Pictures: THANDILE ZWELIBANZI
It is diversity which strikes you when you look at the start of the 2020 theatre year at The Market. DIANE DE BEER speaks to artistic director James Ngcobo about his first production for Black History Month (a collaboration in its fifth year with the US Embassy in South Africa) which starts on January 31, but also checks what else is on offer:
It has been a longtime dream of James Ngcobo to stage Paradise Blue, which he describes as a “dynamic, jazz-infused drama by award-winning African American playwright Dominique Morisseau about what’s at stake when building a better future”.
In a recent YouTube documentary on the gentrification of Los Angeles which in this instance affected an African American suburb also described as the heart of jazz in the city, longtime residents were complaining how they were being pushed out of their own neighborhood. The inference was clear, as soon as the suburb becomes white, it’s time for those who created the vibe in the first place to leave. They can’t afford it any longer anyway.
Similar scenes play out in Paradise Blue, which captures the yearning of individuals sidelined by life into the role of second-class citizens living and working in a black neighbourhood on the cusp of obliteration as part of the city’s plan to eliminate “blight”. The characters face issues that will resonate today worldwide and specifically with South African audiences while enlightening them about similar struggles faced by low-income inner-city communities around the world.
Ngcobo had this one in mind for a few years and has assembled a young dream cast, all of whom he has worked with before. “It’s about collaboration,” says Ngcobo, which played into his choices.
One of his favourite leading men, Aubrey Poo, plays Blue, a castrated character whose life is in a rut. “He wants it all, his women and his club, yet his is a life of limitations. It looks at patriarchy but also hierarchy, which all come into play,” notes Ngcobo.
It’s a tough piece and he needed a seasoned cast who could pick up the vibe and develop it quickly. “Tight funding determines short rehearsal times,” he explains. The supporting cast includes Pakamisa Zwedala (A Raisin in the Sun) and Seneliso Dladla (One Night In Miami) as his fellow band members P-Sam and Corn. Busisiwe Lurayi (Nina Simone in F our Women) will play the naïve Pumpkin and another regular collaborator Lesedi Job (A Raisin in the Sun as well as many other performances and directing) as the threatening Silver.
Apart from honouring Black History Month, Ngcobo pays further homage to his love of telling stories with a strong musical element and while it doesn’t feature that strongly in the original play, it’s something that resonates in much of his work as he uses music as another voice to embellish the story.
He also wanted to move away from stories about Rosie Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, all of whom have been celebrated in previous Black History Month performances. This season start tomorrow and runs until March 1 in the John Kani Theatre at The Market, Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.
In the meantime, things are pumping at the Market Theatre Complex. The award-winning Dop directed by Sylvaine Strike and starring André Odendaal and Wilhelm van der Walt has just finished a short run, and playwright William Harding – whose previous work has included the adaptation of the hugely successful Tobacco and the Harmful Effects Thereof; The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri and most recently Twelve Years a Poet based on the poetry of Vus’umuzi Pakhati – makes his debut as a professional director at the Market Theatre with his play, The Kings of the World.
As is Ngcobo’s practice, he loves giving young artists a chance, but lends them a strong guiding hand, in this instance, director/actor Robert Whitehead, who will be mentoring the project.
The play is described as a dark comedy about the ineptitude and desperation of our times. It takes place during one night in a suburban garden cottage, where two friends and a roommate confront their neuroses and inadequacies as the night unravels around them.
Harry arrives uninvited at his friend’s cottage. David, having recently returned from a trip to Paris has become somewhat reclusive and reluctantly invites him in. David reveals he has a job opening as a freelance online copywriter. And Harry immediately wants to be part of the action.
However, complications around the job soon arise and are further compounded when David’s drunken roommate returns. As paranoia and desperation take over, the situation becomes tense and threatens to boil over into a dangerous conclusion. The cast includes Harding, Chris Djuma and Kaz MacFadden.
Currently running, the season ends on February 16 at the Barney Simon with performances from Tuesday to Saturday at 8.15pm and on Sundays at 3.15pm.
Finally there’s an award-winning play by Victor Gordon, Brothers, that reflects the serious side of family tragedies that tear families apart and the fundamental human truths about families haunted by past occurrences.
Again, Ngcobo combines youth and experience with actor Francois Jacobs, who makes his directing debut mentored by the award-winning actor and director, Mncedisi Shabangu, an alumnus of the Market Theatre Laboratory.
And to add to the productivity, Shabangu is also currently starring in Vuka Machel (with three shows left, tonight and tomorrow night at 815 and Sunday at 315pm) a revolutionary comedy told by two chicken thieves from Kanyamazane, just outside Nelspruit in Mpumalanga.
In this rollicking storytelling romp, Machel wakes from the dead to find his wife married to Mandela and Mozambique suffering. He challenges Mandela to all sorts of fights. The biggest mistake he makes is to agree to a negotiation at the World Trade Centre where Mandela challenges him to a boxing match. (Mandela is notorious for winning all his 50 fights through negotiations.)
Originally created in 1998 and the winner of an FNB Vita Award for Best Director in 2003, Vuka Machel was last performed as a one-off presentation as part of the Market Lab’s 30-year celebrations this year, where it received such an enthusiastic response that it was clear that it needed a longer season.
Written and directed by Market Lab alumnus Shabangu, and performed by Shabangu (who is an absolute treat to watch as his face and whole body all go into performance mode) and Xolile Gama (who is the fall guy), the play is a funny and insightful commentary on the lives and philosophies of two of Africa’s most influential leaders. But just in general, pushing all the boundaries, it’s a blast and perfect for the start of a year.
And for Brothers, there’s further excitement with a cast which includes Dawid Minnaar who is joyously becoming a regular at The Market supported by an exciting and quite novel cast including Drikus Volschenk, David James, Gustav Gerderner and Ruan Wessels.
It’s also worth taking note of Karabo Legoabe’s impressive and authentic set.
Brothers is a family drama set in the Eastern Cape in the 1950s. It is a harsh existence and the story focuses on the return of a brother who had mysteriously disappeared 18 years earlier. The story reflects both the social strata and attitudes that exist within a poor white family who eked out a meagre existence in this desolate part of the world. As one can imagine, the brother’s return unearths all kinds of family secrets and frustrations that have remained hidden all these years, and the results are unexpected and dramatic.
Brothers runs until February 24 in the Mannie Manim Theatre concluding the first clutch of plays at the Market Theatre in 2020. It’s one to experience more than anything for the debut of a young director and an excellent cast.
It’s a strong starting salvo and promises much for the rest of the year.
Bring on the women…