Jongosi Schools’ Fest: Teens dig in to the old goodies

Renate Stuurman, Paul Slabolespszy, and Charmaine Weir-Smith give the laaities some what-what in Suddenly the Storm at the Jongosi Schools’ Festival.

The Jongosi Schools’ Festival happens on the Friday before the Hilton Arts Festival starts in the evening. It is a brilliant initiative that brings school children to the Festival for a day of shows and workshops, thereby developing audiences and bringing theatre to children, and children, and young adults, to the theatre. Giving them access to the best works normally reserved for Cape Town, Johannesburg or the National Arts Festival.

Selections of what shows to see are made by the teachers, as in the day only three shows can be seen. We attended Paul Slabolepszy’s Suddenly the Storm, Mike van Graan’s Green Man Flashing and Tarryn Bennet’s Silkworm. [The last having already been reviewed on this site. It is charming, beautiful, tender.] The first two plays formed interesting companion pieces in terms of school audiences being, as they are, well-located in the school curriculum of South African history, and forming a part of the Dramatic Arts syllabus.

In all three of these shows the teenage audience was engaged, responsive, focused and enthusiastic. I wonder how the actors feel when an audience is so animatedly vocal in their connection to the piece – sometimes clicking their fingers as is done when ideas or actions resonate with the audience during Slam Poetry and Spoken Word events – sometimes gasping out loud in shock or expressing approval or disapproval with the lines of dialogue, moments of dramatic action or stage images.

All in all, I felt very heartened about the connection. If theatre is about community, and about sharing our stories, about the bearing of witness to the lives of others, building greater perspective, tolerance and empathy, or just being damned entertaining, this was it!

All three shows received spontaneous and unanimous standing ovations. These kids loved all of them. After Suddenly the Storm I wondered if the show would ever again get such a large, visceral and unselfconscious a response as it received yesterday morning. The same with Green Man Flashing. The actors say mostly the auditorium is dead quiet, but here they had very audible, en masse responses from the packed houses full of teenagers. I also wondered, as I have said, how the actors feel about this, in both plays, having to stop the dialogue for quite long interruptions at times to let the audiences’ responses flow and ebb, and having to keep the realism of the performance alive and full. But, surely, it is more pleasing than being technically onerous from an acting point of view?

Suddenly the Storm.

Written by Paul Slabolepszy. Directed by Bobby Heaney. Acted by Slabolepszy, Charmaine Weir-Smith and Renate Stuurman. Lighting by Wesley France. Set Design by Greg King.

This is classic, vintage Slabolepszy and Heaney – complex, strongly-written characters, in a situation outside of mainstream society, speaking colloquially, raising contentious socio-political issues through a driving pace of action in a production that is tightly directed. In the 80s these plays were not mainstream. (In the 70s The Space, The Market and The Baxter were considered off the main.) The implied protest against apartheid they held, while being written in the style of realism, with a mixed race cast of characters, meant they were too challenging and edgy to be part of the conventional, mainstream theatre. They were thus staged in the alternative theatre spaces and provoked a wonderful response – causing much debate as theatre should do.

Today this play felt very much a part of the mainstream theatre, which is lovely, as it shows how our theatre has shifted. And the production has all the richness of theatricality that one would expect in top class theatre. It could have been a Fugard (whose work also went from being considered to be extremely threatening to the apartheid regime to mainstream-styled theatre), or Chekhov .. except with more pace! The set is immaculate. The design is extremely pleasing to the eye, minutely detailed and superbly serves the staging of the action. The technical aspects – of storm and rain and off-stage sounds – are also superbly realised; the lighting is both evocative and naturalistic.

It was marvellous to see the master Slabolepszy up there doing his thing, and I felt quite nostalgic. My students, of course, had no memory of this kind of work, but said that they really ‘understood’ it, although the story of the characters’ past was something out of their realm of experience. Weir-Smith and Stuurman are dynamic. The characterisation is strong, and all the actors are playing the subtext in a manner which keeps the audience intrigued and fascinated as the piece moves from black comedy to dark drama.

A thoroughly entertaining piece of theatre – you laugh, you cry, contemplate the complexity of our South African past and its contested present, raising questions about our way forward.

Green Man Flashing.

Written by Mike van Graan. Directed by Malcolm Purkey. Lighting Design by Dennis Hutchinson. Acted by Litha Bam, Michelle Douglas, Tessa Jubber (who takes over from Kate Liquorish), Schaba Morojele and David Dennis.

Green Man Flashing is a matric set work, so it was good to be able to take the students to see this prescient political thriller that raises a debate around what should take precedence: an individual’s rights or the country’s greater good? The playwright does not answer the question the play raises, nor is the narrative closed, thus leaving much open to audience discussion. As above, it is so good when a piece of theatre leaves the theatre with the audience, especially for teenagers, encouraging them to grapple with the complex and unresolved issues the play raises – especially in terms with how they resonate with personal, contemporary, political contexts.

It was particularly fascinating to see how Purkey would treat the play’s direction, myself having seen the first production, directed by Clare Stopford, at the National Arts Festival in 2004.

It was pleasing. Purkey keeps the action fast-paced, though he does take his actors off stage, and, again, lighting serves to delineate the jump-cuts from scene to scene. Focused to the thriller aspect, the audience is kept guessing and second-guessing as pieces of the narrative puzzle fit into place through a series of flashbacks. The acting was faultless … I especially liked Douglas’s layered, sensitive rendering of Gabby’s vulnerability as she charters the complex territory of her hardships, while having to make enormous decisions. David Dennis is always a treat to watch as his characterisations are always so solid and rich. But, all the actors, as is to be expected from a stellar team, are serving the piece superbly and play in the ensemble with clarity and cooperation. This is a difficult play to act, as when the actors are ‘in scene’, the playing must be authentic and believable, yet the scenes cut from one event and emotional reality to another at a swift pace, and the juxtapositions and montage used must be hard for an actor to get into an emotional truth from the first line of each episode.

So, another entertaining and topical piece. Sad, isn’t it, how topical this play still is?

The Jongosi Schools’ Festival is a one-day affair on the Friday, as part of the Hilton Arts Festival, which ends tomorrow (Sunday 16 Sept). Suddenly the Storm is on at 10am, and Green Man Flashing at 3.30pm. Silkworm’s last show is at 12.30pm. Info and bookings here.

One Response to “Jongosi Schools’ Fest: Teens dig in to the old goodies”
  1. Mike September 17, 2018

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