Childhood games reawaken old ghosts for three sisters, bonded by blood and their search for home in the debut of Ibuhlungu le Ndawo, which received a standing ovation from its first audience at the National Arts Festival.
The Rhodes Box transformed into a tapestry of the South African rural landscape — a mound of earth buried secrets, a small cardboard blue house broken apart and their mother’s clothes suspended from the ceiling, just out of reach.
The play, written by Sibongakonke Mama, 33, originally from Butterworth (Gcuwa), was the 2022 winner of the National Playwright Competition sponsored by Heineken Beverages.
Ibuhlungu le Ndawo seamlessly weaves between reality and dreamscape, using choral verse, physical performance and ritual on a journey led by the hauntingly beautiful voice of Makuzeni.
This star-studded cast includes two previous Standard Bank Young Artist award winners, Chuma Sopotela for Performance Art in 2017 and Siya Makuzeni for Jazz in 2016.
Shifting between sounds looped on a synthesizer, Makuzeni uses the trombone, harmonica, shakers and uhadi, a traditional Xhosa bow instrument as the voices from beyond reality.
The bond of the three sisters, played by Sopotela, Indalo Stofile and Nasfa Ncanywa, is unbroken as each character battles their own understanding of their joint past.
At its core, Ibuhlungu le Ndawo is an exploration of identity and the struggle for selfhood, raising thought-provoking questions about the coexistence of home, belonging, and personal desire.
With Ibuhlungu le Ndawo delivered predominantly in isiXhosa, it is still a deep and enriching experience for non-speakers of the language.
Speaking to Mama, who had not watched a full run of the show before its opening on Thursday, the playwright said she was overwhelmed by the audience’s response.
“I can’t express enough my gratitude for everyone who has taken the time, especially the [performers] on stage to invest in making this,” Mama said.
“It’s unnerving but also validating that there are panels of people from the competition and also artists whom I respect greatly, who find my writing important enough to be worth their time and effort.”
In addition to writing Ibuhlungu le Ndawo, Mama was involved as a producer, alongside Mud & Fire Parables and the National Arts Festival.
“I wanted to learn what it takes to make a theatre piece, to learn how to write a play.
“The education I’ve received from this entire process is priceless.
“The piece is also inspired by the stories of my mother, my father, my aunt and uncle, about the lives of the people who came before me.
“It is also inspired by this country and the difficulty of what it means to be a black person, and woman in SA, to be continuously having to contest your place and your safety and your belonging.
“I’m hoping it is a piece that invites audiences to allow themselves the vulnerability of asking themselves uncomfortable and painful questions.”
Acclaimed director Mandla Mbotwe, 51, from Cape Town, said he was approached by Mama in 2022 to collaborate on the production.
“The way she [Mama] wrote [the play] is so complex and cleverly written, it was a challenge and I’m glad that I had the cast that I had, who could deal with the themes of the work from page to stage,” Mbotwe said.
“Ibuhlungu le Ndawo deals with the issues of psychological burden, of archives of memory — siblings being left alone without parents in the ruins of home, family and society.
“I hope people who see it will find value in it, there is something about the show that speaks directly to the hot potato issues of our society, which are mental issues.
“In an African context there is a huge hybrid of mental health understanding and spirituality that we need to begin to decentralise and to decolonise the terminology that we use.
“We have tried to find metaphors to hold what that means.”