Cantos of a Life in Exile: Simplicity of the soul’s song

Simplicity can be deceptive. Zero, for instance, seemingly containing the simplicity of nothing, contains infinity, as does one, which can be replaced by ‘a’, as in: a universe.

So it is with Makhaola Ndebele’s Cantos of a Life in Exile, a seemingly simple theatrical work in which one man sits, his torso and limbs often near-motionless, telling autobiographical stories from his life. Yet clearly, a boy with Ndebele as a surname growing up in Lesotho, could never be a simple matter, although it is only after returning to Lesotho after a few years in the USA, that Makhaola the boy is confronted with the conflict, creating another exile within his homeland.

It is never stated, but it is presumed his Lesotho birth and boyhood was a result of his parents’ exile from a 1980s apartheid state; we are led to know his father was an academic and his mother a human rights activist. How is a boy, born in Lesotho, with Sotho his home language, to respond when his affinity to the country of his birth is questioned? And how does such a question undermine a sense of identity at an age when identity is a foundational issue?

This is partially answered in the play’s denoument which, if the play were a poem, would be the one point at which the canto, and the space deliniating the cantos, merge into a new form, which is all but impossible in print, but returns us to the complexity of the seemingly simple zero. In print, the space deliniating cantos is blank, a zero that gives meaning to the whole. In performance, that empty space can be performed, and is.

Separating the cantos, each of which are a scene selected from Makhaola’s life as a boy or young man, is a raptor in flight; an image of emptiness demarcated by that which embodies it.

Similarly, Makhaola in performance, seems suspended in space. His chair, draped in a baSotho blanket, elevated by a stage upon the stage, he is surrounded by darkness, which can imagined to be infinite.

It is more than the single light drawing us to him. He has magnetism. His visage, his bearing, are both regal and amiable, a charismatic combination which gives weight to the stories he tells.

He does stumble though, a number of times. A hesitation as if there is a step to be taken before the next word issues forth. A hesitation that brings to mind an effort to remember what is next rather than a dramatic pause. For if it were a dramatic pause, it would be in a very strange place. The resulting concern that all the lines have not been sufficiently committed to memory, creates an unwanted tension, and raises a question as to whether the ocassional repetition of sentences is a stalling technique for memory, or a deliberate evocation of the songs of the field: the blues.

While the music stand, placed before him to his right, is a reference to the canto – Latin derivative being ‘song’ – it offers nothing beyond the nod and is otherwise extraneous. The series of cantos, however, individually alluring, collectively create a poetic performance from a part of one life containing multitudes.

Cantos of a Life in Exile plays at Theatre Arts in Observatory, Cape Town until Sunday 20 August

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