The Continent Comes Alive with the Storytelling of Nigerian Chigozie Obiama’s The Fishermen at Jozi’s Market


Youngsters at play1
Youngsters (Warren Masemola and Siyabonga Thwala) at play

Pictures: Lungelo Mbulwana

In search of our continent and thus celebrating its stories, artistic director of The Market James Ngcobo was excited when he discovered a new writer whose work had been adapted for stage and could be explored and examined. DIANE DE BEER experiences Nigerian storytelling in dramatic fashion:


There’s been a rich vein of African writing the the past decade, with Chigozie Obiama from Nigeria with his debut The Fishermen regarded as one of the most promising to emerge in the past few years.

When James Ngcobo, artistic director of The Market, finished reading the novel, he knew straight away that he wanted to stage this particular piece.

It has long been a gripe of his that African work is featured more widely in the rest of the world than in South Africa. Having staged Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel and Sunjata, a Malian story he both wrote and directed a few years back, he feels it is something he wishes to promote in an  ongoing fashion.

This time he curated a continental season with the eye on a country in which the narrative is changing constantly. Starting off last month with Frontières, written and mentored by Bobby Rodwell, directed by Mmabatho Montsho, he describes it as testimonial theatre with immigrants/refugees to this country telling their stories of hardship, inhospitability and simply being obstructed in any attempt to make their stay a legal one.

These stories are rife, the way people have suffered to get here, only to find they are not wanted. With the current refugee crisis across the world and the inability of governments to deal with this, spotlighting our own harsh ways in the wake of Africa welcoming our exiles in the past, is illuminating.

And to base this on research on migration and the status of African foreign nationals in South Africa that began in 2005, is also valuable because of the depth of the testimonies.

Warren masemola (left) and Siyabonga Thwala into their storytelling
Warren Masemola (left) and Siyabonga Thwala into their storytelling

The Fishermen is completely different and falls more in Ngcobo’s explanation that “we need to tell stories that highlight the daily lives of people, the events in the countries they come from, the need to get up, jump over hurdles and move on”.

There’s a folktale quality to the way the story is told. Ngcobo was very specific about his choice of actors, who need special qualities to pull this one off. Not only are the two actors playing all four brothers that populate this play, they also have to perform all the other characters that appear, including their parents.

Warren Masemola and Siybonga Thwala1
Warren Masemola and Siybonga Thwala

Ngcobo regular Siyabongo Thwala, who can switch to a younger version of himself with a face of perfect innocence, and the flexible Warren Masemola, in both gait and mentality, are the ideal cast as they move between the different personalities to tell their stories of this troubled family.

Even though there’s a comedic element because of the writing and the performance, the work itself is much more complex than it seems on the surface. It is the story of four Nigerian brothers – the eldest 15 and the youngest 9 – who take advantage of their father’s absence when he moves to another town for work, to play hooky while going fishing in a river that because of its deterioration is forbidden.

With a mother who finds it tough to control her sons as she runs her own business, all kinds of external factors take control of their lives. It’s about a close-knit family, brotherly love and devotion and a trust that is broken. There’s also a hint of the Cain/Abel story with many biblical references as well as traditions and beliefs that can rule and ruin people.

And as the family stand, the cycle of violence once set into motion and spinning out of control, a larger vision emerges of a country and where it might be heading.

The Fishermen
The Staging of The Fishermen

Like with Ngcobo’s Sunjata which was also driven more than anything by storytelling, there’s a folkloric quality to it. One almost expects it to kick off with a once upon a time…

It all lies in the words and the telling. When Ngcobo speaks about the piece and especially the writing, he expresses his love of the author’s way with language which for him has a sound and feel of Yoruba rather than English.

This is enhanced in quite comical fashion by the accents (in which the actors have been guided by accent coach Dike Sam). “We needed to tone it down so that audiences didn’t battle too much but with some of the more over-the-top characters, we turn it up,” says the director.

It takes a moment just to adjust your ears, but that has the added bonus of finetuning your focus and taking you right into the heart of the piece.

And together with the accent, it is all in the writing, the descriptions and the telling of the story. To make this come to life, it needed the playfulness and skills of the two actors who have to leap back into their youthful past while in-between taking on adult mode for the colourful telling of this in-the- end very tragic tale.

With this Masemola’s first appearance at The Market in 10 years, his confidently comical and often on the edge performance comes as quite a surprise. A delightful one indeed, with his actions matching his words. And he very early on announces his intent when after an admonishment from his “brother”, he plays his “Mommy” with an exaggerated swing of the arms and legs.

But its also his vocal ability as he turns the volume on and off to make a point or to relay an emotion that spectacularly adds to the fun of the piece – even as devastation sets in.

Similarly yet in clever contrast, Thwala’s colouring is much more mischievous, which works well with his features, (big eyes that grow bigger with the drama) and the two manage to tell a tale in quite mesmerising fashion.

Warreen Masemola in contemplation
Warren Masemola in contemplation in character

Ngcobo drew on his love for storytelling, allowing the characters to draw the pictures of our imagination but also helping in the detail with smart projections which tell a story of mood and sometimes melancholy.

With atmospheric lighting, costumes that reflect the characters as well as sound, all adding to the drama, its like stepping back in time and into another world which is exactly what the director was hoping for and what storytelling dreams of doing.

It’s about our stages reflecting the continent (amongst others), storytelling in a different guise with words that paint novel pictures.

My only critique would be a slightly shorter version to make it smartly slim.

  • The Fishermen will be on at the Market’s Mannie Manim Theatre until August 4.