“WHAT I fear is that the liberators emerge as elitists, who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and use resources of this country to live in palaces and to gather riches,” said the late Chris Hani.
That quote rushed at me, as I read through the Woza Albert! press release, about the classic play by Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa showing at the State Theatre.
Woza Albert! explores how the second coming of Christ (Morena) would affect the lives of poor black people, and how white apartheid authorities would react. Although the play was created over 40 years ago, it still reverberates hard-hitting truth as it did during apartheid.
The play presents a compelling view of a multitude of black and white characters as they explore themes of race and class and expose the power structures of white supremacy. It concludes with a call for Christ (Morena) to raise the dead heroes and leaders who fought against apartheid.
The likes of Hani, Bantu Biko and Mangaliso Sobukwe would be perplexed by the fact that black people remain impoverished, still grapple with white supremacy and the rise of black elitists. “Even in the current democratic climate, the question that was asked by Ngema and Mtwa during the days of apartheid is still relevant. There is a lot going on in our maturing democracy which arguably makes those who died with a revolutionary sword to turn in their rested graves,” said State Theatre CEO, Dr Sibongiseni Mkhize in the press release.
“Constant contestation over the meaning and direction of the new South Africa’s socio-economic and political dispensation, the debilitating effects of corruption and relentless economic inequalities, are some of the things that perhaps await the second coming of Morena!”
Woza Albert! made its return to South African theatres late last year, commencing at Durban’s Playhouse Company then headed to the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. With its original cast and crew- Director John Christopher, lighting Designer Mannie Manim and stage manager Dickson Malele- Woza Albert! has and will be at the State Theatre throughout the month of March.
It is said that it’s not about how thick the book is, but about the knowledge you get in those thick books. With less than 70 pages to it, Surviving Loss is as thin as they come. It is a collection of poems written by Busisiwe Mahlangu about her abuse-ridden childhood.
The physical copy of Surviving Loss is a reflection of Mahlangu. Petite and pretty on the outside, but weighing so much because of the accumulated experiences in the inside. “It was written solely around surviving depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of the issues there are around poverty, abuse, rape and violence, and it’s written in a style of searching for healing,” she says.
Chilling on brown leather couches at Black, a restaurant at Pretoria’s State Theatre, I have a two-on-one with Mahlangu and Palesa Olifant. The latter is the director of the play, Surviving Loss-an adaptation of Mahlangu’s book, which opens at the Pretoria theatre today.
The book and the play are more than just close to Mahlangu’s heart, they are her. The abuse she writes about in the book is something she experienced growing up at the hands of her father. When I ask about her dad’s thoughts on the book, with a straight face the poet from Mamelodi says “My father is dead. He passed away end of Grade 10, in 2012. No, it was not good. In all the mental issues, my father always shows up during therapy, during relationships. It was a very violent relationship. Most of the abuse I talk about, is the abuse from my father.”
“I don’t like talking about the specifics of the abuse, but it was physical and emotional,” she tells me. She grew up with both parents, two older siblings and a younger one. “With abuse and violence that happens in the house, everyone gets abused and gets violated in a way. Even my mom went through the abuse, and she was aware that we’re feeling the pain and are being abused. But to an extent, it’s kinda difficult when you’re going through the same thing, it’s not like someone from the outside walking in and saying ‘oh, this is so hard’ and then saves us. It’s different when someone is living in the abuse.”
It was only when she got to Wits that she sought therapy from school, after a friend advised her to seek help from professionals. She only spent years at Wits, then got excluded because of outstanding fees. That’s when her poetry became more of a catharsis, even though she had been writing since high school, the 23-year-old had no inclinations of becoming a poet.
The poems on Surviving Loss date back to 2015. “When I left high school my poetry became more personal, writing more about things that I experience, see and feel. In 2016 is when I started performing, I took poetry more serious.”
“I was studying electrical engineering at Wits. I entered slams because they said you can win R500 and I was a broke student. So I thought, since I do write I might take advantage of the platform”
After her exclusion, she entered the Tshwane Speak Out Loud competition where she made it the finals, and walked away with a big cheque. “R30 000 could’ve paid for my debts at Wits and allowed me to continue with my studying. But poetry was setting my soul on fire, it made me feel lively,” she says without a drop of oomph missing. She decided to put the money into studying Creative Writing at UNISA.
“Then last year, Vangile Gantsho asked for my manuscript of poetry, and when I sent it to her she said ‘we’re publishing you’ and at the time I didn’t know they were opening a publishing company.” The book is published by Impepho Press.
Reception of the book has been amazing, Mahlangu has done readings across the country. “I didn’t think I’d get to experience so many things. I grew up in Gauteng and whenever I left the province, was whether for a wedding or funeral or some big event in Mpumalanga. But within a year into poetry, I was travelling to Cape Town and other provinces and seeing more of South Africa. I was wowed, and I keep getting surprised with the journey poetry has taken me.”
She had been praying to be part of State Theatre’s Incubator program, and then last year she received a call to come to the theatre’s offices. “When I got there, they told me about the incubator but first, they wanted to have an idea of what I will do. I knew I wanted to adapt the book for stage.”
“I knew I want it to be called after the book because every title I came up with, it didn’t feel like it was strong enough. The title of the book was very strong and every other title that came to us at the time, felt like it was underplaying it.”
The play’s director, Olifant says images shot at her as soon as she began reading Surviving Loss. “Her writing is very raw, and I think that’s the thing I enjoyed most about reading the book, because of how raw and relatable it is, it’s sharp. You can’t ignore it. Those images stick out. Coming into the space, I wasn’t trying to make work that’s polished and pure, I wanted to stay true to her voice. It’s so fragmented and that’s how memories are,” says the director.
Olifant continues “She’s talking about so much, that we actually had to make it smaller; we had to find specific points to focus on, so relationships with her father and men, her admiration and the tensions between her, her mother and female members of her family-how all those inform her healing. Then we found music and dance that could speak to what that journey looks like. Basically, adaptation of the book into a production has been about finding her voice through the music, through the movement and through the poetry as well.”
Mahlangu performs her poetry for the play, with Susan Nkatha doing the choreography and a musician, Darlianoh who wrote original music for the piece. “I was very direct. I wanted a black woman director. A young black woman director to direct the piece. I didn’t want someone who’s older and established, besides the fact that I couldn’t afford them [bursting into laughter], but I wanted a young black woman director, and on stage I wanted young black women as well.”
“…the piece is very intimate and I don’t think a man would be able to access some level of intimacy that was needed for the piece because of the different experiences, also some of the poems speak directly to men.”
“I’d be okay with a man coming and giving an opinion, but not the man adapting the whole production. I needed someone who could relate to what I was talking about. As women we share most of our suffering with each other, even if you haven’t experienced it, you kinda understand.”
The play is on for two nights at State Theatre, at 20:00
For actress Nompumelelo Mayiyane, giving Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, better known Khwezi, a voice and face beyond her grave was what lured her into playing the role of the deceased in the play, KHWEZI…Say (my) her name, which opens tonight at the State Theatre.
“I was drawn by the desire to find true resolve with the story beyond the court room. I loved that the story speaks to the person Fezekile was and not just a specific event in her life,” Mayiyane says.
The play is written and directed by playwright Napo Masheane. It’s an adaptation of Redi Tlhabi’s KHWEZI…The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. “I connect with her artistic nature, her joyous spirit despite various events in her life. Her bravery, I love that vulnerability is not a fear for her,” says Mayiyane of her connection to Kuzwayo.
The actress is an accomplished thespian in her own right, having been part of productions such as Africa Umoja, Songs of Jazz town, Too much punch for Judy, Rock of ages, Mad buddies and Little one.
But she says this will be her first time working with Masheane. “I’ve known her since I was 13 years-old. We travelled to America in a cultural exchange in the arts together. She was a mentor on the project and I was one of the 12 African children selected for the project.”
Another novelty, is her potrayal of a rape victim on stage or camera and say preparing for the role hasn’t been problematic. “Unfortunately preparing for such a role in South Africa is not hard because rape is a reality for so many women here, it surrounds us. We all know at least one or two people in our intimate setting, who have experienced this trauma.”
“I think the challenge and greater responsibility for me is displaying the women beyond these events in her life. So, she’s remembered for who she is, not just a rape victim.”
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