Return of the Ancestors: Ghost of a play

Mandisi Sindo & Siya Sikawuti in Return of the Ancestors. Photo: CuePix/Sithasolwazi Kentane

Art is a great platform on which to critique society. Journalism digs at the coalface but art can coalesce the findings, establishing them firmly in the public’s imagination. Theatre particularly, among the arts, has a long tradition of political commentary. Thus we need a voice like Mike van Graan’s in South African theatre. His writing is contemporary and critical, gathering our political and societal landscape into an accessible creative product. It is unfortunate that this latest offering, Return of the Ancestors translates so dismally onto stage.

There are a clutch of reasons for this. Although the idea of martyrs like Steve Biko and Neil Agget returning to check out how the democratic South Africa they died for is coming along, the writing is weak, amounting to a long series of comedic skits. The jokes aren’t good either. One particularly groan-worthy one (and festinos packing the premier did groan) was Neil stating, as he and Steve get into a car to embark on their fact-finding mission, that he didn’t listen to any of that “head-banging music” (what head-banging music would Biko have listened to?). To which Biko replies that he wasn’t the one who banged his head.

The same could be said for the set. Reminiscent of a squatter shack and with torn newsprint hanging on everything, the idea has potential, but becomes a messy set of fixtures and unnecessary props the actors spend a large proportion of their time fiddling with.

The acting by Siya Sikawuti and Mandisi Sindo was unremarkable, but in their defence, there was just too much text to get through, and they seemed almost as exasperated as I at the never-ending transitions.

And casting Neil Agget as an ancestor returning in a black body simply did not work. Why Agget was even included as a character is perplexing, he received hardly any stage time.

It’s as if Agget is a reverse BEE token. If this is intentional it is a wonderfully subtle stroke by van Graan, but given the didacticism inherent in the entire play, that good fortune appears highly unlikely.

To make matters worse, the lighting cues were embarrassingly off, but that can be largely attributed to the technical and logistical challenges of running on the Fringe.

The play needs a serious and uncompromising cut, a firm directorial hand, a redesign of the set, and possibly a different cast. Then we may have a show worth seeing.

— Steve Kretzmann

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