Trade Fair: Woke theatre

Itsoseng, on at the Market Theatre this Saturday as part of the Arts Incubator’s Trade Fair, contains the strange mix of pathos and humour that characterises our society.

In a straight-talking speech criticising the current crop of political leaders on Monday night, Market Theatre Foundation council chairperson Kwanele Gumbi urged theatremakers to “participate, probe” and “speak out” against injustice and poor leadership.

“Do not let things get worse than what they are, do not be passive, or you will have no country left,” said Gumbi.

He was speaking at the launch of the inaugural Arts Incubator’s Trade Fair, a week in which participants benefiting from the Department of Arts and Culture’s Incubator Fund dispersed to Artscape, Durban Playhouse, Pacofs, SA State Theatre, Market Theatre and Windybrow are gathered at the Market Theatre to exchange ideas, experiences, showcase their work and find opportunities for collaboration.

He was speaking, thus, to up-and-coming theatremakers who will affect the nature and tone of South African theatre in decades to come.

He was also speaking on the Market Theatre stage that played a significant and celebrated role in supporting work which spoke out bravely in the ‘70s and ‘80s against the apartheid regime.

Judging by the two of the three works I’ve seen showcased at the Trade Fair this week, it seems the Arts Incubator participants are ready to accept his challenge, if not already doing so.

While didactic protest theatre is not the best version of the art, theatre certainly can, through it’s ability to provide context and illuminate the psychological motivation for actions that at first glance may seem irrational or even immoral, lead an audience to a deeper understanding of complex situations, both personal and political.

When members of an economically impoverished community burn down as the only shopping complex that provides economic activity in their town, for instance, or the schools which would seem to be the primary means for their children to escape poverty, these actions perplex the nation.

Yet through creative storytelling, theatre has the power to explain why this happens, without neccesarily judging it ‘good’, or ‘bad’.

Itsoseng, a play presented by the Windybrow Arts Centre at this week’s Trade Fair, goes a long way in helping us understand the dynamics behind the violent service delivery protests which occurred in Itsoseng near Lichtenburg in the North West.

Originally written as a one-person play by Brett Goldin Award winner Omphile Molusi, and having won a Fringe First award in Edinburgh in 2008, the play has been reworked for seven performers directed by Lesedi Job, who received the Sophie Mgcina Emerging Talent award on Monday night.

At heart a love story, it leads into the fraught emotional landscape of the dusty, neglected settlement strung out on the broken promises of a new dispensation and strewn with the broken dreams of its inhabitants.

Itsoseng reflects the dire conflation of the personal and political in South Africa with a script superbly containing our nations’ ability to mix humour and pathos. Moments such as firebrand activist Bruddah Six deserting his own exhausted protest have us laughing at his own disgust at the pointlessness of toyi-toying before a state edifice that barely deigns to glance your way, while we recognise our own despair in the face of a self-serving bureaucracy.

Although the love story needed a bit more flesh (figuratively) – Mawile’s utter devotion to Dolly despite continued rejection isn’t quite held by their childhood declarations – my main quibble lies with the set, which contained at least two pillars that seemed to do nothing but take up space. That designer Hailey Kingston knew what she was doing with the other set elements makes the choice somewhat baffling.

But the issue pales into insignificance when compared to the problematic design of Turning Tables.

Presented by the South African State Theatre, Turning Tables had a ramp set around all three sides of the stage, acting as a barrier that denoted the domestic settings where the action takes place, with the narrow corridor formed on the outside of the ramp the place actors were banished while ‘offstage’.

It was a constantly irritating, and unecessary barrier that forced up to four ‘offstage’ actors at a time to either take up space (and attention) or walk around, up, or over the supposed entrances and exits it created. It was a blocking nightmare and combined with finicky wardrobe changes and things hanging from the ceiling with no purpose except to enclose the already enclosed space, the main purpose of the set seemed to be to get in the way.

What it was getting in the way of, however, wasn’t so grand. The story of infidelity between two couples resembled little so much as a Days of Our Lives episode, only with less depth of character.

They seemed little more than cardboard cut-outs; the rude businessman, his spoilt wife, the imploring pastor, his avaricous wife. I admit there may have been revelations in the seTswana dialogue that I failed to catch but good theatre communicates beyond language and I saw no interrogation or revelation as to why the businessman is impotent, why his wife is so desperate to have a child, or even why the moruti falls so easily for a woman’s wiles.

While the card-playing metaphor may provide a glimpse into a gaming subculture that many of us have passed by, the metaphor itself was as clumsy as the set.

It feels as if writer and director Remaketse Ntoi is trying very hard to express something (and displaying courage and commitment in doing so) but has not reached the essence of it; skirting around the edges of what he wants to say just as his actors are continually having to skirt around the edges of the stage.

Isithunzi, on the other hand, punches straight to the gut, and reveals the power theatre has to make us reassess our world and the society we inhabit.

Sipho Zwake’s script arcs off the shocking event where four white students at the University of the Free State Reitz hostel humiliated black cleaners by coercing them to participate in drinking games, and then fed them a disgusting stew into which one of them had urinated. It was a story that shocked our nation out of its rainbow complacency and forced us to take a hard look at the racism that continues to flourish in our communities.

Isithunzi makes us consider something the media never delved into: what are the effects of such public humiliation on the cleaners’ children?

We face the fallout that affects two brothers whose mother was of the cleaners in the Reitz Four video that was viewed across the country, and how they attempt in different ways to deal with this ball that has been served across their net (yes, tennis makes and appearance).

While director Luthando Mngomezulu could have toned down the melodrama in parts (a tad too much rolling about on the ground and calling after ‘Schalk’), and the depiction of Schalk who is one of the Reitz Four and the only white friend of the rainbow nation-believing brother Scelo is hilarious but rather ham-fisted, Isithunzi not only makes us revisit an event too quickly forgotten in the daily onslaught of news, it makes us reflect beyond the headlines and draws us into the lives of those who were directly affected by the brutally casual racism of a student prank.

I’m not a fan of projection in theatre but its purpose is well served in this play. Seeing parts of that video again after nine years was gut-wrenching. Like the brother Muzi, excellently played by Musawenkosi Kumalo, I wanted to rampage, burn, strike out. It was a jolt of outrage and anger that took effort to contain, and served its purpose in setting the stage.

Isithunzi, like Itsoseng, does not provide solutions, or deliver a message, but give substance to Gumbi’s call for theatre to probe and interrogate society, incorporating protest theatre and moving beyond it. You could call it woke, in the best sense of the term.

Itsoseng, Isithunzi, Turning Tables, and six other plays are performed on the Market Theatre stages on Saturday, 24 June. Tickets cost R30, or see five of the plays for R100. Book here.

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