19 at the Arena, State Theatre in Pretoria.

Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo take the piss out of hell itself, with complete aplomb

Dirty: Roberto Pombo and Jemma Kahn in Croissants.

Lascivious with smeared mascara and dirty words: Roberto Pombo and Jemma Kahn in Croissants.

There’s an element of such blatant lasciviousness in the framework, articulation and texture of Jemma Kahn’s new kamishibai-redolent production that you have to laugh. Sex, like death onstage, needs to be handled with a level of spoof that expunges earnest urgency and enables it to entertain without sliding off foolishly. Kahn, opposite Roberto Pombo demonstrates the intelligent sophistication necessary for this work never to teeter into gratuitous eroticism. They retain the upper hand, in keeping the work as light and frothy as possible, without losing the entertaining edge.

And touch on sex and death they do – even allowing their proverbial fingernails and tongues to explore beneath the hypothetical surfaces. The work offers an understanding of power, seduction and horror, and in its narrative tightness and Kahn’s articulate performance, it’s never overstated.

We didn’t come to hell for the croissants, like its forerunner under Kahn’s hand, the Epicene Butcher – boasts a raft of stories for consenting adults. It embraces an unapologetically contemporary western take and loses the Japanese flavour of the first show. The device of Chalk Girl, a theatrical foil written by John Trengrove for Klara van Wyk in the Epicene Butcher, has transmogrified into Pombo’s almost demented silent character, dressed as he is in a hybrid costume that’s part peep-show tawdriness, part magician’s assistant in its rude, oft crude suaveness, which raises a giggle rather than an eyebrow: while the work certainly isn’t tame, its parameters enable it to retain its stage production identity.

This is what successful theatrical entertainment is about – the stories have morals, but they’re constructed to surprise you, to make you laugh and in a grown up sense, be titillated. There’s nothing soft about these pieces which consort with the devil with as much abandonment as you can muster or imagine. The work’s certainly not for children or the prudish, but the level of sublime manipulation of tone and content, the manner in which words are allowed to twist happily on their own meanings or nuances, and the way in which punch lines are delivered with a slick hand and a teasing eye leave you unable not to wonder what magic and poetry this team could create if they were performing Shakespeare or Beckett.

Croissants is an excellent showcase, in so many literal and figurative ways, for the unquestionable skills of Kahn and Pombo – and the writers and illustrators whose work appears in this format. But its existence is about more than frankly being in the world: it’s about the need to reshape one’s identity in a theatre world where jobs are scarce and auditions bad for the ego. Kahn has reinvented this wheel with all the chutzpah, laughter and derision necessary: may she continue with abandon.

  • We didn’t come to hell for the croissants: Seven deadly new stories for consenting adults is directed by Lindiwe Matshikiza with writing by Tertius Kapp, Rosa Lyster, Lebogang Mogashoa, Justin Oswald, Nicholas Spagnoletti and Louis Viljoen and illustrations by Carlos Amato, Rebecca Haysom, David Jackson and Jemma Kahn. It features production design by David Hutt (costumes) and is performed by Jemma Kahn and Roberto Pombo. It was part of the Wits 969 Festival during July and will perform at POPArt theatre in Maboneng, downtown Johannesburg August 26-30 and for an extended run in Cape Town towards the end of the year.