Pictures: Iris Dawn Parker
February is Black History Month in the US, Canada and the UK for the remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. One Night In Miami by Kemp Powers, directed by artistic director James Ngcobo, is The Market’s way of honouring this observance. The play is based on the fictional retelling of a night shared by four iconic men including Cassius Clay on the verge of converting to Islam and becoming Muhammad Ali; Malcolm X who was at odds with the Nation of Islam; soul singer Sam Cooke; and famous footballer Jim Brown. DIANE DE BEER speaks to the director about his choice:
It’s what the play represents and speaks about and addresses that so excited James Ngcobo. “The meeting is in what has become the iconic Hampton House Motel on February 25 1964. Cassius has just beat Sonny Liston to become the new and youngest world heavyweight champion. In the room are four hugely successful men but in their own country and with all their success, they’re still negroes. It’s a time of madness,” he says.
And from where he is looking now, not much has changed. The similarities between the US and here are obvious he believes and that’s why for example a musical like The Color Purple slots so easily into this timeframe.
Selecting this play while honouring Black History Month is obvious to him. “It’s a new play, was performed in London to great acclaim last year and is a first for the continent. The playwright will be attending a performance during the run,” he says quite nervously about that expectation. For him as a director, it’s also about growth. He talks about a basket of diversity which is what his programming is all about. “We can’t just be one voice.”
What he loves about the play, which is based on a real meeting at the time but is a fictional account of what happened, is that you have four famous black men who would have felt safe in this private space allowing them to speak freely. They love each other and thus spoke frankly, starting out quite jovially yet becoming more confrontational as the night wore on.
There are quite a few tensions in the room between these friends because of the four, Sam Cooke was the one they all believed had a crossover voice – because of the music. “He is the one who would have been heard by everyone,” explains Ngcobo. But he was singing gospel and soul, and according to Malcolm X, not using his power to progress his people. Clay, on the other hand, was having his own struggle and the feelings in the room about especially the Muslim faith, were also bumping against one another.
Ngcobo also talks about the playwright’s ability to play with the celebrity status but also the concerns of the civil rights movement at the time in which this is set and how these famous men were being pulled this way and that – not always in their own interest but because of their popularity pulling power.
These are four men sitting with their own dreams – on the cusp of something we know about but they still have to live through. It’s intriguing stuff and with a powerful cast of young actors, all of them drama graduates, who have been put on this one stage.
In the course of rehearsals, Ngcobo brought in different specialists – Iris Dawn Parker and Dorothy Ann Gould for example – to help with the American accents as well as Gregory Maqoma to choreograph the fights as well as guide them with their movement. “I have never believed that a director can work in isolation,” he says as he points to long-time collaborators Nadya Cohen (design) and Wesley France (lighting).
What he wishes for the Market Theatre it is that it should be the destination of storytelling. “It’s never been about black or white or particular constituencies. I curate with my patron’s eyes. Some they will love and others not and that’s how it should be. We can’t please everyone and do everything.”
“I’m so excited about this new generation of leading men,” he says about the young actors he is working with for this one. From David Johnson (perhaps best known for his role in local soapie 7de Laan) to Sne Dladla (most recently seen as Pop in King Kong), Sipho Zakwe (who wrote and starred in Isithunzi), Richard Lukunku (popular TV and film actor) and Lemogang Tsipa (starred in Craig Freimond’s Beyond the River), these are all young men building their careers and eager to be on stage.
“It’s great to be in the room with such dedication and determination,” says their director. “I know they will honour the work every night and that’s what I’m looking for. The Market is one of the stops in their acting journey and that’s as it should be.”
Part of his mission is to mentor young people as well as doing work which allows them to test new skills and sharpen others.
The Market Theatre Foundation’s Sophie Mgcina Emerging Voice Award is barely five years old and already all its winners are making their mark as they continue to celebrate the indomitable spirit of the late artist, teacher and cultural activist, Sophie Mgcina.
The inaugural winner in 2014, Lulu Mlangeni has just performed in her new production Confined at the Market Theatre. Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, winner in 2015 is currently working in Cape Town as co-director with Neil Coppen in his first opera, Tsotsi, based on Athol Fugard’s work of the same title. Tsotsi which plays at Artscape from February 8 to 17 and will move to the Soweto Theatre at a future date.
The 2016 winner Thandazile Sonia Radebe, is also part of creative team of Tsotsi as the choreographer.
The latest winner, Lesedi Job who made her directorial debut with Mike van Graan’s When Swallows Cry at the Market Theatre in 2017, is currently reviving a new production of the work at the Baxter Theatre and will be directing at the Market Theatre soon.
- One Night in Miami runs at The Market’s John Kani Theatre until February 25.
Some of James Ngcobo’s basket of diversity at The Market this coming year:
- Winner of the 2017 Zwakala Theatre Festival and the 2017 Standard Bank Fringe Ovation Award at the National Arts Festival, the political thriller Dikapapa shines the spotlight on a struggle stalwart who becomes a traitor but is hailed as a hero in a democracy. Dikakapa is co–written by Teboho Serapelo, Isaac Sithole and Lebeko Nketu mentored by Kgafela oa Magogodi starring Karabelo Khaalo, Kholisile Dlamini, Mdengase Govuzela, Mduduzi Mdabuli, Mojabeng Rasenyalo and Thembi Qobo. (February 9 to 25).
- Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking with Dorothy Ann Gould directed by Matthew Graham Wilson. (March 9 to April 1). Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. So begins American writer Joan Didion’s memoir. *
- Lesedi Job directs Meet Me at Dawn by Zinnie Harris starring Pamela Nomvete and Natasha Sutherland. It is a modern fable that explores the triumph of everyday love, the mystery of grief, and the temptation to become lost in a fantasy future in March.
- The Gibson Kente Musical 13 – 29 April 2018 ( the one that was staged at the Soweto Theatre) honours the father of township theatre, who will be remembered in song and dance by a remarkable cast under the direction of Makhaola Ndebele.
- Athol Fugard’s Train Driver which has never been staged at The Market starring John Kani and Albert Pretorius from May 16 to 31. Kani has also written a new play with Michael Richard which will be staged with the two of them later this year.*
- A return of Nongogo directed by James Ngcobo five years ago is restaged from June 15 to July 15.*
- The acclaimed Die Reuk van die Appels based on the Mark Behr award-winning book, starring Gideon Lombard, directed by Lara Bye will run from June 13 to 24.*
- Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love will have a female director and will run from July 8 to 29. (There’s a sudden interest in this late US playwright’s work with Sylvaine Strike directing Curse of the Starving Class for this year’s Woordfees which will hopefully travel to Joburg for a later run.)