For Artistic Director of The Market James Ngcobo, Theatre Is All About Diversity

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Lerato Mvelase, Busi Lurayi, director James Ngcobo, Mona Monyane Skenjana and Noxolo Dlamini Picture: Brett Rubin

Into the second month of 2019 and things are pumping at Joburg’s Market Theatre where artistic director James Ngcobo has staged Nina Simone Four Women to celebrate Black History Month with this South African premiere. He speaks to DIANE DE BEER about his future plans in this, his second term, at this iconic theatre:

 

For James Ngcobo, Nina Simone Four Women written by Christina Ham, one of a quartet of hot female playwrights in the US currently, means many different things. Presented in conjunction with the US Mission in SA, he believes strongly in staging this kind of work which forms part of the Market’s 6th annual commemoration of Black History Month.

It’s all about the message, telling the story and the four actresses on stage who will be portraying different aspects of Nina Simone, as the title indicates. “The play is based on four characters Simone created in a song,” explains Ngcobo who sees this as an exploration of the landscape of women.

It was Nina Simone who said: “Music can’t just be about the art, but it has to be an expression of the good, bad and ugly in life.” A staunch activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, she wrote songs that told stories of people she observed in everyday life. It is because of that truth that her music still resonates so strongly today, argues Ngcobo.

On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone’s career shifted from artist to artist/activist because she believed as an artist it was her responsibility to reflect the times. And in this sacred place, four little girls lost their lives.

Nina Simone Four Women is set in the sadness of the church and also uses the framework of one of Simone’s most blistering songs Four Women to portray a quartet of women who suffered from self-hatred due to the different shades of their skin. As if being black in those times in that place wasn’t damning enough, they further judged themselves on the light- or darkness of their skin.

It’s also about the conversations between the four women. It’s about who they are, how they fight the battle, how they escape for solace – and in the background lingers the death of four little girls. For Ngcobo, this story from the past reverberates with the racism of our time.

“Nina made a choice when she started speaking out. She knew that talking about some of the things she did was to the detriment of her career, but that’s what she had to do,” he notes. And like her songs, this play is also all about storytelling. “That’s why her music still has impact today,” he says.

His cast includes Busi Lurayi as Nina (who brought a flippancy to her audition that caught the director’s eye), Lerato Mvelase (who starred in Colour Purple and King Kong, as Auntie Sarah who is only interested in her livelihood, daily washing and ironing), Mona Monyane Skenjana (who was part of his Coloured Museum cast and he’s been wanting to work with again) and Noxolo Dlamini (representing youth and thus hope) as the four women in the title. There’s also a young piano player representing Simone’s brother who tinkles away in the background – as well as two extra singers.

Nina Simone Four Women is staged in the main, John Kani Theatre until February 24, while storytelling of another kind is playing in the Mannie Manim Theatre.

zane meas and christo davids director of van wyk the storyteller of riverlea
Actor Zane Meas and Christo Davids director of Van Wyk The Storyteller of Riverlea

Van Wyk the Storyteller of Riverlea was created and is performed by well-known South African actor Zane Meas and directed by Christo Davids. These two have a previous links with Van Wyk as they both played in Janice Honeyman’s 2008 adaptation of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy which performed to full houses at the Market Theatre. This is the 5th time that they will be working together on stage in a partnership that spans over 12 years.

Anyone who has read Van Wyk’s books will know that he was foremost a storyteller. This particular piece explores his influences as a poet, as political activist and writer, his family life and his tragic battle with cancer.  It is an homage to his humour, political values and storytelling abilities, all of which add texture to the piece and insight into the writer’s life. (see review).

nailed starring khulu skenjana, aya mpama, katlego letsholonyane, zesuliwe hadebe and lunga khuhlane
Nailed starring Khulu Skenjana, Aya Mpama, Katlego Letsholonyane, Zesuliwe Hadebe and Lunga Khuhlane.

In the Barney Simon Theatre Nailed will premiere from February 8 to March 3. The production is sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture’s Incubation Fund, aimed at assisting emerging practitioners to hone their skills from amateur to professional status.

If you want to tell the naked truth about post-apartheid South Africa, better do it through fiction believes The Market’s artistic director. Author Niq Mhlongo has long been a Ngcobo favourite and he believes he masters his art brilliantly.

His latest work, Soweto Under the Apricot Tree is a collection of short stories about contemporary Soweto, Johannesburg and South Africa and the one that caught Ngcobo’s attention. The stories are an account of township life with commentary on post-apartheid South Africa still grappling with many of the issues emanating from our past. “Every township house always had an apricot tree,” reminisces Ngcobo.

 It is a story about abuse of political power, infidelity and violence. It deals with corrupt, greedy and selfish politicians who are in the business not for the people but for self aggrandisement and personal gain.

This country knows better than many how behavior impacts on the lives of ordinary people and how it affects the morale of a country. That’s why this one will be fun to watch with an engaged audience as well as writing that comes alive on stage.

Nailed is directed by Luthando Mngomezulu, who was responsible for Isithunzi, the 2017 Zwakala Festival winner, and the cast includes Aya Mpama, Khulu Skenjana, Katlego Letsholonyane, Lunga Khuhlane, Nyaniso Dzedze and Zesuliwe Hadebe.

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Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist

Other exciting plays to watch out for is a reworking of Tsafendasby by playwright Anton Krueger starring Renos Nicos Spanoudes and directed by the exciting Jade Bowers, who will add fresh and young perspective; in Exit/Exist, dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma takes inspiration from his ancestral past as he blends storytelling with his powerful dance vocabulary and dynamic live music in this moving solo performance with live musicians. It’s an examination of race, political power, and the melding of past and present. (Also watch out for a return of the haunting Cion – inspired by the Zakes Mda book -which will be staged in September to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary.

There’s also a lot of buzz around the new John Kani play which deals with the relationship between a dying white actor (Anthony Sher) and his black nurse (John Kani) directed by Kani stalwart Janice Honeyman which will be staged in the latter half of the year. The Baxter’s production of Strindberg’s The Goat starring the powerful combination of Jennifer Steyn and Andrew Buckland directed by Mdu Kweyana will also be staged.

Times may be tough, but theatre is as always inspired.

 

 

 

Adrienne Sichel Gives Context to SA Contemporary Dance in Body Politics

Adrienne book cover

Kgomotso Moncho – Maripane

Guest Writer

 

The description that dance is “wordless expression in a world where words are currency,” by poet Lebo Mashile in her unpublished poem, I Dance To Know Who I Am, speaks to the hesitation and sometimes lack of engagement with South African contemporary dance locally.

The poem also encapsulates the transformative experience that dance can be.

Mashile created the poem for the production, Threads, a collaboration with choreographer and anthropologist, Sylvia Glasser and her Moving Into Dance Mophatong Company.

The poem opens veteran dance writer and arts journalist, Adrienne Sichel’s new book, Body Politics: Fingerprinting South African Contemporary Dance (published by Porcupine Press).

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Adrianne_Sichel_ Picture: Val_Adamson

The book is a socio-political cultural history that focusses on the roots and evolution of South African contemporary dance from the mid 1970s to 2016.

Whereas the role of protest theatre is known in its engagement with socio-political issues, it may be taken for granted that contemporary dance, through its activist actions, played an important part in the championing of a free and multi-cultural society, during and post- apartheid.

Sichel’s book illuminates this particular cultural history, revealing how prior to democracy, the proponents of contemporary dance were at the fore-front of cultural activism.

“The policy-making Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) process which culminated in the White Paper, the establishment of the Department of Arts and Culture, Science and Technology, as well as the founding of the National Arts Council in 1997, was the handiwork of many politically focussed dancers, educationists, choreographers, researchers and administrators,” she writes.

One of the standout traits of South African contemporary dance is that it is driven by the activist artist.

Adrienne Sichel Book Launch Jhb.
Adrienne Sichel Book Launch Jhb.

“That’s what gives it its originality and made it attractive to the world. You have people commenting on their society and the human condition. It has overtaken theatre in a way because dancers keep working and make it happen despite the challenges,” says Sichel.

“Paradoxically contemporary dance is an individualistic art form, but in so many ways South African contemporary dance is a collaborative mission to express our cultural and artistic identity. A lot of SA contemporary dance and African contemporary dance is sensorial and experiential. Those dimensions create a much more holistic vibrant art form,” she says.

Body Politics gives context to South African contemporary dance. It captures the collusion of cultures and histories as people explored their roots and their identities of the country and the people they wanted to be pre-1994. It highlights these very rich essences and fingerprints their origins with chapters looking at the birth of Afro-Fusion, subversive storytellers, the birth of theatre dance and what constitutes contemporary African dance.

It features festivals, companies and artists including early pioneers and contemporary players like Glasser, Carly Dibakwane, Robyn Orlin, Alfred Hinkel, Jay Pather, Jeannette Ginslov, Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantswe, Gregory Maqoma, Mamela Nyamza, Nelisiwe Xaba, PJ Sabbagha and many more.

 

It also includes a collection of Sichel’s published and unpublished journalistic writing. This makes it an important documentation and preservation of a unique artistic heritage and a necessary learning tool.

In mapping the evolution of this remarkable art form and its vocabulary, Sichel moves through terrains of contentious issues of appropriation and ownership, leaving questions to ponder on. Questions similar to the ones she asked herself when contemplating writing this book, like, who has the right to collate and tell this history? Who owns this history?

As a dedicated witness to and advocate for SA contemporary dance for 40 years in an environment that often rejects SA contemporary dance, she has earned the right to tell this history. Her background growing up in the rural Rustenburg exposed to her to a variety of cultures, religions, rituals, political practices and prejudices which fueled her curiosity as an arts journalist.

She co-founded the South African Dance Umbrella as a free democratic platform for all South African dancers and dance forms. She has also created an accessible language to articulate meanings behind movements and the fresh aesthetics of South African contemporary dance, which is no easy feat.

At the Johannesburg launch of the book in September, Sichel said, “What is scary about Body Politics is that it’s very concrete, it is tangible and it can’t be changed. I will be judged, just as I have been judging and evaluating people over the decades.”

She is also acutely aware of the gaps the book leaves and this is perhaps a challenge for the gaps to be filled.

The existence of Body Politics also makes the dearth

of books archiving or capturing cultural history in the country glaring. This is an urgent concern for Sichel.

“So many people did not want to publish this book. We don’t respect our history in this country. There are many narratives and cultural histories that are not being published and also need to be written,” she says.

Sichel’s hopes for dance is that “it keeps informing, transforming and educating.”

 

 

 

 

 

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