Our rainbow is broken. The arch is no more. Dead, and the colours now a venal black, and yellow and green.
Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars, the festival Standard Bank Young Artist theatre highlight, is an insider view of the political elite. Unlike the dirt and death fouling their wake like the fumes from an abused diesel farm bakkie toiling up a hill, or a battered truck dragging stolen coal across Mpumalanga, their world is slick, unsullied by the waste and dilapidation they let loose. The world of the cadre is blond wood and fine whiskey.
It’s been a script lying in waiting for a dozen years or so, written by J. Bobs Tshabalala, laying the scene of state capture bare. Prescient doesn’t quite do it justice. Now that the Zondo commission has shown us that it was exactly as J. Bobs spelled it out, the text has been updated to late tenderpreurship, bringing us into the present unravelling, when the mine is mined, and as the chief says: ‘it’s all mine’.
This is a brotherhood, when it’s convenient, a sycophantic hierarchy when not. The generals strut and cower upon a slick flat set of beech jigsaw puzzle pieces, the back and floor angled, the way a person talking to you crosses their legs and leans askew. Their besuited mutual mistrust and inter-dependence expertly expressed in posture and pose, the rhyming language loops as they aver and refer to methods and means to plot and plan, eliminate and limit hate. The exaggerated effusiveness of their salutations to the chief, the praise singing which eventually devolves into etc. etc. – one of many skewers through the lies that underpin a system of self-enrichment.
The relationship between the sparring cadres who are the generals is a thread of tension that pulls through the play, which is Shakespearean in the way it reveals the court within which power is played. The language too, has a Shakespearean density and rhythm, along with the clear-eyed satire at its core. This is delightful, but its punch is not always used to full effect. Too often, the actors rolled through the rhyme when pause and stress could have been much more satisfying. But shortcomings were made up for in physicality.
Xolile Benjamin Gama as the most revered chief, his highness, most excellent, etc., is a wonderful entrance. He commands the stage, as his position commands, and, troublingly, we almost begin to like him. So much so that the threat he represents dissipates, and it would be good to have him exert it, just once, as a reminder.
How the actual corruption – not the mechanics of the money so much, but the buying of the soul, transpires is what holds the dramatic tension of the plot. And when you see it, you go ‘oh my god, of course’. Followed, perhaps by ‘what would I do?’.
It’s a fantastic, rich satirical script that rips out the fatty guts and cirrhottic liver of the ruling elite, and a finely staged and well acted production that could not be more relevant and timely. The fruits lie before our eyes: potholes, sewage, unemployment, poverty, starving children, cholera.
A Bravo! to Standard Bank Young Artist award winners TheatreDuo – Mahlatsi Mokgonyana and Billy Langa who directed it. Yet, while such a good, timely, relevant play, why does it still feel safe, like a Zapiro cartoon: gutting, but within an acceptable frame. But perhaps that’s just me, looking for anarchy.
Khongolose Khommanding Khommisars still has a show tonight, 1 July, at 8pm, and tomorrow at 11am. Get you tickets to this National Arts Festival highlight here.
Produced by: The Market Theatre*
Writer: J Bobs Tshabalala
Co-Directors: Billy Langa & Mahlatsi Mokgonyana
Assistant Director: Ketsia Velaphi
Lighting and Set Design: Denis Hutchinson
Costume Designer: Lethabo Bereng
Projection Design: Nikki Pilkington
Sound Design: Jannous Aukema
Movement Direction: Ernest ‘Ginger’ Baleni
Lebohang Masimola as QINISO NXUMALO
Anelisa Phewa as SQALO HOKO
Tshireletso Nkoane as TSEBO RAPOO
Xolile Benjamin Gama as RONALD MULAUDZI
Moagi Benjamin Kai as MXOLISI MTHEMBU
* This production is made possible through generous funding from the Eyesizwe Mining Development Trust.