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

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.

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.




Zikhona Sodlaka Stakes her Claim as the Majestic Queenie in the Market’s Nongogo

Photographer: Lungelo Mbulwana

Zikhona Sodlaka as Queenie with Bongani Gumede and Peter Mashego in the background.



DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo

CAST: Zikhona Sodlaka, Vusi Kunene, Peter Mashego, Bongani Gumede, Zenzo Ngqobe

LIGHTING: Wesley France


VENUE: Mannie Manim at the Market Theatre

DATES: Until July 15


Queenie towers over everyone in the room with her power, personality and presence.

The casting is a stroke of brilliance with Zikhona Sodlaka making her debut at the Market Theatre in the role of a woman who encourages many different interpretations. She is described as “a woman of strength, determination and courage as she dreams of a better life and has a past that’s riddled with dark secrets”.

Zikhona Sodlaka as Queenie with Peter Mashego as Blackie

Sodlaka takes Queenie by the scruff of the neck and turns her into a creature so mesmerising, she completely inhabits the stage as she stalks the room filled with men, all who only have eyes for her –  and each also with his own desires and needs.

Johnny (Ngcobe) appears in the room almost like a whirlwind as he broadcasts the possibility of a big entrepreneurial break. Queenie is immediately enchanted by this handsome stranger who is filled with dreams that appear close to her own. He opens up to her as she does to him much to the distress of her longtime partner Sam (Kunene), a tough businessman who believes he has total control over this woman and in the end, is nothing more than the pimp he used to be. Blackie (Mashigo), her deformed almost slavish hanger-on, will do anything for this woman he is so obviously bewitched by.

And thrown into this mix is the familiar drunk, always part of the shebeen, Patrick (Gumede, a Market Lab alumni), the man who because of his addiction can be manipulated by those who have dark needs.

The setting is Queenie’s shebeen, one of the few places of freedom during the apartheid years. The stage is set for a play of Shakespearean emotions driven by Fugard’s understanding of the human condition and his language that lies easily on the tongue.

Vusi Kunene as Sam with Zikhona Sodlaka as Queenie.

But in the end, it is the performances in a piece that’s all about ensemble with the queen bee at the centre. Sodlaka is easily up to the task as she rises in raucous laughter, then sinks to the depths of despair at the snap of a finger. Her Queenie is someone who is at the service of others, always trying to please, with hardly anyone really seeing her as the woman she is. Until this stranger enters. She allows herself to see possibilities and opens herself up once again to the charms of this man who she invites into her inner sanctum which has been closed to others for such a long time.

From a tiger to the coquette, it’s all there as she is thrown about by those who demand and dominate her life – but no more. This is her chance and she will fight for it.

Zenzo Ngqobe as Johnny.

On the night, the men were still struggling to find the rhythm and momentum of their moves, especially Ngcobe, who started with a sprint rather than a canter and then had nowhere to go. This fine actor will fine-tune and come with more nuance as will Kunene, whose initial whimper should be stronger from the start to establish the potential power he has over this strong woman who seems to be her own mistress as she plays with her new man.

Mashigo’s shuffle in both stature and character was pitched perfectly while Gumede’s cameo as the drunkard, intoxicated as well as in remorse, hit all the right notes. And once all these men slip into sync, it will unleash the full power of this intriguing Fugard play.

Peter Mashego and Zikhona Sodlaka waiting their turn.

Ngcobo’s second attempt is fascinating with a cast so different from the first time round a few years back – and brave. That already changes the piece. The intro (without spoiling the surprise) which establishes a particular approach to the play, could have been signalled again at a later stage to establish the intent. And similarly, one is puzzled by the decision to keep some actors on stage throughout, while others enter and exit the stage. Perhaps uniformity would have served the play better.

But with all the niggles, and that’s what these are, it is a production that excites and exudes energy as it explores the agony and ecstasy of people trying to live their lives in the toughest times – to the fullest.

Have Suitcase, Will Travel

The Suitcase6
Siyabonga Thwala, Desmond Dube and John Lata

Pictures: Brett Rubin

Diane de Beer

Sitting in the rehearsal room at Joburg’s Market Theatre complex where the cast of the latest revision of The Suitcase is busy rehearsing, it is easy to see why this is such an impactful piece of writing.

Add to that the evocative music (arranged by Bheki Khoza) that James Ngcobo has incorporated into the fabric of the story, it catches your heart from the start.

This was the play that first brought actor James Ngcobo’s directorial skills to everyone’s attention.

Adapted from Es’kia Mphahlele’ s short story by Ngcobo, it is set in the 1950s in Sophiatown (here it has been moved to Durban). The Suitcase is a haunting love story of a couple who try to pursue their dreams with nothing more than each other yet they believe that will carry them through. Set in the bitter apartheid years, it is the tale of countless couples who try to make a simple living in extraordinarily harsh times. Everywhere they turned, doors closed without even a glimmer of hope except perhaps that chance of a lifetime which might change their lives.

It is also a universal and timeless story which can be set anywhere, at any time.

Having watched it in all its reincarnations, I thought I would be immune to the sadness that gently yet determinedly envelops you but, as Ngcobo always points out, it is a love story before anything else, and it has a devastating yet mesmerising effect.

The Suitcase5
James Ngcobo and Siyabongo Thwala.

The pressures of the city, unemployment and poverty strip away the husband`s self-esteem and he starts to lose his moral compass. He is so desperate to provide for his pregnant wife that he steals a suitcase left on a bus.

This third reincarnation has come about because  of a 5-week tour of Northern England (see schedules below). For the artistic director of The Market who was invited to bring this piece, it is about honouring this time by reinterpreting  The Suitcase and in that way, to keep shining those classics for a contemporary world.

If one sometimes wonders why a stage production works, The Suitcase is ample proof that it helps when all the elements come together so emphatically.

From the poetic script which remains true to the original text and captures the haunting powers of a short story to an ensemble cast that work so sweetly together like a tightly knit family.

The cast includes original members Siyabonga Thwala as the husband Timi and John Lata, while Desmond Dube as the storyteller and other characaters and Masasa Mbangeni as the wife Namhla, joins the play.

Solo guitarist Bheki Khosa accompanies three singers – Nomfundo Dlamini-Sambo, Gugu Shezi  and Nokukhanya Dlamini.

The way it is told and performed is all about this country. It’s in the music, the gestures, the sound effects, the movement and the classic storytelling that pulls you right into the eye of the storm as the characters emerge painfully from their dreams.

It’s a beautiful piece of theatre to travel and represent this country as it incorporates so much of our own storytelling yet it is a universal story and with a cast and performers that just in rehearsals (and not quite on their game yet) had me enthralled. I am so proud that this team will be representing us in the world.

Ngcobo is intent on furthering The Market brand and understands the benefits of reaching out and forming international partnerships, to exchange the riches particular to the different countries.

For him it has always been about outside exposure, introducing and involving the young to also learn from these international adventures and to return to plough back. He has wanted to re-position the brand and has worked hard to be brave and to try new content for their space. “Post 94 we started experiencing a new and changing country which meant that as curators we had to exhibit the change in how we programme and that is exactly what we have done, to cast our net wide and not only be a theatre that is driven by a political narrative but to find a way that sees us operating in a continental and universal space,” he says.

In a previous review I had remarked that The Suitcase is pure theatre. “Hopefully it tours both nationally and internationally.”

And that blissfully (with a previous tour to Scandanavia) has come to pass.

Here are the British schedules which will be followed by a home run at The Market from 20 October to 26 November:

Hull: Friday 1 September – Saturday 9 September at Hull Truck; Newcastle: Tuesday 12 September – Saturday 16 September at Northern Stage; Derby : Tuesday 19 September –Saturday 23 September at Derby Theatre; Lancaster: Tuesday 26 September – Saturday 30 September at Lancaster Dukes; Liverpool: Tuesday 03 October – Saturday 07 October at Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.