Abangabonwa (The Unseen): Go, See

Amykay Klaasen in Abangabonwa. Photo by Oscar O Ryan.

Rousing drumming and the mbira’s twanging fills the hazy air. A faint yet distinct burning smell lingers. Bodies pulsate. Swift fling. Sharp grab. Resist. Rebound. Relentless undulation.

A trance state washes down from the stage into the auditorium. These aren’t dancers performing rehearsed moves. They are people. Being, living. Sharing their concerns, their pride, their worries and hopes. I find my head bopping and feet drumming along. I’m absorbed.

Melding African traditional and ritual dance, and contemporary dance, choreographer Mzokuthula Gasa and the cast make these forms fluidly, boldly create a beautiful and special movement vocabulary. Abangabonwa is affecting and stimulating but so entrancing I didn’t want it to end.

Look to the art if you want to understand what’s happening in the world. What content fills our stages? Which themes recur?

Township life is Abangabonwa’s focus. We see five people sitting on buckets, we hear rain dripping through leaking roofs. We see one young man rolling a big joint, crushing and sprinkling something extra on top. We see another man desperate for something to smoke, powerless to the dealer figure who refuses him because his pockets are empty.

We see two women, robot-like they’re speed walking – racing to work, or in competition… we’re not sure, but their speeding movements tilt them off axis, they recoil until they almost fall again. Their environment dictates where their bodies can and do go.

This presentation of daily township life shifts, transforms into spiritual, ritual scenes. Represented by the traditional fly whisks they hold, a group of elders and leaders perform ceremonial dances. The intensity builds. The five people from before are enveloped by this group of elders who with their dancing, appear to be battling and admonishing whatever ills have befallen these young people who grasp at their heads, twitching, and tossing their arms backwards in twisted positions.

Is it being suggested that a return to the old ways, the traditional cultures, is a way to cure the social problems urbanisation and the modern world have caused? It seems so. And as a non-city dweller I advocate this message too. Yet Gasa and the Sibonelo Dance Project don’t ‘show’ this is the solution – they know it’s not as simple as that.

Abangabonwa was created from the cast’s personal reflections on township life. From feelings of being ‘unheard and unseen’. But there is media coverage, no? And if you browse the Cape Town Fringe programme, it’s noticeable how many theatre works are ‘about’ township life, issues and struggles.

So why do these artists feel no one’s paying attention? Because nothing ever changes, perhaps. And yet, we know. It would be easier to have never known, let ignorance be bliss. But we aren’t ignorant. You can’t live in South Africa and not be aware. Looking to our government, our society, those of us who don’t live in a township… and knowing we know: either we’re ignoring this part of our country or deeming it unimportant to look and listen. Either option is poisonous to our country’s future.

So, go and see Abangabonwa.

Abangabonwa (The Unseen) is next on tonight 24 September at 18.00 and tomorrow 25 September at 15.00. Bookings and more information (and a video) here.

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