Phuma-Langa: Stark and Dark

Phuma-Langa, by NAF featured artist, Mamela Nyamza. Photo: Christo Doherty.

In a black box theatre with bared walls and simple lighting, six eerie figures stand, dressed in ridiculous outfits – swimming caps, orange water wings, kreepy krauly pipes wound round their waists, and knee-length stripy socks in white tennis shoes.

In trying to interpret this weird attire, I look to choreographer Mamela Nyamza’s body of work. Metaphor and strangeness abound. Adorned in learner swimmers’ tools, what are these figures depicting? A desire to survive? A metaphor for us, treading water in the raging ocean of SA politics? And those restrictive pipes – are we caught up, close to drowning, in social division and separation, or denialism, selectively blind to the inequality and injustice existing in plain view around us.

The figures in front of us keep their eyes closed. Blindly, they start to shift at a snail’s pace, using the rifles they hold as their canes to avoid each other. We notice marks on the ground… and realise they’re from chalk attached to the barrel end of the rifle being dragged on the ground. All actions leave a mark. Consequences. The chalked weapon is used to create a crime scene body outline – it’s a subtly placed but impactful moment.

In a humorous and strange shift, Bok van Blerk’s “de la Rey” plays, and the figures move slowly and sensuously to its melody… the controversial song released in the mid-noughties calls for Afrikaner nationalism, calling to the Second Boer War General to lead the nation to rise again (yes, war general), and as some writers have noted, likening the Afrikaners’ suffering under the British to their ‘suffering’ under black rule.

The song is intermittently hummed or the chorus sung in Phuma-Langa. The lyrics about boere and their farms being razed is not lost on us, watching a work named after the agriculturally rich Phuma-Langa, Mpumalanga (not Ma-poom-alanger), considering the increasingly louder political conversations about land ownership.

The movers now speak. Sounding out their names, but as they’ve heard them bastardised. “Nyom-fyun-dow”, says Nomfundo. The problem of mispronounced black names raises defence from some whites claiming innocent inability to wrap their tongues around sounds not in English or Afrikaans. My favourite response is from actress Uzo (Uzoamaka) Aduba, whose mother told her, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka”. Right?

This is not only about hard-to-pronounce-names. It is about re-naming too: Nkosazana, Lintle, Gugulethu, the black women who raised white children throughout our country’s history (and still do), ‘given’ the name Princess, Beauty, Precious (and still are). Names are important, we’ve learnt this festival, as we witness the differing opinions role in about the renaming of Grahamstown to Makhanda.

Now, the movers morph in slow motion, with twisted and strained expressions… looking like videotape stretching in the machine… their faces, grotesque; their names reduced to distorted, unrecognisable grunts. They land up in one big pile, it’s unclear where one person ends and another begins. The question raised: is this what some whites see – one black mass with no individuality?

Phuma-Langa’s opening performance was midway when the power outage hit last night. When darkness snapped over us, the quick-on-the-draw Box Theatre tech crew brought out a few lights (solar? battery?) positioned downstage which threw a glaring cold light up at the performers.

In this stark and shadowy half-light, the performers took on a darker presence. With rifles perpetually present – being balanced on hands, or carried on heads, or tapping out a beat, or swung from the mouth – war imagery and connotations of violence saturate the work.

The work is painfully slow in its progression and repetition, but in this choreographic choice, the audience is unsettled and made uncomfortable. It is in this slowness that the starkness and darkness of the work has its potent and disquieting effect.

Phuma-Langa is choregraphed by National Arts Festival Featured Artist, Mamela Nyamza, and performed by the Forgotten Angle Theatre Company.

Phuma-Langa is on today (03.07) at 13.00 & 18.00, & tomorrow (04.07) at 13.00. Click here for more information and bookings.


Choreographer: Mamela Nyamza
Company: The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative
Concept, Design, Choreographer & Director: Mamela Nyamza
Performers: Nicholas Aphane, Shawn Mothupi, Lorin Sookool, Thulani ‘Lathish’ Mgidi, Nomfundo Hlongwa and Francesca Matthys
Costume Designer: Sasha Ehlers
Lighting Designer and Technical Manager: Thabo Pule

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