Oomasisulu: 20th Century activism for all

3DRAMATISING the life of African National Congress hero Albertina Sisulu was always going to be a difficult process involving hard choices, but director Warona Seane and team have presented a work which avoids a lectorial discourse on liberation politics, and instead shows a steely commitment to delving into the emotional heart of this rock of a woman.

It is the unwavering commitment to creative power and cool theatrical device which made Thursday’s premier in the Rhodes Box Theatre a pleasure and privilege to observe.

It gave fresh impetus to understanding and feeling the epic journey Albertina made through life, starting as a young rural child and ending up a venerated urbanised veteran of the painful effort to rid South Africa of a venal and destructive system of State-imposed racism and racial balkanisation.

It is in the touching moments of a precocious child learning the hard way about fire, her sense of deep commitment to caring for her siblings, family and community, and her legendary iron will, which take us to the root of revelation, not only about Albertina, but every African woman who ever supported a man and family, who rose up through sheer determination from a simple traditional life, and through self-improvement and education, took on and beat a highly organised, hostile State.

Albertina and Walter were a power couple who stayed the course and raised wonderful children, one of whom I once worked for, and so the vignettes of the Sisulu’s love relationship from courting to the wheelchair, adapted from Albertina’s arts activist daughter-in-law Elinor Sisulu’s biographical novel, was always going to hold deep curiosity.

The trap of triumphalism and propagandistic claiming of easy victories at a time of political uncertainty for the ruling party would have been a death-knell for this piece which sets itself up as an exploration of activism, specifically Albertina’s role in the ANC’s women’s movement. But it is a joy and relief to report that it is marvellous work which swings to the other happier extreme to grapple fiercely with creative artistic technique and bringing out human essence.

Conceptualiser and lead actress, Thembi Mtshali-Jones, winner of many awards and accolades, speaking immediately after the premier, said this was a “work-in-progress” which director Seane confirmed, saying it had been a “collaborative effort” in which “certain (big) decisions” were made coming off Dr Sindiwe Magona’s original script.

This must have been an intense, rumbustious and ultimately transcendant process because what we are shown is beautifully cut, multi-dimensional, inclusive, stimulating storytelling.

Alfred Rietmann’s set design does not allow elements of traditional protest theatre to overpower, and he and multi-media designer Sanjin Muftic have chosen to blend fresh ideas into the mix. Fifty or so paper boats dangling in a cloud wobble to and fro against a massive back wall projection of madly rippled water to evoke a physical sense in the gut of Albertina’s violent wretching during her many sea-sick boat trips to visit Walter on Robben Island.

In discussion, Seane added that love letters placed in these little paper boats and sent down a stream to waiting suitors, was the only way for girls at Albertina’s strict nun-run Mariazelle Catholic mission school to connect openly with boys.

Indalo Stofile and Chuma Sopotela give lithe, punchy performances working like avatars, they are a vibrant foil to the dignified, encompassing presence of Mtshali-Jones.

The innovative use of contemporary dance and physical theatre-inspired back arches and inwards-out arm movements give literal, bodily expression to iconic projected images of the regime shooting children in 1976 playing out hugely on the back wall.

There are a few moments, however, where scenes felt disconnected or hard to interpret, especially if the viewer has not read Elinor’s biography. Who is comforting whom in the detention cell? And at times the narration from Albertina’s letters and recordings are distorted by competing sound.

The use of language is uncompromising. Monologues in Xhosa are not mechanically interpreted, but there is more than enough going on to keep everyone involved in the story. It does mean that there is a layered richness to the piece which Xhosa speakers can take and hold to themselves.

The African feminism emerging in Albertina is brought into focus in an wry exchange with Madiba, who, in a slightly poncey manner sips tea and, and in benevolent, of not patronising tone, tells her to go home and look after the kids while Walter is in detention. His patriarchy is no match for Albertina’s battle-forged matriarchy; she lets him know unflinchingly that she will be joining the volunteers at the dompass barricades.

With a few tweaks and stitches this show is ready to hit the road and be seen for what it is, South African democratic activism from the 20th century giving inspiration and insight to the hard-to-define new activism of the 21st.

The ANC may have strayed horribly from its original promise, but OoMaSisulu’s voice on what is right, true and proper will not be silenced. This is theatre that belongs to all.

  • OoMaSisulu, is directed by Warona Seane and workshopped and presented by The Artscape Theatre Centre, shows today at 9pm and at 10am and 6pm tomorrow (Saturday, July 2) in the Rhodes Box Theatre. Tickets: R75. Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes. Recommended age restriction: 14.


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