Asinamali!: The burning continues

The cast of Asinamali! brought the house down. At the end of the packed show at the rehearsal room at 1820 Settlers Monument, the audience were so hyped up that a group of elders left the theatre in procession, singing and ululating – asinamali, asinamali….

Written by Mbongeni Ngema, the musical drama traces the gripping tales of five black prisoners during apartheid South Africa. We journey with them as they narrate their experiences of protest, job searches, love affairs and the crimes for which they have been convicted. The drama is anchored by its clever use of satire and music, but the cadence is so fast that at times it feels disorienting, making it difficult to follow each meta-narrative.

Beneath the surface of the captivating song and dance is the unravelling of the politics of the time the play was written. Asinamali! was inspired by the 1983 rent strike led by the activist Msizi Dube in the Lamontville township in Durban. Asinamali – We have no money – became an important slogan, a gesture of resistance behind which black residents could rally. And ofcourse the pleas of asinamali reverberate decades into democracy as students continue to protest financial exclusion from institutions of higher education.

Performed in this context, nearly forty years after the events that inspired it, Asinamali! reveals a kind of crisis of both space and time. Some of the narratives told by the prisoners were relevant then as they are now — how the unhoused survive by sleeping in public spaces as they search for work, the continued policing of black bodies, high crime rates, and unfair distribution of land and economic resources.

This iteration of the play at the 2022 National Arts Festival is performed by an all women cast. Liza Mogorosi, Nondumiso Mbetha, Onica Motone, Lebohang Nthoba, Girly Louw and Verelyn Witbooi offer a passionate and engaging performance. They are dynamic, inspired and quite simply brilliant. With each gesture, song and witty remark, they carry the audience with them, making us feel each emotion deeply.

The play is beautiful but the country continues to burn. Asinamali!

Remaining performances of Asinamali! will take place on July 1st at 12pm, July 2nd at 2pm and July 2nd at 8.30pm.

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