Ankobia profile: Blackness examined in a bleak future

ANKOBIA, the most eagerly awaited play by 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist award winner for theatre Monageng “Vice” Motshabi, 35, opens at the National Arts Festival on Friday July 7.

Motshabi, interviewed soon after he arrived in Grahamstown where symbols and statues recalling white settler history assailed him, spoke about how the new play, produced by the Market Theatre, delves into the deep physical, psychological, social, economic and political understanding of what it is to be a black person in South Africa and Africa today.

Land is at the core of the piece, which is set in the futuristic land of Polodikgadile 34 years from now.

It is a bleak place, where the state’s “joy machine” has wiped out any memories of the past, and the regime bans all thoughts of displeasure, especially expressions against social injustice.

Motshabi says the play has its roots in dispossession under apartheid when his own family was forcefully removed from TseTse near Ventersdorp to Mafikeng, and from the work Yurugu, by black anthropologist Marimba Ani which references the Ankobi, an term in the Ashanti Twi language spoken in Ghana and surrounds which refers to courageous leaders, particularly in battle.

“This is not about my own family’s discomfort, it’s about the broader black family and what we have all lost due to colonisation and it’s violence.”

Penning and crafting Ankobia was a profound challenge bringing revelations about blackness and land dispossession in SA today.

He said: “We had to figure how to make it work properly as a play. We wrote draft after draft. We discovered more and kept rewriting. Now we are seeing the vision of exactly what we are doing.

“Primarily, we want to celebrate and elevate the spirit of those who really want to rise up and serve black people, people who are aware that our journey and evolutionary path has been tampered with. Those scars will take a lot to process and navigate and transcend.

“Central to the question of our identity and future is the question of the land. So the work celebrates those who, in this difficult time echo, the question of the land, about how it should be restored or taken back. We celebrate those courageous voices raised at a time when it is not popular to do so, and how this affects the spirit of those who have been dispossessed.

Talking of his family’s experience, he said: “We had a space, a home, stability, a community and it was uprooted because of the possibility that there was diamonds in the old land.

“Land dispossession was violent, and it is impossible to see how it will be handed back. The play goes into that place of violence in 2041. People are forcefully taking the land back and there is resistance and that launches the play. In a desire to put black people to sleep, government and settlers have decide the best way to deal with the natives is to fake the second coming of Jesus and this disrupts an uprising.

“The play is a celebration of people I know who represent the spirit of Ankobia, who give me courage, clarity and meaning and who challenge me as an artist.

“I identify with them, for their knowledge, their courage and love. They are organising themselves around the land issue and reclamation of self and spiritual reclamation of who we are and what we have to offer the world and the people.

“I have also been responding to the frustration inside my own body when seeing how difficult it is for white people, most of the time, to understand the pain black people keep referring to.”

He talks about the effects this has had on black people, “how disconnected you become from yourself when your thoughts, symbols religion, an entire identity, are regarded as savage and irrelevant”.

He speaks of the horror of violence which moves black people “from knowing who you are to becoming this animal or thing that functions in the world but is not at home or connected to itself”.

For him, “seeing how whiteness does not fully grasp these effects or hear it, has been a pool, a resource for my inspiration. This tension and discomfort at not being heard, seen, or recognised has been a meaningful place to start.

“It is about seeing my own family, my mother struggle, to carry the weight of being a black person in the world, and how it can create disease. Many black people struggle with being in the world, and seeing them daily, and seeing in myself how I struggle to anchor and struggle to see the world today, this is a place where drama begins and visions for theatre are made.”

Motshabi loves collaborating. “I like to be challenged and when I’m bumping, and there is tension and friction, something bigger emerges. He is wary of becoming “comfortable in my own ideas. I need to keep searching, to go deeper”.

He speaks about the compelling broader issues that are in the work.

“Who sets the destiny of the nation, who sets the agenda on progress on the best system or policy and who determines those who control land and resources because they control the fate of the nation and the sort of system that governs the land? The issue of land is not just a personal matter of our loss, but about the bigger idea of land and people’s destiny, wealth and ownership. For a lot of black people we are secondary citizens because we follow systems and ways of life set for us by others.

“Our thoughts, our contribution to the world are only measured by how we see ourselves within the confines set by white people and not by how we truly see the world, feel it and see the idea of progress and understand society.

“Our idea of what a harmonious and thriving society means are appropriated to keep us outside the real picture. We are told ubuntu is a good thing but it only serves the idea of staying pacified and peaceful and don’t rise up. So our real contribution to the world is still half truths.”

He says he has no party or other political affiliations but has a deep connection with those who campaign and think about the land.

“I feel that though I don’t belong to these land groups, their desire to express this need comes from the same place as it does in my body.”

He is wary of the nature of party politics which always has a set agenda, and imposes controls.

Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi, Standard Bank 2017 Young Artist for Theatre award winner and choreographer Teresa Phuti Mojela ahead of the opening this weekend of Ankobia at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Picture: MIKE LOEWE

“It’s about who pays the bills. I don’t have those affiliations. I have no need to impress anyone.”

This is deep and significant material, but he says they wrestled with audience response. “We began from a place of serious things, important things, and as it took that shape we felt we were squeezing the fun out of it. We don’t want to torture an audience into agreeing with us. So we re-imagined it and now there’s a lot of humour. A lot can be accessed through humour we want it to be as accessible as possible.”

They grappled with language. “We do want to go inside ourselves to access what our mothers gave us in language so we use Setswana for some characters who not not want to speak English. There are questions about language in the play. The Setswana-speaking characters want to pull others into pure language, while others speak street language, and others speak English which has stolen into a place they do not access fully. We did not want anyone to miss any part of the story.”

“The piece has been simmering and bubbling for a while. The first feeling was after Book of Rebellations I co-wrote with Kgafela oa Magogodi in 2014. Because of what I was going through and around me, I was asking myself, how do you capture what’s happened to us, break it down and express it clearly and meaningfully?”

He approached Ankobia cast member and fellow-theatre maker Omphile Molusi and veteran actor Arthur Molepo and they explored setting the play in the future “which is a lovely place for me. I’m not about creating a mirror to society. I am interested in one that shows you what is possible. The power of the future is that when you see something set in the future you can’t help but know it’s about the now and you have to figure out what it is saying to you about the now.”

Choreographer Teresa Phuti Mojela said she found the work scary and fascinating.

“I was told to create my own interpretation and to explore. The cast are beautiful movers and we had to find a word, a language, about how these people in the future move and behave. How do they dance and break into seemingly unnatural movements in this future world?”

After some trimming she says what now exists heightens emotions and amplifies a shift in a character of the journey. It works with the text.

Motshabi speaks about whiteness. “As black people rediscover and reclaim, white people are also discovering how to disconnect from being a coloniser. As a new blackness surfaces a new white consciousness must emerge to complement it. The whiteness of the past will not survive. It sustains this tension and discomfort. The statues of heroes in Grahamstown are slave masters and land thieves to us. It is traumatic to us. We are aware of what they stand for and that they still stand and are defended so vigorously. We need a future whiteness which can understand this for what it is and which seeks something bigger.”

  • This content was sponsored by the Market Theatre Foundation.

Ankobia is on at the Rhodes Box at 8pm on Friday, July 7, 2pm and 8pm on Saturday, July 8 and 12 noon and 6pm on Sunday, July 9. Book here.

Language: English and Setswana
Director: Monageng “Vice” Motshabi

Writers: Monageng “Vice” Motshabi and Omphile Molusi

Choreographer: Teresa Phuti Mojela

Company: Market Theatre
Cast: Momo Matsunyane, Katlego Letsholonyana, Billy Langa, Alfred Motlapi, Omphile Molusi, Lillian Tshabalala
Set designer: Thando Lobese

Lighting designer: Thapelo Mokgosi
Musician: Volley Nchabeleng






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