The Pilgrimage: Toward the unholy

Photo: Ngoma ka Mphahlele

To direct is to be the outside eye. When you are also inside the work, this working definition of directing becomes blurry. There are many director-actors who have made careers out of this conflation. In the South African theatre industry, where financial resources are often low, solo performers have made an art out of being the writer, actor, and director of their own work. In an incubator-type festival like the Zwakala Festival it is a tall task for a young director to master this particular art. Sir Nash Makgobane, says that the difficulty of doing all three tasks for the play The Pilgrimage was his biggest lesson. “You cannot write, act, and direct at the same time.”

A pilgrim takes a journey to a holy place. The pilgrim in this play is nowhere to be found. The title being a hangover from an initial idea that no longer served the content or purposes of the work. Perhaps the pilgrim here is Makgobane himself, if the path toward winning the Zwakala Festival can be seen as the pursuit of the holy space of theatrical creation. To Makgobane, it is the Market Theatre that is the holy venue. “There are certain spaces that you can’t get,” he says, referring to mainstream theatres. Making it to the Market Theatre means having something significant to put in his CV and biography. This is a pilgrimage that many who enter the Zwakala Festival may seek: access to resources.

Makgobane’s play took second place at the festival. A surprising spot on the list of four works that all presented clearer craft and understanding of theatrical staging. It is no small feat for the director and cast who admit they “came in as underdog”’.

They had initially created a series of interventions as a task for their Applied Theatre course at Wits University’s Drama for Life. These interventions used a set of objects: a rope, a long chain, a glass jar with water. They were used to represent different symbols in dealing with the topic of how boys become rapists. The subject and use of objects showed “great potential”, Makgobane says he was told. He joined the festival and went through a series of workshops as well as close mentorship to learn how create narrative and to turn an intervention into theatre.

He wrote a play which, although, needing more work in the scripting and staging, spoke to a much exhausted subject matter in current South African politics: rape. But the refreshing take on the topic is the focus on how two boys who grow up playing with a girl then grow up to become her rapists. There is a bracing use of the glass jar to perform the rape scene. The glass jar, representing her vagina, is something she carries wherever she goes. While this symbol is not really used to its full theatrical potential, in the manner that the girl’s vagina is always visible to the boys playing with her in their innocence, it does get used evocatively in key moments. She puts red Kool Aid into the jar to represent her first period. Her grandmother teaches her how to take care of her fragile jar by cleaning it. Then at the apex of the piece, the boys play at stealing her jar and tossing it between themselves while she jumps and runs from one to the other in the attempt at recovering it. When the boys decide to take what is inside the jar, they drink most of her water in turns, and then throw dirt into the jar and leave it there. Open. Sullied.

The work is at odds with the concept of the pilgrimage. The story is the antithesis of a journey to a holy place. What the work performs is a different journey. A journey that begins with a poem about the girl’s mother, raped by her husband and infected with HIV, addressed to the girl’s grandmother as she leaves the child she cannot bear to see. The journey for these womxn is a terrible circle of repetition. The cast begins the play repeating phrases from Ecclesiastes 3. It is a strange use of the biblical phrases now known as ‘A Time for Everything’. They repeat, ‘there is a time, a time to love and a time to hate’, variously so they do not adhere to the exact biblical phrasing. It comes in again at the end of the play, indicating the repetition of this history daily. But there is no other biblical reference in the play. The inference to religion and the title of The Pilgrimage end there.

There are also some jarring uses of style. The use of movement to counterpoint the boys’ philandering father with the narrative of the playing children and caring grandmother, happens awkwardly. The father dances with a number of dresses and then walks around with a dress on a hanger. But, the movement is not choreographed and the body performs in twitches of movement without any technique. The piece then culminates in the use of about 2 minutes-long strobe lighting, without corresponding movement on stage. In response to questions around the staging choices, Makgobane says: “I need a director.”

It is a clear and strong response. Makgobane tried to bring in a directing student from Wits University to help him when he realized what the process required. He sees himself as a writer. He also says that this is a valuable lesson for him, to know his limits. The frustrating process of incubation towards a full piece was fruitful. They came second.

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