Poppie and her beastly baes

MyKoek

TAKING the cake: Poppie Plaatjies of Khomasdal, Windhoek (Abby Molz). Photograph courtesy Obett Motaung.

A YOUNG WOMAN’S quest for acknowledgement and the kind of basic ordinariness that comes of marriage and babies in a world fraught with abuse, sexual interference, utter loneliness and other irrevocable and intimate disruptions is the focus of this compelling one-hander. But this ain’t no pity party. Poppie Plaatjies comes home from work, where she is a Checkers cashier, discards her high-heeled shoes and her push-up bra in the same dismissive sense that a man would discard his tie – but with more complex manoeuvring, and tells us her tale.

Abby Molz becomes the character with a ferocity that is potent and emotional and the performance she yields is strong and three-dimensional. She offers an insight into Poppie’s life and universe in a way that will make you consider the socioeconomic realities of the Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community of Namibia and South Africa. It’s not dispassionate, but it will leave you with the sense of a whole evolved world, all its grit and filth intact.

The character’s sex is important to the machinations of the story: it features in the title – koek being Afrikaans slang for vagina – and throughout the gestures she makes and the narrative that unfolds. It’s about brothers and lovers, old men and violent men, it’s about her mother’s boyfriends and the way in which she is putty in their hands. But ultimately, it is about the lone voice of a chronically vulnerable young woman fraught with fragile bravado and aware of the complexity it takes to be human in a world which has conspired to break you because you’re a girl and that’s what the culture allows.

Molz’s performance is, however, slightly bruised by her miming in parts of the piece, which reveals a sloppy engagement with the imagined objects at hand. You’re often not sure exactly what she’s doing as she mimes the kitchen chores or pages through a magazine. She irons with a gusto that would break any iron – mimed or not – and she twists things in a way that renders their identity blurred.

The work is scripted with a literalness and a sense of the predictable, but in being so, it comprises a rich and palpable texture that does credit to the medium of the monodrama and the slice of life it promises. Molz’s is certainly a name to watch, in this industry.

  • My Koek is Moeg (My Cake is Tired) is written by Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja and directed by Obett Motaung. It was performed by Abby Molz on September 29 and October 1 in the Amphitheatre, as part of the So So1o festival, hosted by Wits Theatre. Visit wits.ac.za/witstheatre
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Thwarted gems; stones in my shoes

black

MY history, my disappoinments: Ameera Patel in Black. Photograph by Jan Potgieter (NAF).

SHE LIES UPSIDE down to gather herself amid a beautiful slew of keyboard jazz, before she begins to perform, and half way through this one-hander, you wish you could too. The nastiness of the venue, in the Wits Amphitheatre plays such a prominent role in stultifying this play, it’s painful to watch.

Based on Carolann Davids’ 2013 novel, The Blacks of South Africa, Black weaves a tale around political betrayal in a South African context. In doing so, it presents a rich array of characters, but spends a long time in getting to the nub of the piece, such a long time, in fact, that your own body begins to complain very aggressively.

When you’re trying to watch a play but cannot help focusing on the comfort of your body, knowing that if you move an inch this way, you will kick the poor hapless sod in front of you in the head, and if you move an inch that way, the feet of the person behind you will be on your shoulder, then you know it’s virtually tickets for the dignity of the creative team you’ve actually paid to watch.

Part of the problem lies possibly in the fact that too many characters are fleshed out in this work. It stretches Ameera Patel’s skills beautifully, but makes the story unnecessarily complex. As the denouement unfolds in all its shocking travesty of a friendship forged between a black man, a Coloured man named Black and a white woman, over a history of a town where diamonds smuggled in the shoes of the grandfather represented the complicated solution out of poverty, as told by the daughter of said Coloured man, you reach the peak of your physical discomfort and the shock effect of the volte face in the scenario is tempered and dulled.

It’s a dreadful pity: with Daniel Geddes on the keyboard and Patel performing literally a whole community, the play has enormous promise on paper. Once you are embroiled in the characterisations and the petty history, offering a family tree sodden with the complexities of being Coloured under apartheid, you realise it is the beauty of the writing and the music which gives it hope. This could have been a gem of a play, given a space with an iota of dignity for the audience. But it isn’t, because of that. Instead, it becomes a difficult chore.

  • Black is adapted by Penny Youngleson from the book Blacks of Cape Town by Carolann Davids; it is directed and designed by Jade Bowers. Featuring creative input by Daniel Geddes (composer), it is performed by Ameera Patel and Daniel Geddes (on keyboard), as part of the Wits 969 Festival, in the Amphitheatre at Wits University. It performs again on July 29 at 19:30. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook.

 

Chapter and verse of dogma and sex, and a little something to take home with you

deaparthate

IN control and colonised. Mamela Nyamza and Aphiwe Livi (under the bench) in the work De-Apart-Hate. Photograph by Nardus Engelbrecht.

SELDOM DO YOU find yourself turning to the bible in an attempt to access what you have just seen in a dance festival context. But this is most certainly where the perplexing, abstract but highly skilled De-Apart-Hate by Mamela Nyamza, which debuts in Johannesburg for the Dance Umbrella, presents you with. It’s a tale of the kind of illegal love described in Leviticus chapter 18 verse 22, and unbalanced values cast against a backdrop of austere principles and sexuality.

It’s a work which elegantly combines stasis and violent movement, colour and see-sawing of values and coherence in an engaging and oft-difficult to watch framework. But it’s also one which makes you feel that you are in a church context, given the live recordings of congregations singing that peppers the work with an element of realism.

Think of the one piece of work which American feminist artist Carolee Schneemann is most notorious for – Interior Scroll – where the performance artist has inserted a text into her vagina, and part of the gesture of the work is her extraction of this item from her body and her reading of its contents to an audience. But while you’re thinking of it, grow the notion and develop it under a sophisticated rubric that is less about the shock of nudity on stage and more about the idea of the bible as a text that restricts and deems certain sexual activities taboo – or has, over the years. The place-keeping ribbon in this bible draws you to the gestures of the feminist movement of the 1950s, but in Nyamza’s hands – and between her thighs – it becomes something else.

Having said that, this is not a sexy piece in the smarmy and obvious understanding of the notion. Pulling together the notion of Victorian culture, the work features interaction between Mamela Nyamza and Aphiwe Livi which is as much about social intercourse as it is about sexuality.

It’s a piece about imprisonment and boldness, rules and taboos that will insinuate itself in your thinking with a deliberately gradual flow of energies. It becomes difficult to watch because of the stasis presented, giving an ear to Dance Umbrella critics who reflect on some Dance Umbrella pieces as being conceptually and actually stripped of all movement.

The astonishing thing about this work and the dance gestures and church-evocative chants is that the whirligig of church behaviour it ignited into activity under the rhythm and gesture of the performers. On opening night, audience members became congregants who were unafraid to ululate and extrapolate on the values of God and Satan as they watched Nyamza and Livi move.

This is another important dance gesture for Nyamza. Again, she bravely reformulates herself within the rubric of her dance – at times looking demonic at times looking like a figure from a painting produced in colonial Europe. With a bench that doubles as a see-saw painted in colours evocative of all that the LGBTI movement stands for, to say nothing of the Rainbow Nation cliché, the work is sophisticated and cleanly placed, as it is rich and profound in its thinking. And from day two of Dance Umbrella, the festival is lifted to an important high.

  • De-Apart-Hate is choreographed by Mamela Nyamza and features design by Shiba Sopotela (costumes) and Buntu Tyali (lighting). It was performed by Aphiwe Livi and Mamela Nyamza in the Wits Amphitheatre, on February 24 and 25 as part of Dance Umbrella 2017. Visit danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011 492 0709.

Dirty, smarmy secrets

Smallanyana

HE ain’t heavy, he’s my mop: Jerry Mntonga plays Handy Andy. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

THE POMP AND flippancy of a political leadership blindly consumed with its own intrigues and self importance comes under the brutal gaze of seven young Wits writers in Smallanyana Skeleton, a parody loosely cast around South African values. Blending a multitude of talents, from beat-boxing to set design, the work is fresh and vital, cleaving irony and wit with a deeper message, but on the whole, it is bruised by a lack of polish.

As you walk into the rubbish-strewn theatre, it is being mopped by a guy in overalls. The wet mop on the theatre’s black floor becomes a cipher for a multitude of messages, from sex to death, as the guy, “Handy Andy” (Jerry Mntonga) is part outsider and part insider in this tale of sordid immorality based on getting down and dirty in secret, stealing big things such as monuments and fooling tax payers.

With unquestionably inimitable value as a new South African story, the work is hinged  too closely to real people on the current political stage: a character called Honourable Godzille, compromises the parodic thrust the work promises. Is this a play about Helen Zille or is this a broader-based attack on hypocrisy and the skeletons in cupboards of a generic political leadership?

While there is an occasional tendency toward overacting by some of the cast, there is also an energy which leans a little too closely to cinematic dynamics, downplaying formal theatre conventions and hurting the clarity of the tale itself.

Having said that, this work contains some of the self-reflective humour of a selfie-obsessed, social media-dependent society that only writers of this generation can articulate with as much internal knowledge, and harsh criticism, as the work requires. There are some truly fine moments of nuance and improvisation in this play, which is built against a very nifty set conflating newspaper street posters with media interaction rather deliciously.

While the tale is a smarmy one which languidly flows from the issue of rubbish disposal pipes being too wide or too long and into sordid hotel bedrooms, thence to toilets and closets, it is hurt by too many transitions where you’re left in the dark while the cast changes scenes. These breaks in the narrative flow hurt the focus of the story, and often, you’re left proverbially in the dark as extraneous bits and pieces of narrative are strewn about, sometimes not completely coherently.

But the immense value of a play of this nature, featuring students ranging from first years – Nambitha Tyelbooi who plays Jenny List (the journalist) and Thando Mulambo who plays Honourable Humdrum, to young professionals – cannot be underestimated. The fun that was had in the construction of the work shows unquestionably, and is contagious. But the hilarity of the tale, and to an extent, its darkness gets bewildered in the overall messiness of the story.

  • Smallanyana Skeleton is written by Samantha de Jager, Sam Kentridge, Lehlohonolo Mmeti, Sarah Nansubuga, Daniella Oosthuizen, Caitlyn Spring and Joe Young, facilitated and directed by Kgafela oa Magogodi. Featuring design by Julian August (lighting) and Edmund Braatveld and Tsholo Ramosepele (set and costume), it is performed by Bradley Cebekhulu, Abongile Matyutyu, Jerry Mntonga, Lucky Mqoboli, Thando Mulambo, Danielle Oosthuizen and Nambitha Tyelbooi, in the Wits Amphitheatre until August 27. 011 717 1376

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.