Market Theatre

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Creativity, check. Technical astuteness and the ability to communicate ideas through design, check. Great visual awareness, check. There isn’t a prerequisite box that set-designers need to tick that Noluthando Lobese hasn’t. Being a hip black female and with a uniquely dope moniker like Hashtag Texture, she’s an off-kilter set-designer that tells stories authentically.

Lobese is currently the Art Director on the hit drama series, Vula Vala. The show is directed by Mandla N with Tiyane Nyembe as the DP (Director of Photography).

“Having an artistic leader as Mandla N, everyday was a wonderful challenge that my team and myself had to overcome. I think we really did well from transforming spaces to fit within our world to serve the story,” Lobese says.

As art director, Lobese created the world that the audience has been immersed in on the drama series. “From creating our own mealiemeal branding, newspaper branding and logo designs for the  soccer team ( Scorpions team) that includes banners, soccer balls and flags. It was all in the detail that can sometimes be overlooked by the viewer.”

Detail is imperative in this type of work, hence her nickname. “It definitely has to do with my work, telling stories through texture plays a great deal in my work. Texture is everything. It is authentic, through landscapes of texture stories can be told in an authentic visual aesthetic,” Lobese says of her nickname given to her by film director and friend King Shaft.

ALL SMILES: Noluthando Lobese. Photo by Zac Modirapela
ALL SMILES: Noluthando Lobese. Photo by Zac Modirapela

An award-winning designer, Lobese has been in the industry for over a decade now. She was introduced into the world of theatre by renowned set-designer Nadya Cohen.  “I studied fashion, however I’ve been lucky to have met Regina Sebright in 2008 at The Market theatre who introduced me to my mentor Nadya Cohen and James Ngcobo.”

“I design stage and costumes in theatre, production designer in commercials, TV and an art installation artist. I use my hands to create and mould materials that take a different form or shape. I call this work Mutation by using found materials, thread, and wool, plastic and other objects. Theatre and television is more collaborative, bringing a script to life through sets, locations, lighting and costumes. To be inspired and cautious of your surroundings plays a huge role in my work,” Lobese tells me.

Under the guidance of Cohen as set-designer and Ngcobo as director, Lobese made her debut as a costume-designer in 2009 in the production Thirst which was rewritten for a South African context and drew from Nguni mythology, which resonated with the past and the future.

Along with Cohen, Lobese credits Ngcobo for having given her opportunities to learn and immerse herself in the theatre world. “The Market theatre has been my school of design knowledge through the connections and collaborations I’ve made whilst there. Not so many directors are willing to give young designers / talents a chance like James Ngcobo.”

In 2008 Lobese studied in Stockholm Stadsteatern, Sweden as a design apprentice under the mentorship of Charlie Koroly. Four years later she was a designer in Salzburg at the Young Directors Festival as a production designer. She was accepted in New York, at the MacDowell Colony (NH) as an installation artist for work she developed while there, titled What It Is and it continued as an installation piece at Studio X, Johannesburg (GSAPP Columbia University).

OUT AT WORK: Hashtag Texture. Photo by Que Ntuli
OUT AT WORK: Hashtag Texture. Photo by Que Ntuli

She was an observer at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival (Cooperstown) New York. Lobese also worked on the Floating Stage (Bregenz Festspielehaus, Austria, 2013) as a design intern. She was part of the group of artists from ‘JHB Massive’ that went to showcase at The annual street festival in Accra, Ghana 2015.

Lobese is a consummate professional who has earned her stripes through her extensive travels, but even so, she says she still comes across people who don’t give her, her due respect as a working creative. “Being undermined especially the first time people work with you. It’s a constant struggle of convincing and proving yourself. Sometimes it’s because you’re laid back and do not feel the need to be dancing and sell yourself in the most basic way that the industry is expecting. I prefer the work to speak for itself and be given the freedom to create.”

She has a range of work and finds it difficult to say which stands out because the work is all unique, but said “Trapped that I costume designed in 2012, Salzburg Festspiele. It was directed by Zinzi Princess Mhlongo; It was also my first set design which was aired on SABC 1(Life is a stage) we had a crew of film makers (Born free media) documenting the behind the scenes process. A recent one is Rhinoceros which played last year at The Market Theatre.”

“I’ve designed most productions directed by James Ngcobo and have collaborated with various directors and other designers who are the best in the game. This involves working with friends and international collaborators”

Lobese spent her early stages of childhood in the Eastern Cape and then moved to Yeoville where she grew up. Being raised in a cosmopolitan space like Yeotown can nudge one into eccentricity and Lobese wears her oddness well.

She finds Yoga and shooting hoops as some of the best ways of unwinding. “I believe that I’m an inspiration to most people out there, I have not met most of them but they exist. I need a clear mind to keep moving forward and reach my highest, if I don’t do it I will never know how far I can bend my mind and remain fluid,” she says.

THA WOMAN BEHIND THA THA BRAND: Thando rocking one of her U Ts. Photo by Norman Maake
ROCKIN’ MY SHIII: Thando modeling her Unongayindoda Ts. Photo by Norman Maake

Unongayindoda, a term shoved at a girl who is said to be a boy-lookalike, has become Lobese personal task.

Unongayindoda is what I was called by the village community growing up in the Eastern Cape. Most Xhosa girls can relate to the term.  So Unongayindoda is a personal project and for the ones that can relate, I’m embracing the term. It is time we embrace shameful words that have been given to us through hate. The same way we have learned to love Soweto even though it was not by choice to vacate Sophiatown,”she says.

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When the truth becomes a source of shame, something has gone terribly wrong with a society that vilifies one for their honesty. Fezekile Kuzwayo, known as Khwezi, was in that vulnerable position. Playwright Napo Masheane explores her story in KHWEZI…Say (my) her name.

Sitting adjacent the window that allows us a scenic view of the M1 highway, I have a chat with the renowned poet at the den of the old and retired, Mugg & Bean in Killarney, Johannesburg. There is synchrony between Masheane’s mannerisms, the countless vehicles driving past in the background and the lunchtime chatter around us within the eatery.

Throughout her work, Masheane has celebrated women, inspired largely by those in her family. Be it her mother, grandmothers, aunts or cousins- who never treat her like a celebrity. “They see me on TV and I’m still gonna go home and wash mogudu; but with the same breath, they tell me that I’m doing well. But ko hae, they are loud. They inspire me because I listen to their gossip and I put it on stage,” she says.

Her current work, Khwezi, doesn’t veer off the conversation around womenfolk she’s maintained in her career. But this play highlights the strain that women go through, literally at the hands of us men in the form of abuse; be it sexual, physical, emotional or economical.

South Africa has a rape culture that’s among the highest in the world. The police recorded a total of 39,828 rapes in 2016/17, down from 41,503 in 2015/16. An average of 109.1 rapes were recorded each day.

“It’s my best work of all time and the best script ever. I want whoever that walks in, to walk out feeling different after watching the play.”

KHWEZI…Say (my) her name is a play written and directed by Masheane that was inspired by the poignant book written by Redi Tlhabi, KHWEZI…The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo.

 

“At some point I thought, ‘I’ve written about beauty and image, I’ve written about the 1950s era, the passbooks and the Sophiatown era from a woman perspective (that’s what my thesis was on), New Song was the women’s march and other works’. There are things as a writer that draw your attention.”

Masheane says the stories of Karabo Mokoena and Meisie Molefe, who were both burnt to death by their boyfriends and that she had just done Fat Songs For My Girlfriends, a collection of poems about abuse, were things that inspired her to do something around the story of Ntsukela who was allegedly raped by former president Jacob Zuma. “I was like, I need to write a play about this,” she says biting her lower lip, with eyes squinting out the window.

“…I’m one of those people, I do something, and once I’ve served it or it’s served me, I move on.”

Also, Phumla Gqola’s book Rape: A South African Nightmare came out around 2015, followed by Tlhabi’s. “Also, I remember years ago Kanga and the Kangaroo Court ya Mmatshilo [Motsei] came out, and the idea of doing something[around rape] has always been in the back of my mind.”

 

By the tenth page of reading Tlhabi’s book, Masheane had already been visualizing scenes and hearing lines. “I could hear dialogue, see stage placements…I was highlighting and marking sections in the book,” she says. Done with the book within days, she told her then bosses at the Sate Theatre, that she wants to do the play Khwezi.

She needed to have clarity on what she wants to say through the play because Zuma was still president of the country at the time. “Because once you’re in, you can’t come out of this.”

Acquiring the rights for the book proved to be a bit of drag as she couldn’t get through to Tlhabi. “I sent her an email and she didn’t respond for about three weeks, then sent another and still, nothing. Only to find that I didn’t have the correct email address.” She ended up contacting her on Twitter.

After a while the two met. “She was like ‘there’s no way I’m gonna say no to you. I know your work’ and there was just mutual respect between us. The minute she said ‘yes’, I started structuring and organising the work because I had already started writing. I then took a leave from work and in the midst of that, the guy [Zuma] was recalled.”

The recall never affected the work itself. “Once I had made that decision, I had made it. Whether he was still president or not I was still gonna do it.”

“I think the level of being scared was better, in bringing me comfort that I’m not dealing with the president, but I’m dealing with the ex-president. Even if he attacks me now, he’s not the first citizen of the country anymore. But also, in terms of the ministers from his cabinet, the shuffle also happened. I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with certain people individually that supported him.”

“As a writer, you get to a point where you either say it or you don’t. The minute you decide you’re gonna say it, you’re not in control of the tone and you can’t cover the truth.”

She had support from State Theatre head, Dr. Sibongiseni Mkhize who told her that if the government want to get to her, they’ll first have to fire him, then fire Artistic Director Aubrey Sekhabi before getting to her.

“So when he was recalled it wasn’t an issue anymore. It was about how do I, do justice to this story. It’s a very serious story-there’s no nice way of writing about rape. It’s not one rape, it’s so multi-layered.”

Masheane views Ntsukela as a brave woman that came forward when most women wouldn’t have, because of fear of intimidation. “We all need to say her name because yes ke Khwezi, but that name was loaned, it’s not her name. So to separate the book from the play, I cancelled out the ‘her’ on the flyer, and wrote ‘my’- she embodies so many of us, so we need to say our names because Khwezi is a name we’ve all taken upon.”

 

 

 

She just left her job as the Deputy Artistic Director at the State Theatre, which she held for a year.“It wasn’t tedious, but there was a lot of administration, logistics-it was almost like project managing the arts daily.  I’ve learnt a lot and I appreciate the fact that I did it, also, I think it’s very important for any theatre maker or artist to go on the administrative or business side. I mean, before I even became a poet or got on stage to perform, I was an intern for two years ko Market Theatre.”

Her internship meant getting her hands dirty and learning about technical things such as stage management, lighting, building sets, painting stages and even sweeping stages. “So by the time I got to perform, I had so much appreciation for the stage and for everyone working, especially behind the scene. I knew that someone who makes you tea, is as important as someone who does lighting for you on stage,” says Masheane.

“I’m happy I did it,” she says of her short time at the State Theatre which meant leaving her company Gossip Village Productions, which she’s been running for 11 years with her partners. “You learn about contracts-more than I had known. You learn the language…there’s a lot of bureaucracy, because it’s a government institution. Also, you operate with people at a different level, you no longer just a performer or writer, you’re the person who can give somebody work, so people start viewing you differently.”

“But at some point, I got to say ‘well, is this what I wana do forever?’ and I’m one of those people, I do something, and once I’ve served it or it’s served me, I move on.”

She is one of the few women who’ve now done the 360 degree in the theatre space. From the technical side, admin, directorial and even performance. In 2015 she wrote, produce and directed a play called A New Song at the Market Theatre Main’s stage (John Kani Theatre),  her first solo work My Bum Is Genetic, So Deal With It! which came out in 2006 is one of her most popular work including Feela Sista and Fat Black Women Sing just to mention a few. One of her monologues, Mama The Storm Is Outside, was chosen to be performed by leading actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor (of 12 Years A Slave) at Royal Court in London.

Masheane has freelanced as a consultant to almost every theatre in South Africa for almost 20 years now. She is smart enough to embrace the system, yet simultaneously adequately eccentric to disrupt it.  She says she wants to be an art scientist and is contemplating a PhD in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies. “The reality is that, it doesn’t matter how much you know until you formalize it,” she says.

Part of her contract as Artistic Director at the State Theatre, was that she would stage a show at the theatre within that year, which will now happen next month when Khwezi premiers. “Actually, I’m happy that I left three months before Khwezi comes in because I don’t think I would’ve gone deeper into it as I have.”

The common thread in Masheane’s work is her provocativeness and she believes this play carries that too, but says Khwezi is her most important work yet. “It’s my best work of all time and the best script ever. I want whoever that walks in, to walk out feeling different after watching the play.”

“If they’ve not dealt with the Fezekile story or rape in any particular manner, they should be challenged, provoked or moved enough, for that hour and a half of the play, to deal with it. I want them to realize the extent of what this does to women. So the hissing, whistles on the street, the situations at work where men use their power to sleep with women…-people should feel the need to change, and for me that’s the premise of theatre.”

She has roped in percussionist Azah, who is a protégée of Dr Philip Tabane’s famous band Molombo, to be musical director. While Luyanda Sidiya who’s known for creating SIVA commissioned by the Standard Bank Arts and the National Arts Festival, will choreograph the play. Both joined the Khwezi production after just one meeting with Masheane, because of the magnitude of the story.

· KHWEZI…Say (my) her name opens on the 25th July to 12th August 2018 at South African State Theatre – Arena Theatre. Tickets available at computicket.co.za


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