Sasolburg Common ‘Birds’ of South Africa: Set the chicks free

Photo by Canned Rice Photography / Richard Wright-Firth

A blackout can, judiciously used, be a highly effective way of heightening suspense or slamming an exclamation mark down on a scene. Bang! So there. Like that.

But when there’s about 20 or so in an hour-long show, you begin to wonder whether you’re not just being subjected to a strobe in extreme slow motion, sans the trippy stop-frame effect. The play becomes a series of skits and by blackout number three you know how this is going to go and so an unconscious reticence to become absorbed in the mini-drama kicks in, because you know it’s about to come to an abrupt end. Any second now.

Which, when it comes to the cleverly titled Sasolburg Common ‘Birds’ of South Africa, weakens its attempts to be a cutting commentary on a particular sector of white Afrikaanerdom, the ‘common’ sort you might find in a place like Sasolburg, or Vereeniging. The sort that, if you are an ou from Cape Town and go looking for them, will likely see you getting seriously moered before any real semblance of conversation can take place (provided you are capable of subsequently conversing through broken teeth and split lips). Because performers Candice van Litsenborgh and Daneel van der Walt can do that (offer cutting comic commentary), they are great performers and Candice in particular has a clowning ability that, were she the cock robin she dresses up as, could have the most ferocious cat giving up in paroxysms of laughter. Daneel has that sort of method acting thing going on, and with her pasty make-up and high heels looks like she went and spent some time hanging out making potato salads at backyard braais in Sasolburg on Sundays. Which, presumably, she did, having grown up there.

The erotic intensity of her chicken sexing scene was disturbing.

There’s a lot going on beneath the everyday situational comedy, one-liners, mixed metaphors and malapropisms. There’s the appropriation of a repressive system – in this case in the form of sexism – by those who are the system’s targets; our ‘birds’ Jacomine (Daneel) and Cobalize (Candice) for a start. The script touches on dysfunctional schooling systems, alcoholism, bullying, hedonism and, most encompassingly, the desperation that comes from living in an environment of constrained possibilities and limited freedoms. All the ingredients for a gleefully dark comedy are there as we watch sisters Jacomine and Cobalize experience the rituals and trials marking the passage from girlhood to full adulthood, but it’s mashed together in such a way that despite a few moment of profundity, the darkest thing was the lack of light in-between each skit.

To use a figure of speech that Jacomine and Cobalize would probably understand: When you plaster and paint a wall, it doesn’t matter how intricate the brickwork or masterful the grouting, it ceases to be a work of craft and becomes just a wall. It’s just there, white, and in your way, or holding up a roof, or whatever. It’s useful and everything, but maybe Candice, who wrote the play, and Richard Wright-Firth, who directed it, should consider exposing their bricklaying skills.

Sasolburg Common ‘Birds’ of South Africa debuted at the Alexander Upstairs theatre. The run is over but it’s sure to elicit belly laughs again soon.

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