A Man and a Dog: Take off the leash

Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi leads us to the heart of a devastating story in A Man and a Dog.
Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi leads us to the heart of a devastating story in A Man and a Dog.

The most destructive legacy of colonialism and apartheid, one that still plays itself out in the violence of our crime and the brutality of our conflicts, was the destruction of families and consequent tearing of the social fabric of black society by the migrant labour system.

The festering sores that were same-sex hostels, from which men were allowed to leave their poorly paid subterranean toil once, at most twice a year for a couple of weeks at a time, led to children growing up without fathers, wives without husbands and husbands without wives.

This ripping apart of families is terrible enough in any society, but the dissolution of the intricate tapestry of African ancestral tradition meant a child conceived by a wife who faltered in the face of years of loneliness in the rural hinterland, or fathered by a man bereft of the comforts of home, was a devastating blow to a cultural lineage stretching back as far as memory.

Unable to find a home in western tradition, not fitting into African custom, these rootless children are often abandoned to the care of grandmothers or geographically distant relatives by parents who cannot find a place for them, themselves torn apart by their inability to hide their children in their hearts. Mothers who turn to stone, fathers who dissappear.

It is this world Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi takes us into. It is his world. He has lived it, lives it still. “Where are the fathers?” he asks. “Where are the fathers?”

Through folk tales and tall tales in the inconspicuously named A Man and a Dog, he leads us unsuspectingly to this place of shadows, where blow by psychological blow, identity crumbles to dust, the sense of self and belonging is void.

Reflecting this new, misshapen world, his folk tales, those stories through which identity is constructed, are crooked, twisted with strange scenes imposed on a landscape that was once self-sufficient, but no longer. Tales that desperately try to use ancient forms to weave a new meaning but never quite succeed. The old can no longer encompass the new.

But A Man and a Dog does not lead us in a straight line to this heartbreaking void.

There’s a wonderful African tradition of manoeuvring a conversation to the real topic at hand. It is considered rude to discuss serious matters immediately. No, you first discuss the health of each others’ families, then the health of the kraal, the weather, the crops. Some might call this ‘beating around the bush’ but done properly, with art and skill, the issue can end up being discussed and even resolved without conflict ever becoming apparent.

In resonance with the folk tales and oral traditions Mkhwanazi brings to bear, he draws this tradition in as well. Even the title of the play is misleading and he shifts from this story to that story, each one angling toward the real destination which, when it dawns, is quite devastating.

Just not as devastating as it could be.

What mars this story is its occasional resemblance to a children’s book. Story on one side, pictures on the other as Mkhwanazi narrates and then acts that narration out. The two are not often synchronised to create a sense of landscape and environment, neither are the characters always fully inhabited, resulting in periods of uncertainty as we scrabble to figure out who is now talking and what the transition is. These are moments of wasted energy, of water spilled rather than used to quench our thirst.

Mkhwanazi is a strong performer but he has a lot of old tricks that he leans on too often and too heavily. He needs some new ones. Better still, would be doing away with tricks and working with a director who can push him into new territory. Penelope Youngleson has numerous achievements but in this show, that is not one of them. Which is a pity, because as good as A Man and a Dog is, it could be so much better.

Produced by Here Manje and KB Productions, A Man and a Dog is at Princess Alice Hall at 11h30 everyday until 10 July. Info and online booking here.

— Steve Kretzmann

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